Welcome to Aberdeen, Britain's saddest city

General outlook - gloomy, cold, dark and windy
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Aberdeen betrays the mood swings of its people. Dour and depressing in the rain and half-light of winter, its granite façades sparkle in sunshine when the legendary "silver city beside the sea" emerges briefly from the gloom. But there are not too many smiles in Aberdeen in late October, as the weak midday sun just manages to climb above the skyline. Winter is coming and it has been a bad week here.

Aberdeen betrays the mood swings of its people. Dour and depressing in the rain and half-light of winter, its granite façades sparkle in sunshine when the legendary "silver city beside the sea" emerges briefly from the gloom. But there are not too many smiles in Aberdeen in late October, as the weak midday sun just manages to climb above the skyline. Winter is coming and it has been a bad week here.

Britain's most northerly city has just been labelled the most miserable place to live in the UK. According to a new study for the British Journal of Psychiatry, Aberdeen will be gripped by an epidemic of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) as the days darken. Up to one in five of its 125,000 residents will suffer symptoms - including lethargy and loss of sex drive - during the winter months. They will put on more weight, need more sleep, find it difficult to get up in the morning, feel anxious, perhaps even suffer depression.

As I drag myself out of bed in pitch darkness to chat with the early birds, I realise I can hardly blame the Aberdonians themselves for succumbing to light-deprivation. Walking down Union Street, in the main shopping area, it becomes clear why Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics fled the city for sunnier climes. And why James Naughtie of Radio Four's Today programme is so well suited to his job. (His upbringing obviously gave him early experience of surviving while having to get up in the middle of the night.)

Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that everything looks so bleak; this, after all, is a city on a more northerly latitude than Moscow. The otherwise beautiful spired buildings of Union Street were once described as "wedding cake covered in indigestible grey icing". Even the graveyards are filled with granite slabs. "Granite, grey granite, in birth, in puberty, adolescence, grey granite encasing the bridal room, grey granite the rooms of bleary-eyed old age ... and even in death they are not divided," wrote an appalled Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the most famous novelist to spring from this area.

A group of elderly women are chatting outside Bhs, waiting for the doors to open. "So how does the lack of sunlight affect your sex drive?" I ask. "Ooh," they shriek. "We're all pensioners! We haven't got a man between us. Could you help us out?" I move on quickly through the darkness.

Tommy has just dropped by for a heart starter at The Schooner where, according to the slogan in the window, "life starts at 7 o'clock". "Of course, it makes a big difference when it's dark in the morning," he says. "Take this morning, for example. My girlfriend woke up in a right mood because she had to get up in the dark. If it had been summer, she'd have been lovely. So in the wintertime, I find it really helps me in the morning to come in here first thing for the chat and a bit of craic."

Down at the fish market, where the first deals are done at 7.30am, the atmosphere is less gloomy. A huge warehouse with white walls, it has vast overhead lights which shine down on hundreds of yards of boxes of freshly caught fish. Inside, there's almost a party atmosphere. "It's very light in here," says Robert Herd, 78, who has been rising at 5.30am for 40 years to buy fish for his shop. "The old market was so gloomy."

John Sutherland, 62, strides up and down the market, giving vent to his views on the darkness that descends on his town each year from October to February. "It's very expensive, for a start, paying for the light and the heating," he says. "Man was never meant to crawl about in the dark. He is not a nocturnal being. It can really get you down. I used to work in a welding shop. I would go in at eight o'clock, in the darkness, and it would be dark by the time I got out. Nobody likes the dark unless you're a mass murderer or a terrorist."

This year, the city's football team hasn't helped to raise spirits. Last week, the Dons were officially declared the worst top-division team in Europe - 473rd according to the Reuters rankings. It's all a far cry from 1983, when their then-manager Alex Ferguson led them to triumph in Gothenburg in the European Cup Winners Cup.

"The only optimists in this city are the ones who go to watch the football team on Saturdays," says Mr Sutherland. "Our trouble is they have been playing in the dark all season."

Aberdonians have tried to put a brave face on their predicament. Roses proliferate in every available empty space, a tradition that really gained ground after a flower memorial was created for the victims who died on the Piper Alpha oil rig. At one time, the city had to withdraw from the Britain in Bloom competition, having won it 11 times.

At the Tanning Shop, assistants await the daily influx of clients desperate to break the winter gloom with a spell under the sunlamp. "It makes people feel good to get their tan going," says Jackie Ratlay. "It boosts their vitamin D, and if it helps with SAD then so much the better." There are eight such shops in Aberdeen, and many hairdressers have lamps, too - all devoted to giving the city a little private sunshine.

Around the corner from Summer Street, not far from Sunnybank Place and Sunnyside Road, Evelyn Baron of the Alternative Practice is reassuring a client who is worried that lack of sunlight will prevent her recharging her all important crystals. "You can do it in the moonlight, or even by burying them," she says.

Meanwhile, down the road, Lorna Anderson has just helped open a new shop called Golf Holidays, aimed at golf-mad Aberdonians frustrated that in winter they would need floodlights to set off from the first tee after three o'clock. "We have been getting a lot of interest in visits to golf courses in the south of Spain," she says.

Eric Galloway thinks he has the answer: preaching outside Marks and Spencer and inviting the bereft to his miracle meetings.

"There is a lot of unhappiness in this town," he says, "because the oil industry with its disruptive patterns of work has broken up a lot of marriages. But often when people seize on the cause of a problem, like SAD, they are missing the real cause. They can't see that they are in the dark and Jesus is the light of the world."

If you don't go for God, crystals or golfing holidays, there is always humour to keep you going through the winter months. Aberdeen has long been regarded as a breeding place for Scottish comedians - albeit offering a very particular dry, "couthy" humour. But the jokes reveal the city's legendary "mean" character: they are about how the streets are empty on flag days and crowded with people during house-tohouse collections.

"People walk right past you in the winter months. They're just thinking about themselves," says David Thompson, trying unsuccessfully to sell copies of the Big Issue on Union Street. "They are much more cheerful and always stop and talk during the summer. I take five or six pounds a day more - that's 50 per cent extra."

Aberdonians do not flaunt their wealth, despite their 30 year connection with the oil industry - during which time the city has cornered 8 per cent of Scotland's income, despite having only 4 per cent of the population. Ten-gallon hats are rarely seen in Scotland's Klondyke.

The travel writer Paul Theroux, perhaps visiting in the winter and unaware of the effects of SAD, was stunned by the stinginess of Aberdonians. In his book The Kingdom by the Sea, he reported that the city had "the sort of tight- fistedness that made me think of the average Aberdonian as a person who would gladly pick a halfpenny out of a dunghill with his teeth". Not surprisingly, local people were somewhat offended by this portrayal.

But for all their efforts to look at the bright side of life, it seems that Aberdonians are perhaps doomed to be miserable.

"Whenever I go to America I find people are always smiling," says Jane McWilliam, 32, who is remarkably cheery given that for 14 years she has started work in the darkness at 4am, measuring fish at the market. "But when I walk down Union Street, no one smiles. They don't seem very friendly."

Perhaps she will just have to wait for the summer to get those smiles returned. Then, the light in Aberdeen is so bright and so long-lasting that one wonders if it will ever get dark. Yet, sadly, as one Aberdonian explained, even summer has its down side.

"It only takes a few warm days to stir up the onshore breezes," he explained. "The sea mist rolls in and the haar covers first the beach, then the golf course, and finally the city in a gloom. In a moment it's like a wintry afternoon and the day is ruined."