Ascention Of Marischal College – Beyond The Cone
Previously in Aberdeen Voice, the question arose ‘How on earth did that get there?’ – with reference to the placement of a traffic cone on one of the spires of Marischal College in November 2004.
From his book ‘Asi es la Vida‘ Andy Ruck details his account of the bold ascent, and an audacious further attempt to ‘decorate’ the impressive Mitchell Tower.
As I recall, our interest in climbing big buildings began with an ascent of “The Tower”, a chimney, or watch-tower, or whatever (nobody really knew what it was) that stuck up from the middle of a now-disused factory near the city centre which could be climbed via several slippery roofs and a rusty ladder.
It had become traditional for new members of the University Mountaineering Club to be taken up it, inebriated, as a rite of ‘initiation’. At least that’s what they told me. Numerous other smaller buildings saw subsequent ascents, as did statues. Gradually we began to see the Granite City skyline as a panorama of iconic peaks, all awaiting exploration and ascent.
We had located a narrow, creaking spiral staircase that led to the top of the tower and stood surrounded by it’s four ornately-crafted spires, then, bizarrely, found a ladder. A ladder, just lying there, waiting to be used.
I leaned the ladder against the spire which reached about half-way up. I ascended the ladder then gingerly stepped above it onto the granite-crafted parapets that would make for foot-holds to the top of the spire. The traffic cone hung awkwardly from my left hand. The cold North Sea wind moaned in and out of the spires. Below, black cabs cruised by, horns beeping. The clubs began to empty and the kebab joints to fill. A strong gust of wind blew, catching the traffic cone, threatening to wrench it from my hand or pull me down with it. The pavement far below stared me square in the face. No, I couldn’t do this.
I climbed down the ladder and gave the cone to Carson. Moving to another spire, which we considered safer with the wind direction, he climbed the ladder. I could hardly watch as he then inched his way up the parapets, this time employing the revolutionary technique of placing the cone on his head. Shakily, carefully, he removed the cone and set it right on top of the sharp point of the spire, letting out a whoop of elation as he surveyed the windswept city below him. He climbed down and rejoined me at the foot of the ladder. One of the finest summits in Scotland had, we thought, received its first ascent.
After some research, however, we found that one William Ludwig, a medical student at the college during the 1930s, was believed to have been the first ascentionist.
Just before World War II broke out, a Belisha Beacon was left glowing mysteriously at the top of the spire
Not of some insignificant side-tower like ours, however, but of the great, awe-inspiring Mitchell Tower. He had excelled in the comedy stakes too. On an icy night in December 1931, evidently having appropriated his props from the College’s anatomy labs, Ludwig dragged a human skeleton to the top of the Mitchell Tower, placed a top hat on its head and left it dangling gloriously from the weather vane.
Ludwig, we discovered, had been something of a legendary stuntman during his time at the University. He had also swung hand over hand along the cable that crosses nearby Rubislaw Quarry, 150 metres in depth. Most impressively to us, he had made the first ascent of Douglas Gibson Gully on the “local mountain”, Lochnagar, which in the absence of snow is just a steep runnel of loose, crumbling rocks and earth. He had seen no need for a rope.
Ludwig had not been the last to climb Marischal College. Just before World War II broke out, a Belisha Beacon was left glowing mysteriously at the top of the spire. Then in 1954, an eight foot high Christmas tree found its way up there too which put our efforts to shame.
Several weeks after our first attempt and with renewed inspiration from Ludwig and friends, we set off on a 3am mission to the main tower, this time equipped with ropes and harnesses, as well as a bed sheet and a tin of paint, on which we would write a still-undecided meaningful message should inspiration seize us before we began the climb.
Ideas for such a message had come and gone. “Modern Life is Rubbish” seemed to make a statement in the context of an early Blur album, but for it to be re-invoked here just seemed too typically ‘studenty”’ Modern life was quite kind to us students, actually. The traffic cone incident had provoked comments on the Evening Express website, which we had followed sporadically. Some of them were positive
“We wouldn’t have won the war without people like that”, said one, but some had been scathingly critical. Several authority figures had “condemned” our actions. As far as they were concerned, climbing – which they knew nothing about – was dangerous, we were stupid and that was that. “Smile, it’s only a cone!” was intended as a playful dig at those people, encouraging them to lighten up a little.
we were amazed at how much security had been stepped up
I think in the end it was just general student disorganisation, combined with a certain amount of dithering over whether or not it was just too cocky, that prevented us from painting that onto the sheet. In the end, on a Thursday evening.
We decided enough was enough – Mitchell Tower was too enticing to waste any more time deliberating over. We decided, hurriedly, that we would just climb it, and that would be that.
Previously, we had squeezed through a gap in a temporary workmen’s fence and then walked up a staircase on the scaffolding that surrounded the building at the time. This time, however, we were amazed at how much security had been stepped up. “Because of us!”, we laughed. Solid, wooden barricades now surrounded the scaffolding, signs everywhere warning that CCTV was in operation. Still, where there was a will….
Another amazing thing about our breach of security several weeks earlier was that the next building along from Marischal College is the district police headquarters. To think the Old Bill would allow us to sneak past them a second time was, perhaps, a foolish notion. This time the operation ground to a halt as we scrambled across the roof towards the main tower.
“Woah man, stop!”
“A policeman. I’m sure he saw us”
With gathering panic, we stopped and looked at each other.
“They won’t catch us before we get up there”, ventured Carson, his soft Scottish accent nonetheless tinged with mounting anxiety.
“But then, there’s loads of ways out….”.
There were a number of old fire exits that could only be opened from the inside.
We dived through a window to the inside of the college, down several flights of stairs and through several abandoned, dusty lecture theatres. We paused by a side entrance, cautiously contemplating making a run.
There was…. a light.
And a POLICEMAN!
We ran back inside the college, hearts thumping like a drum and bass track. Another entrance. “Shit”. Another policeman. We braced ourselves against the wall to the side of the door.
“Oh man… they’ve got the place surrounded”
“Okay, okay….”, I breathed, trying and failing to be calm and rational, “What can we do?”
“There’s the basement”
“Yes! They’ll never find us there – and they’ll give up and think it’s a false alarm after a few hours”.
We had stumbled across this pitch-black, low-ceilinged, dust-filled basement months earlier on our first exploration of the college and found an ‘80s poster of a naked Sam Fox, which still graced Carson’s kitchen. I, meanwhile, had come away with a sign announcing “This autoclave will be de-commissioned permanently as from 18-4-97”, which as far as student sign-stealing goes was fairly original, I thought.
This time, the sense of unconventional discovery had worn off. It was 5am and it was cold in there. We wanted to go home. We huddled in a corner and tried to reassure each other. The time passed incredibly slowly. Then, sometime later….
“Dude, can you hear that?”
“That sorta mechanical noise. Sounds pretty close”
“What do you think it is?”
“Probably nothing to do with us”
“Does sound pretty close though eh…”
“Hmmm… what time is it, by the way?”
“Just coming up to six”
Silence for a few minutes, then:
“Hey man, maybe there’s a policeman on a crane searching the roofs for us!”, Carson joked. In our nervous state this was the funniest thing ever, and we laughed hysterically for a good ten minutes.
Carson then crept up the stairs to peer carefully through a small window.
“Oh God, what?”
He came back, shaking his head in disbelief. There was a policeman on a crane searching the roofs for us!
“Oh my God, what have we done?”, I groaned.
As far as they were concerned, this was no false alarm. They weren’t giving up. At around 6.20am we walked out, shrugged our shoulders and were taken next door to the police station.
After initial questioning, the straight-talking Aberdonian policemen left us in no doubt that we would be thrown out of University, would get a criminal record, would never be able to get a job and had basically, with this harmless if daring student prank, ruined our lives. We were then sent individually to bare-walled cells to contemplate this for three hours. They also confiscated our climbing gear for an indefinite period. I felt a surge of vitriolic rage as the stony-faced policeman, who clearly hated us, smugly assured us “ye willnae be getting that back”. Amusingly, however, it took them all day to work out that the traffic cone incident three weeks earlier might also have been us.
As it happened, we hadn’t ruined our lives. On our way home from the police station we dropped in on the President of the University’s Student Union, who we had expected to be a smart, serious goody-two-shoes who might reluctantly help us. Minutes later we had relaxed somewhat.
“Nice one boys!”, laughed the jolly, red-haired President, slapping his hand against his desk, “Good effort! I’m just disappointed you didn’t get up it!”
He saw that we weren’t laughing.
“But… will we get checked out of Uni…?”
“Och, no! Students get criminal records all the time! Probably won’t even come to that!”
Indeed, all we had to do was to write a letter of apology to the fire service, who we had feared would fine us for their un-necessary call-out, and a week or so later were summoned to the office of the Principal’s Secretary, who was remarkably good-humoured about it and, shaking his head and almost laughing, urged us “for heaven’s sake don’t do it again”.
I fought the law and the law won…
where would the fun have been if we’d just accepted that and not done anything?
Even so, the whole episode had angered me. We had shrugged off those negative comments on the Evening Express website at at the time, but now they hurt. It was a joke for heaven’s sake! This would have been celebrated in Ludwig’s day.
Why hadn’t we been allowed to proceed to the top like William Ludwig? Why? Because this was the paranoid, humourless 21st Century. We could have been terrorists. Everything had to be dealt with as a threat. It seemed to leave no room for imagination or adventure. We had bent the rules and the rules had stamped us firmly in our place.
We now realise that perhaps resistance to society’s established values has to be channelled through legal means, and that bending unwritten rules can be just as effective as actually breaking the law. The following year, for example, Carson was one of a handful of participants in a sponsored “Pyjamathon”, where he raised money for charity by wearing pyjamas (and a dressing gown, as the Aberdonian weather dictated) for a whole month.
In fact, we probably knew that at the time, but where would the fun have been if we’d just accepted that and not done anything? Lessons are never best learned from books, or teachers, or the surly advice of those who think (and are probably right to think) they know better. They are best learned through practical experience – events that will make great stories in years to come.
Pushing boundaries is an excellent way to learn things – for everything to eventually settle into place. That tower symbolised something to us. I don’t know what, really, but something important. A challenge, perhaps, a brush with uncertainty and unlikelihood in the midst of an environment where everything was so comfortable and easy. There was something in us that just had to do it, and to this day I look up at that tower and laugh fondly at my young and rebellious self.