The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen – by Duncan Harley

On 23 August 1989, Mary Webb’s ashes were scattered within the grounds of Kaimhill Crematorium at Garthdee. It's a fine place and worthy of a walk around. Mary however had actually been cremated at Oakley Wood Crematorium near Leamington during what Jack Webster recalls as “a brief and pathetic finale; few even in her own native area having the slightest idea of her significance.”

So who was Mary Webb?

When the Victorian era Aberdeen Music Hall closed for much needed renovations in 2016, a series of public events was organised during the weeks leading up to the closure. Titled ‘Lights Oot!’ the final performances showcased the diversity of the venue and celebrated the entertainments which had drawn the folk of Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire to the hallowed place over the years. Built to a design by architect Archibald Simpson the building opened in 1822, initially as a private membership only gentleman’s club, and over the intervening decades performers as diverse as Charles Dickens, John Anderson the Great Wizard of the North plus the comedy string-puppet duo Pinky and Perky have trodden the boards to both entertain and amaze local audiences. Politicians Tony Benn, Sir Winston Churchill, and Lloyd George put in appearances and throughout its history, the building has played host to everything from concerts and bazaars to theatre and sporting events.

Rocket-Man Elton John can still remember playing his first ever Aberdeen gig at the venue in far off 1972 and many Aberdonians can still recall their shock introduction to Glam Rock a year later when David Bowie plus legendary guitarist Mick Ronson brought Spiders from Mars to the Music Hall stage. When, in 1993, the city’s Lord Provost welcomed Mikhail Gorbachev – a much needed riposte to the misery of post-war Soviet life - to Aberdeen to receive the Freedom of the City, the Music Hall was the venue of choice for the civic reception. And in the days when Aberdeen boasted a repertory theatre, circa 1949 or thereabouts, the Aberdeen Repertory Theatre regularly performed on historic boards of the Ballroom Stage.

The March 2016 closure week saw a performance of Aidan O’Rourke and Jason Singh’s experimental sound work “Connect:ed” (sic). The very next night the Music Hall hosted a final production titled “Your Hall Your Story”.
Following an introductory speech from Aberdeen Provost George Adams the evening focused on the recollections and reminiscences of the users of the venue. Compere Robert Lovie and actor Cameron Mowat led the audience of around 600 on a journey through the sometimes turbulent but always entertaining history of Aberdeen’s favourite concert venue using both live and recorded recollections told first hand by those who were actually there. The stories came fast and furious throughout the evening. Roberta Duncan told how her father rose to international fame following a world record roller-skating endurance marathon in the main hall. His record-making 61 hours stint seemingly stands to this day. Mary Smith remembered meeting Sir John Barbirolli at a Hallé Orchestra performance, Aberdonian Sandy Hood recalled listening to Mahler at the venue and a local councillor, former European and Commonwealth lightweight wrestler Len Ironside, told how fellow-wrestlers had a particular dislike of the Music Hall wrestling ring. “It was up on stage” he said “which meant that you felt every bump and had every chance of being thrown out of the ring and down the ten feet or so to the floor. When this happened, the audience would simply lift you up and throw you back in. On one occasion he recalled that as this was going on, a voice rang out “Is there any word yet aboot’ ma new hoose please councillor Ironside?”

Strangely perhaps, although The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen song did feature in the “Lights Oot!” performances, Mary Webb’s battered old John Broadwood piano, sitting just a few dozen yards from the historic Music Hall stage in the Mary Garden room, failed to put in an appearance.

Perhaps the promoters of the Lights Oot! event had been unaware that the Broadwood was probably the very one which English concert pianist Mary Webb, the composer of the 'Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen' had used to write the once heard never forgotten classic which symbolises Aberdonianism the world over.

Leamington Spa born Mary was funding her musical career by working as a food-prep operative in the kitchens of the West London Hospital alongside a homesick Aberdeen lass by the name of Winnie Forgie. A friendship developed between the two and, in an effort to cheer up the lonely Aberdonian, Mary and her husband co-wrote the tune and the lyrics. Eventually she sent these off to Scottish tenor Robert Wilson who performed the piece during a concert at The Royal Albert Hall. As a result, the iconic song became well known across the globe

In 1958, some six years after composing the song, Mary was invited to Aberdeen - a place she had never previously visited - where she performed at the city’s Victorian era Tivoli Theatre having been coaxed onstage from amongst the audience by none other than Robert Wilson. The standing ovation she received that night however did not lead to wealth and riches and decades later Mary Webb died alone, largely forgotten and in desperate poverty at London’s Charing Cross Hospital aged 82 in 1989.


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