An Aberdonian Black Madonna - By Duncan Harley


I see from today's edition of the P and J that various business-folk and various council-folk are promoting the idea of a ‘Barcelona Style’ cable car to link the city centre with Nigg.
On the face of it, the idea looks viable given an expansion – and, by that I mean a huge expansion – in tourism numbers. Given that, the proposal looks like a winner.


Mind you, Barcelona has Gaudi plus some very fine Catalonian outdoor dining and a Gothic quarter and an unfinished cathedral and Roman architecture and a well-established tourist industry.

By contrast, Aberdeen has all the stuff to do with history but as a tourist destination of choice it has signally failed to do much more than promote a few pleasantly restored gentrified castles plus a good few distillery visitor centres. The lure of the Highlands and the romance of the West Coast have traditionally left the North-east with just a smattering of visitors and the largely untapped resources of the North-east remain just that, largely untapped.

The Harlaw Monument, the standing stones at Daviot, the Maiden Stone at Crowmallie and the various architectural gems of the North-east remain as it were out of bounds to the occasional tourist coaches and have been largely ignored by the bulk of the agencies charged with promoting the area. Deeside, whisky and the NTS castles hit the digital brochure headlines and the rest is left to a chance encounter. Last time we visited the stones at Aikey Brae, possibly the most intact stone circle in the whole of Scotland, we had the place completely to ourselves.

The Barcelona cable-car line of course is a product of some long-forgotten 1920’s trade exhibition and even predates the Spanish Civil War during which it served as a gun platform for snipers and light artillery to bombard the city centre. If you go on it today, the antiquated gondolas creak over the harbour and deposit joyriders in some abandoned sculpture park high above the city at exorbitant cost and for no purpose other than to allow the holiday-maker to claim that the 2 hours wait in line was well worth it and that the view was simply great. Don’t believe a word of it.

The view is crap and the wait in line is equally awful and the park at the end of the line has a few desperately poor restaurants serving desperately fast-food – that is if you can command a waiter to  sell you anything other than a flat coke.

Better value though is Catalonia’s Black Madonna. Some 30 miles out of Barcelona and accessible via the local rail-network the Madonna sits some few thousand feet above the railway and is reached via a very modern and matter of fact cable car system. The big draw of course is to touch her hand or indeed to kiss it whilst opening out your other hand to Jesus.

Some 3k tourists visit each day in high season and the place, a working monastery, copes easily with the influx and operates just like clockwork. The marketing is slick but laid back and there is no charge for shaking hands with the Madonna. The marketing of the volcanic attractions in both Sicily and Big Island is similarly slick and capitalises on the fact that the visitor experience might include deathly hot lava flows.

A sky-train over the Granite City does of course seem at first glance a great idea. But to what purpose? We have, as yet no Black Madonna either at Nigg or within the city centre. Or at least if we do, it lies hidden in full view of a congregation or two and within a nave unlikely to be visited by folk from abroad. And the notion of lining up at Beach Boulevard alongside some sad cafe for the ride of the century has only limited appeal. As for molten lava, that would be an ecumenical matter no doubt.

In fact, I am wondering if the sky-train idea is just a smokescreen for some other less popular proposal such as the painting of the townhouse in bright tartan paint or the siting of a giant sculpture of a Kelly’s Cat alongside the airport roundabout.
God knows, we need some jollification to brighten up the approaches to the city to counter-balance that trio of half-size cartoon plastic coo's which now grace the northern approaches along the Tyrebagger..

After all that talk of Kelpies on the AWPR outskirts, the abandoned concept of the raising of Union Terrace Gardens and that fanciful scheme to build electric trams to transport the footie-folk to Westhill there must surely be something new on the minds of those intent on attracting the tourist pound.

Or is it just another piece of hopeless bluster from civic leaders caught on the back-foot by the lack of oil-revenue?

Duncan Harley is author of The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire plus the forthcoming title: The Little History of Aberdeenshire - due out in March 2019

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