Aug 122018

Duncan Harley reviews  Far, Far From Ypres at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen.

It’s difficult to adequately classify Far, Far From Ypres.

Described as “the story of the Scottish war effort during World War One” with “its excitement, hope, suffering, endurance, humour, fear and disillusionment in the face of horror told through the eyes of fictional, prototypical soldier Jimmy MacDonald” this ambitious multimedia production sits oddly – and please excuse the pun – with its feet astride two camps.

A strong documentary-styled historical narrative, delivered by veteran broadcaster Iain Anderson, frames a broad range of popular song from the period whilst overhead a mix of trench imagery combines to add poignancy to the performance.

We are told that the fictional Jimmy is from any town or village in Scotland and that when issued with his tin hat and his rifle, he heads off to the continent in search of medals for the victory parade and of course for a great foreign adventure.

An acceptable figure for Scottish war dead has yet to be calculated – some put it at between 100,000 and 146,000 – and the enthusiastic Jimmy is portrayed as one of those who did not return.

Killed in France or Belgium, not by bullets nor by shells but by an influenza better known as Spanish Flu, he certainly died in uniform but is probably not numbered amongst the roll of the war dead.

Based on a Greentrax double album of WW1 songs, “Far, Far From Ypres” is laden with familiar and not so familiar song.

Within the context of the narrative, most are a good fit for the performance and most are delivered strongly by a cast of largely familiar folk-figures. Barbara Dickson, Dick Gaughan, Alan Prior, Tam Ward, Ian McCalman and Mairi MacInnes are just to name a few.

In fact, there are around 27 performers on stage at any one time making for a crowded performance space and indeed a difficult place for the soloists to excel in.

It was perhaps the male dominated chorus which brought the intent of the production solidly home. Decidedly appropriate and atmospheric of the era, Pack up your Troubles and When this Bloody War is Over vied with Tipperary and Armentieres to tug the heartstrings.

All in all, this is a largely successful attempt to track and trace changing perceptions during the course of that First War to end all wars through the songs of the day.

From hopeful beginnings through to eventual despair, the song list bravely traverses some four years of the bloody history of that hundred-year-old conflict in which young men could take the boat-train to the continent, stick a bayonet into the skull of a youngish man from a neighbouring land and, if he were lucky enough not to be stuck in his turn, return home with a medal in time for the local victory parade.

At the close of the night and indeed during the performance, not a few tears were shed.
Stars: (4/5)

Following last night’s performance at HMT, Far, Far From Ypres heads off to Oban, Skye, Ullapool, Stirling, Inverness, Dumfries and Edinburgh.

Jul 282018

By Duncan Harley.

To my complete surprise and astonishment that’s a short story of mine heading towards the Aberdeen stage in a few weeks. And I have to say that I am humbled.

A call for entries came via Rachel Campbell at APA and after a day or so I got to thinking that, although I have no realistic idea regarding how to even pronounce Ypres, I do have an intimate store of first war recollections albeit at second, third or even at fourth hand. 

A grandfather, now long missed, left a family story regarding his first war experience.

A regimental quartermaster, or so he had us all believe, he recalled only that following a long and muddy march through France and then Belgium he played some football then marched all the way back to Glasgow. 

I have his war medals and one at least appears to be a military medal plus bar from his Black Watch experience.

Based on a Greentrax double album of WW1 songs, Far, Far from Ypres is an acclaimed production of songs, poems and stories, following the terrifying journey of a Scot to “the trenches” and back. 

A Scottish squaddie heads off to the continental adventure and is given a tin hat and a rifle in anticipation of heroic deeds and victory over the unwholesome Hun. Told largely in songs of the day, the performance lays bare the squalid fate of the boy next door who marched off to adventure amongst the jaws of death.

I concluded my recent book – The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire – with a tale, not of the trenches, but of the unexpected bombing of the Garioch by the young men of the Kaiser’s Zeppelin squadrons and Ann Wells of seems intent on sharing my tale.

She writes:

“Many thanks for sharing this with us.  I knew about the Edinburgh raids but had never heard tell about those further north.  Enemy or not these guys were incredibly brave to venture up in those things.

“I would like to add this into the programme for the performance at Aberdeen and possibly Dundee and/or Inverness.  Is that OK?  We are starting to get quite a few stories in now, really interesting tales, but this one is slightly different.”

Naturally I replied in the positive and my tale of the 1916 Zeppelin night-time terror-bombing of the Garioch features somewhere in amongst the programme for the night.

The blurb for the performance informs only that:

“The show features the large screen projection of relevant images throughout the evening, enhancing greatly the audience’s understanding of the story unfolding before them. The format of the evening takes the form of two fifty-minute halves with an interval.

“It has a cast of ‘folk singing stars’, who remain on stage throughout the performance, singing the ‘trench’, ‘marching’ and Music Hall songs of the time. From that chorus, groups and soloists come to the middle of the stage and perform songs, both contemporary and traditional, about the Great War.

“The narrator, Iain Anderson, brilliantly links the songs with stories about the hero of the show, Jimmy MacDonald, who was born in “any village in Scotland”. It tells of Jimmy’s recruitment and training then follows his journey to the Somme and back to Scotland.

“It would not be a Scottish tragedy without laughter, so there are also stories of humour and joy that take this production well away from the path of unremitting gloom.”

Produced by Ian McCalman and with a huge cast of performers including Barbara Dickson, Siobhan Miller, Mairi MacInnes, Dick Gaughan, Ian McCalman, Iain Anderson and Professor Gary West, Far, Far from Ypres plays at HMT Aberdeen for just the one night – Thursday 09 August 2018. 

Seats are becoming scarce for the Aberdeen performance but can still be had via the Aberdeen Performing Arts booking site @:

Do go, if only to hear about the Zeppelin bombing of the Aberdeenshire villages of Insch, Old Rayne and of course Colpy.

Feb 202015

Reviewed by Duncan Harley.


Daniel Betts as Atticus Finch in ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ at HM Theatre Aberdeen until Saturday 21st February.

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” says Miss Maudie in the 1960 Harper Lee classic.

In this, Christopher Sergel’s stage adaptation of the 55-year-old story, the central tenets of the novel, innocence and generosity, are well portrayed indeed.

From curtain rise to final bow, this production will delight theatre-goers and, crucially, fans of Harper Lee of all ages. It might even bring on a tear or three.

From the moment in Act One when the cast walk on stage, via the auditorium, the lights remain virtually undimmed; signalling to the audience that a degree of unbridled participation may be required.

Crucially, that participation does not require prior reading of the novel. All that is required is some attention and some imagination as the story unfolds.

Readings from the original novel are intertwined with the plot and the theatre-going audience is drawn seamlessly into small town Alabama in the steamy heat of the Depression-hit summer of 1933.

It takes but a few minutes to realise that this is a production like few others.

The set is almost bare aside from a few weathered chairs, some chalk-drawn town boundaries and an old rusted corrugated iron fence.

While novelist Harper Lee’s narrator Scout, played by leading lady Rosie Boore, swings on an old car tyre hung from the solitary tree in the Eastern corner of the yard, cast members recite extracts from time battered copies of the original novel.

This is the US Deep South at its most formidable. A place in time where racially-charged prejudice sits unmoving alongside a slow but inevitable force for reform. A story of injustice is about to be played out and only a very few could fail to be moved.

The tale is well known.

Local black man, Tom Robinson, played by Zackary Momoh of Holby City fame, is falsely accused of the rape of a white woman, and Scout’s dad, Atticus Finch, played by Daniel Betts, defends him despite the foregone conclusion of guilt due to simply being a “nigger”.


Daniel Betts as Atticus Finch. Credit: Johan Persson

Robinson is of course doomed, despite clear evidence that the accusers, Mayella Ewell and her father Bob, are lying.

Bob Ewell tries to exact revenge, imagining that he has been made a fool of, and is himself killed.

Scout embraces her father’s philosophy of sympathy and understanding despite her experiences of hatred and prejudice.

There is more. The story of Boo Radley, played by Christopher Akrill, for one; the riot scene where heroine Scout pours her childish innocence on the flame of the murderous intent of the townsfolk; plus of course the unrelenting sense of the injustice of it all.

The undoubted stars of the show are of course the child actors.

Scout’s childhood contemporaries Dill, played by Milo Panni, and Jem, played by William Price describe the unfolding drama.

Faultless, they excel. Alongside Atticus Finch, portrayed by Daniel Betts complete with round glasses and linen suit, they more than satisfy the (soon to be) legacy of Nelle Harper Lee.

For those of a critical nature, the English regional accents delivered via the actor readers of the narrative passages may be an issue, especially for those of us in Scotland. After all, this is a novel with a Yankee inner voice. Aside from that it is a faultless production.

Perhaps in a decade or so Harper Lee’s forthcoming sequel ‘Go Set a Watchman’ will be dramatised for theatre audiences. Meantime this Regent’s Park Open Air production is a must see.

In fact it would be a sin to miss it.

Directed by Timothy Sheader, ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ plays at HM Theatre Aberdeen until Saturday 21st February.

Tickets from Aberdeen Performing Arts  Tel: 01224- 641122

Images © Johan Persson

Words © Duncan Harley

May 092014

Quids In Theatre Company (Aberdeen) present Macbeth: Son of Light. With thanks to Annie Begg.

10325237_642939812457533_7476805479731432754_nScotland 1040, a Nation in Turmoil, striving for unity and independence.

Torn by battles and political corruption the land needs the hand of a great Leader to steady the journey to destruction. One man will emerge through bloody conflict and murder to lead the nation bringing seventeen years of peace and unity to a divided country.

Husband to the beautiful Gruoch, adopted father to her son Lulach, Educated statesman, Royal mormaer , Christian pilgrim and fearsome warrior, he strives to fulfil his ambition to lead his people with bravery and fairness.

Yet, haunted and persecuted by the nightmarish prophecy borne from the pen of an “upstart crow”, Macbeth, Son of Light, True King of Scotland, faces his greatest battle, as he struggles to come face to face with the Macbeth of legend, the o’er reaching, murderously ambitious creation of the “scribbler”, William Shakespeare.

This new play from professional Scottish Company, Quids In, presents a fresh theatrical vision of Macbeth as he becomes the murderous marionette of William Shakespeare.

Fusing new modern writing with Shakespeare, this small cast work with drama creates a powerful production; beautifully simple, the plot and evocative primitive setting nonetheless, weave a web of magic around the audience, binding them as the Witches devastating prophecy unfolds.

Quids In Theatre Company are a professional theatre company based in Aberdeen committed to providing quality theatre at affordable prices.

Macbeth: Son of Light 
Aberdeen Arts Centre Theatre
May 14 – 16 2014
7:30 pm
Tickets from Aberdeen Box Office



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Feb 212014

By Julie Thompson.

_87A7827 From the moment the plague-riddled cast crawled through the audience, prompting the odd scream, and onto the stage the action was non-stop and what a spectacle – with sword swallowing, trapeze artists, contortionists, balancing acts, blood & gore, flames and pyrotechnics, a camp vampire and a band providing a rocking soundtrack that never seemed to put a foot wrong.

The Circus of Horrors began back in 1995, and this tours incarnation of Circus is dubbed London After Midnight – getting the name from a long lost film originally shot in the 20’s – and is loosely based around the plague years of 1665.

Led by Doctor Haze, the show hurtled along at fast clip – at times there was so much going on it was hard to decide where to look.

Hannibal Helmurto, who once ruptured his oesophagus during his act, swallowed some serious sharp swords (ask the cucumbers) and swung a heavy lump of wood by his nose.

Captain Dan, the demon dwarf, hung a weighty cannon ball from an appendage that would make most men’s eyes water and ate a light bulb. Anyone who has a Henry vacuum cleaner may never look at it the same way again after seeing what Dan does with his.


Captain Dan’s segments are definitely not for the prudish – when I tell you he is touted as having the strongest cock in the world, you’ll maybe get the gist.

A contortionist writhed around on a bed, exorcist like, then crawled like a crab across the floor until stunned by a crucifix and replaced on the bed – which swallowed him whole.

There was a lady in a glass jar, another was sliced in half and yet another had her throat cut (the knife slice in the neck was most realistic, I might add – I gave it a close look).

There was comedic relief in the form of a double act between a camp Dracula and Dan and between the grotesque there were some stunning acrobatic displays – with trapeze, tumbling and balancing acts.

The trapeze twins were simply stunning – totally deadpan, almost inhuman and reminding me of grown up versions of the twins from The Shining – they took to the air in a stunning combination of strength and grace.

If you sit in the front few rows expect to get wet in some way – either from water or maybe fake blood. Further back you’ll maybe just get glittered by the Air Dancer, Anastasia, as she flies overhead, suspended solely by her hair.

_87A8297There were a couple of things I had to turn away from; one was Dan opening a beer bottle with his eye socket and the other was Hannibal inserting a 9 inch dagger into his nasal cavity – that reminded me too much of a visit I once made to the Ear Nose and Throat clinic at ARI where an object of similar length was inserted into my head via a nostril.

Nope! Not something I want to see again.

All in all, it was a very entertaining evening – just don’t go along expecting anything highbrow. It’s raw, lowering the tone type stuff – just my kind of thing.

When the show returns to Aberdeen, I hope I am lucky enough to get to shoot it again, this was the most fun I’ve had in some time.


Video trailer:

More Photos:

The Circus of Horrors:

YouTube Videos:

Sword Swallower in action:
Dan & Capt Haze superglued hoover story:

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Sep 192013

NutshellPic170With thanks to Liz Smith.

Thread by acclaimed Scots writer Jules Horne.
This darkly funny play explores friendship, the choices we make and who we become when our memories start to fade.

Thread is the second play in Nutshell’s Still Points in a Turning World trilogy and will be touring this October as part of the Scotland wide Luminate Festival.

Come roll your dice at the Burntisland beetle drive and share Joan, William and Izzy’s tangled lives.

Friends since primary school and closer-than-close ever since, identities stitched together as intricately as their homemade party clothes.

Living in the secure but suffocating embrace of a 1950s Scottish seaside community, who gets to become the person they want to be?

Nutshell director Kate Nelson founded the Edinburgh-based company in 2000 with the aim of making intelligent, entertaining theatre through great writing, direct storytelling and unconventional venues



Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh
Wednesday 25, 7.30pm
0131 665 2240

Church Hall, Wigtown Book Festival, Wigtown
Saturday 28, 12noon
01988 403222


New Pitsligo Hall, New Pitsligo
Tuesday 8, 7.30pm

Stracathro Hall, by Brechin
Friday 11 7.30pm
01674 850842 &

Crathes Hall, Crathes, nr Banchory
Saturday 12, 7.30pm

Aug 232013

Dogstar Theatre’s new production, The Baroness,  starring Roberta Taylor and directed by Matthew Zajac, is opening on Stornoway at the end of the month. As part of the Scottish tour the production will be performing at Alford, Findhorn and Gordonstoun School. With thanks to Liz Smith.

Roberta Taylor as Karen Blixen in The Baroness.

Roberta Taylor as Karen Blixen in The Baroness.

Dogstar’s autumn production, the UK premiere of The Baroness by Thor Bjorn Krebs, translated by Kim Dambaek, opens at An Lanntair, Stornoway, on Saturday 31 August following a preview on Friday 30 August.

The tour finishes at the Traverse, Edinburgh, on Saturday 28 September.

Roberta Taylor, one of Britain’s most talented actresses plays The
Baroness, and is joined by Ewan Donald as Thorkild Bjørnvig and Romana  Abercromby as Benedicte Jensen.

The play is directed by Dogstar’s Co-Artistic Director Matthew Zajac with music composed by Aidan O’Rourke.

In 1948, Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) the celebrated writer of Out of Africa, was 62 when she met the recently married and successful 29 year young poet and writer Thorkild Bjørnvig. The two shared a powerful and intimate friendship, their pact, which lasted 6 years, before falling apart.

The play charts the course of this relationship and also the relationship of a third character, Benedicte Jensen, to Bjornvig and Blixen.  Benedicte was the wife of Bjornvig’s patron and publisher.

The Baroness premiered to rave reviews at the Folketeatret in Copenhagen in 2011 and was nominated as play of the year in the 2012 Danish Theatre Awards. Full of tension and poetry, with three tremendous acting roles, the play is inspired by anecdotes, letters and books by and about both Blixen and Bjørnvig.

Roberta Taylor is best known for her long-running roles in Eastenders and The Bill.  She is also a best-selling author with her memoir, Too Many Mothers having sold over quarter of a million copies.  Roberta was a leading member of Glasgow Citizens Theatre for 20 years under Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and Robert David MacDonald.

Aidan O’Rourke, is one of Scotland’s most exciting composers and musicians and a member of the amazing trio LAU, three times winner of the BBC2 Folk Awards Band of the Year. Recently Ewan Donald toured Scotland with Right Lines’ production of Be Silent or Be Killed.

The production has been designed by Catherine Deverell with lighting design by Kate Bonney. Supported by the Hugh Fraser Foundation

Listings Information

An Lanntair, Stornoway
Friday 30 & Saturday 31 August 8.00pm
Box Office 01851 708480
Preview Friday 30 8.00pm

Strathpeffer Pavilion
Tuesday 3 September 8.00pm
June’s Card Shop Dingwall & Pavilion 01947 420124 & 0844 771000

Macphail Theatre, Mill Street. Ullapool
Wednesday 4 September 7.30pm
Box Office 01854 613336

Lyth Arts Centre
Thursday 5 September 8.00pm
Tickets: 01955 641434

Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute
Saturday 7 September 7.30pm
Doors open 7.00pm
Tickets 01700 503877

Tower Mill, Heart of Hawick
Tuesday 10 September 7.30pm
Box Office 01450 360688 

CatStrand, New Galloway
Wednesday 11 September 7.30pm
Box Office 01644 420374 

The Buccleuch Centre, Langholm
Thursday 12 September 7.30pm
Box Office 013873 81196

Birnam Arts
Friday 13 September 8.00pm
Box Office 01350 727674

Tullynessle & Forbes Hall by Alford
Saturday 14 September 7.30pm
Tickets: Alford Bistro 019755 63154

Resolis Memorial Hall
Tuesday 17 September 8.00pm
Tickets 01381 610204

Universal Hall, Findhorn
Wednesday 18 September 7.30pm
Tickets: Phoenix Stores 01309 690110

Ogstoun Theatre, Gordonstoun School
Thursday 19 June 8.00pm

Eden Court, Inverness
Friday 20 & Saturday 21 September
Box Office 01463 234234

Druimfin, Tobermory, Isle of Mull
Tuesday 24 September 7.30pm
Box Office 01688 302828

Craignish Village Hall, Ardfern
Wednesday 25 September 7.30pm
Tickets 01852 500746

Eastgate Theate, Peebles
Thursday 26 September 7.30pm
Box Office 01721 725777

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Friday 27 & Saturday 28 September, 7.30pm
Cambridge Street, Edinburgh EH1 2ED
Box Office 0131 228 1404

May 022013

With thanks to Ruth Sawers.

A new music venue, Downstairs is set to open in the Malt Mill on the 3rd May, with the emphasis on the provision of affordable music for everyone, while promoting up and coming local talent.

Downstairs is the brainchild of the Dunfermline pair, Gavin Bassett and David Mcghie, both having previously worked in the catering trade.

David’s background is in management with Belhaven while Gavin’s experience includes working in a rock bar and in gig promotion.

Determined to combine their individual strengths and step further into the promotion of up and coming talent, Aberdeen’s Malt Mill ended a countrywide search for the ideal space for the project.

Having Aberdeen connections, Gavin and David were aware of the thriving music scene and felt there was room for another venue where everyone could enjoy the talents of what Aberdeen has to offer the music world.

Bringing with them £6000 of equipment, including a brand new PA system and back line, the benefits to the local music scene is fantastic.

Add to this a desire for flexible working arrangements, Downstairs is set to become one of very few, readily equipped, city entertainment venues accessible to local bands, artists and promoters who want to organise, take responsibility for and run, their own events.

Downstairs aims to host live music of all genres plus live comedy and open mic nights, five nights a week – all for affordable entry fees.

Let’s hope Aberdeen welcomes and supports them.

For further information contact:

Ruth Sawers at or by telephone on 07858703467 or
Gavin Bassett at or by telephone on 07411511823

Feb 272012

By Stephen Davy-Osborne.

The AECC was alive with the sound of music as the region’s academies went head to head in the Aberdeen Rock Challenge heat.
Pupils from Hazlehead, Bucksburn, Mackie, Kemnay, Turiff, Westhill and Fraserburgh, along with premier team Peterhead Academy, danced it out on stage to win one of three coveted places in the first ever Scottish final. Opening the show were first time entrants Hazlehead Academy.

Drama teacher Morag Duncan told Aberdeen Voice:

“I felt that Rock Challenge was something that Hazlehead Academy really ought to get involved with as it brings children from all different year groups together. And by setting them a goal they all try to achieve better things.”

Dancing as part of Hazlehead’s performance was 16 year old Alexa Riley.

“I wanted to get involved to show the younger members of the school that the seniors aren’t so scary as everyone thinks they are,”  she explained. “I love dancing, so I just wanted the younger pupils to feel that they could get involved too.”

Megan Joyce, 15, of Bucksburn Academy said:

 “This was my third Rock Challenge. I love the atmosphere with all the schools getting involved. Backstage when you’re waiting to go on it’s really really exciting, that’s what I like about it all. And getting ready to go on, that’s a big part for everyone here, just because you’re hyping up, it’s a great feeling.

Barbara Milroy, a teacher at Bucksburn Academy, said:

 “I am so proud of them because they’ve done it all themselves. They’ve created their own ideas and they’ve danced their hearts out. They’ve just put everything into it!”

The idea behind rock challenge is for students to be at their best without any stimulants, but rather to get a natural high from being together and working together as a team. Pupils are also asked to sign a pledge that during the time they are working on Rock Challenge they won’t take part in drugs and alcohol and are going to lead a healthy existence.

“There have been very positive knock-on effects in the school as a result of taking part in Rock Challenge,” added Ms Milroy. “We have pupils who are attending regularly at school because of this activity and making this a focal point in their week, and it’s very evident that they are thinking more about their bodies and how they need to be healthy to take part.”

Playing an on-stage drunk in Bucksburn’s performance was 17 year old Shaun Lancaster.

“It was quite fun because it pushed my acting to the limits,” he explained. “By playing it melodramatically and very big I was able to portray to the audience that it’s not a good thing to be doing, and hopefully encourage others not to abuse alcohol in that way.”

Rock Challenge in Aberdeen has had longstanding relationship with Grampian Police, who have sponsored the event for the past 10 years. Karen Simpson, Youth Diversion Coordinator at Grampian Police enthused:

 “I love Rock Challenge, and I think that it is just amazing that the young people are given an opportunity to perform in a venue like the AECC. The teachers are there just to guide them, all of the hard work that you see up on the stage is all their own, and the performances we see just get better and better each year!”

Stage manager Dan McCredy said:

“This year there was so much hype on Facebook and Twitter before the event we knew it was going to be a bit special and the teams certainly didn’t disappoint. The standard at the Aberdeen event was exceptional and the atmosphere throughout the entire day was absolutely electric. It was a perfect way to round off our time in Scotland and was a fantastic showcase of talent of young people in the North East of Scotland.”

Scottish Regional Representative Lesley-Ann Begg added:

“The news of the first ever Scottish final was a huge incentive for young people to be their best and I’m looking forward to seeing the performances again in Dundee.”

Walking away with the winning position from the Aberdeen heat was Fraserburgh Academy, who will be joined by runners-up Westhill and Kemnay for the Scottish final in Dundee in June.

Feb 102012

Old Susannah wades in with her chainsaw rattling in the direction of Union Terrace Gardens, but the elms need not fear, she is only out to cut through the misinformation presented as ‘myth busting’ by the City Garden Project.

By Suzanne Kelly.

Old Susannah has been busy with Union Terrace Gardens this past week, like so many of us.  Another few short weeks, and the people will have voted one way or the other as to whether or not our environment, heritage and common good land are better served up with concrete ramps or not.

Then I can get back to the important work of singing the praises of our elected officials, unelected quangos and council officers, and local millionaires.

Before I get down to the Gardens situation, I thought I’d look back at all the wonderful artwork that the City’s children sent in for the Christmas time art competition and event in the gardens, organised and funded in large part by the Bothwell family.

Hundreds of children sent in their artwork, and at this chilly time of the year with Christmas past, they make a cheerful reminder of a great day, and what it’s like to be a child again.  And each and every one of the childrens’ artwork exceeds by miles the A3 takaway flyer sent by a group of anonymous business people telling you we must vote for the granite web.

Do have a look – you will be glad that you did.

On with some definitions then.

Propaganda:  (noun) Material, slogans, misinformation designed to advance a particular point of view often by discrediting or ignoring opposition.

My email inbox is bursting this week with details of employers who are sending their employees all of the leaflets, letters and testimonials which support the garden project.  Most of these are written in the names of associations or groups which have – but crucially do not declare in the literature in question – a member or members who are directly involved with promoting the scheme.  This is very clever indeed.

An employee wants to be told by their boss how they should think and want and vote.  It would therefore be most unfortunate if the employees were given some way to read the many arguments against going ahead with an undefined project with an undefined budget using an as-yet untested in the UK financial borrowing mechanism with a debt-ridden city council borrowing money.

Let us hope therefore that suitable precautions are taken to prevent employees reading the literature from different groups available at the following:-

Myth:  (noun) work of fiction, often including gods, goddesses and challenges and tasks.

Not since the rainbow bridge of Asgard joined heaven and earth, not since the legend of Hercules and his impossible labours has there been a tale as far-fetched as that of the granite web that launched 6,500 jobs and paved the streets annually with £122,000,000.  Sure, it may look more like one of the circles of Hades or the Minotaur’s maze, but the web is already passing into myth.

Those clever people who bring us this gift from the gods are worried we mortals can’t undertand the benefits, and are misunderstanding (or mythunderstanding) their benevolent intentions.  They’ve written a handy guide (something called a ‘blog’) The City Garden Project – The Myths, dispelled’ which can be found at:-

And to its words in bold italics, are my little responses.

The City Garden Project – The Myths, dispelled.

  • We want you to make your decision based on truth, not incorrect claims, speculation and downright nonsense!

Fine – we are all in agreement.

  • Myths have been at the heart of the campaign against the City Garden Project and if some of them were true then the opposition could be justified.

Which myths and what are they?  Where did you get them from?  I remember the initial consultation:  we were shown a beautiful, expensive colour brochure (which the taxpayer had funded) – the cover of which had a flat concrete giant square with some plants in planters.  Later on we were told the project was not going to look like the picture.  Maybe we could have saved some taxpayer money and time by waiting for a consultation and poll until such time we knew what the proponents had up their collective sleeve.  But it is not for us to question the gods.

  • But, whether by mischief-making or simply misinterpretation, the rumours have been rife.

So here we have an implication of mischief-making.  Was it the god Loki at work?  Or of the opposition being too thick to be able to ‘interpret’ what is proposed.  I have not personally heard ANY RUMOURS.  I have read serious questions about the project’s economic, ecological, sociological and regeneration benefits.

I have read people asking where the ventilation will be for underground car parking.  That is one example of the sort of criticisms and questions that I’ve experienced.  ‘Dante’s Inferno’ has a version of heaven, hell and earth without any ventilation, so I guess these miracles can happen here as well.  

  • So, let’s dispel some of these myths! 

Fantastic!  Let’s go!

1. The “green lung” of our city will be lost – FALSE. 

The City Garden will double the amount of green space in our city centre. The new “green lung” will be more usable, more accessible and brought into the sun-light. New garden areas will be created, including a colourful, blossoming area, a forest, a Learning Garden, a quiet tree-lined Bosque area with street furniture and open green space for relaxing in or having a picnic.

Patches of grass do not clean the pollutants and particulates out of a city – established, large, leafy trees do.  As the goal posts keep moving on what trees are to be lost by the City Garden Project engineers, it is hard to imagine which trees are going.

I am still very disappointed we will not have a MONOLITH at which we can make sacrifices to the gods.  I guess we’ll just have to sacrifice the trees, animals, birds, and money to these new gods instead.  But are you going to be reassured that the existing mature trees are somehow going to be replaced overnight by trees with equal pollution / C02 management capabilities by people – sorry gods – who think they can plunk a pine forest in the midst of a city centre?

Most people question where the trees’ roots will be – nearly all trees have extremely large, spreading root systems which require soil.  By the way these roots and soil are what prevents flooding.  I have read points made by experts who say it is not viable to grow a pine forest in the middle of a city centre for a number of reasons.  I don’t know the science – but I look forward to the City Garden Project team showing me examples of such cities.

  I do enjoy looking at the photos of people sitting on the concrete wedge over the ‘stage’ area which is covered with a bit of sod.

There are examples of cities with great open plazas which flood as there is insufficient soil / tree roots to absorb  heavy rains.  At least rain isn’t much of a problem here in North East Scotland.  As to bringing everything into the sunshine, err, the sun shines in the valley as it is – with the added advantage of the valley providing a very valuable wind break.

At Tullos Hill the soil matrix is very poor – which in the words of the soil report prepared by the Forestry Commission leaves any trees planted subject to ‘wind throw’.  If the roots don’t have a good firm earthy soil to hold onto, then a strong wind – like the kind that will inevitably blow across any area brought to street level – may well bring trees toppling on top of the granite web – or people.

Just by elevating a hunk of potato-chip shaped concrete and putting a few inches of sod over it, you are not creating a natural green lung/habitat/area,  even if it is the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen.  As far as doubling the space of the gardens, I do enjoy looking at the photos of people sitting on the concrete wedge over the ‘stage’ area which is covered with a bit of sod.

There is a woman sitting in a chair – a very neat trick indeed for such a steep slope.  Maybe she has a specially-constructed chair with short legs at the back and longer ones in the front?  Perhaps she is a goddess and is floating?  But as many observers point out, the ‘concept’ drawings are inconsistent in this and other ways, such as changing scale.

No, if you are losing the mature, healthy trees that are there – which are home to animals such as EU protected bats and rooks – you are indeed losing a major part of what makes the park valuable to our health.  There is no doubt of this in my mind, so I’m glad we have such a great team of pro-garden project personnel ready willing and able to explain all.  They’ve just not got round to it yet.

2. The city can’t afford the City Garden Project – FALSE.  ( Seriously? )

We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a £182m investment in our city at NO cost to the City Council or the citizens of Aberdeen.

One way or the other, the citizen is going to pay.  IF the scheme somehow goes perfectly to plan and we have a bunch of new shops (without hurting further the existing ones) the business rates will be used to repay a loan – a loan at an unknown rate of interest on an as-yet to be determined sum.

And if it doesn’t go well, and Aberdeen gets its very own Trams project fiasco to match Edinburgh’s – the City has to find a way to pay for the TIF.  As far as the donations from private sources are concerned, at last report Sir Ian had promised to put the £50 million he pledged into his will.  Well, if I were one of his children, I’d contest the will if it ever came to that:  an ageing parent throwing £50 million on concrete webs should convince any court that something is wrong upstairs, and a will might get thrown out.

  Some say taking a loan is borrowing money.  But seems we would just be ‘unlocking’ funds – so no problem there.

But who is our mystery £5 million pound donor?  If this is a public project (debatable – the Aberdeen City  Gardens Trust is a private limited company with two people in it), then the public should know where all of the money is coming from.  If someone pledges money, what guarantee is there it will come in?  Some of our current millionaires are feeling the economic pinch, sad but true.

And if are they using this £5 million promise as a lever to tip the balance of public opinion towards the scheme  – then if they stand to gain personally, then we should be told.

I hear varying reports that other private people are pledging something like £20 million.  Now that’s a myth I’d like more info on.

Once in a lifetime?  How on earth is that conclusion reached?  That claims sounds  very much like the scaremongering the pro garden project have been accusing others of.  There are six trial TIF schemes at present.  There may well be more.  But if this were a once in a lifetime chance, then all the more reason to take our time and make a cohesive, desirable bid, perhaps even one based on something less nebulous than a scheme that has a forest one week, an ice rink the next – and so other many unknowns to it.

TIF is only in the pilot stage in Scotland – so let’s get in there first!  Test case Aberdeen!  Some say taking a loan is borrowing money.  But seems we would just be ‘unlocking’ funds – so no problem there.

A minor detail, as we’ll all be rolling in dosh in no time, but do we know the interest rates on the £182 -192 million pounds Aberdeen City Council is going to borrow?  I’ve not been told.  Over to you, City Garden Project.

Again I will say that mere mortals choose to live in an area that is clean, safe and has excellent schools and hospitals.  I must have missed the part when someone proposed to the City Council that it should cut services and schools, and replace green space and our environmental heritage for concrete.

I don’t remember agreeing to continuously expand the City’s footprint into its green space while there are so many empty buildings in the city centre.  I guess I wasn’t paying attention that day – probably got distracted by reading about a cute baby competition in the news or something.

  • 40% of the cost of the City Garden has already been secured. The Scottish Government have pledged that, if the development is supported by the public, a TIF will be used to fund the rest of the costs for the City Garden Project. 

Fine.  Let’s see the legal papers showing exactly how much has been pledged and how ironclad or otherwise these pledges are.  Forty percent?  What is the figure?  We still do not have any genuine, concrete, specific project (no timescale, no costings done, and no precise scope – these are what you learn in ‘Projects 101’ are the building blocks).  You cannot  possibly say you have 40% of the money you need for something which you don’t even have defined or costed.  Not without godlike wisdom anyway.

  • TIF is a bit like a mortgage. The cost of the “property” is £182m. The “property” is the City Centre Regeneration Scheme (Aberdeen Art Gallery, St Nicholas and North Denburn redevelopments, the new public realm and the City Garden Project). The £55m of philanthropic donations already secured for the City Garden, along with the £15m to follow from the private sector, is the deposit.   

First, please define ‘the new public realm’ for me – just so that we are all talking about one specific defined term, thanks.  I’ll bet TIF is a bit like a mortgage:  if you don’t pay up, you lose your property.  Again Aberdeen City Council are going to borrow the money via TIF.  Not Ian Wood.  Nor the private limited ‘Aberdeen City Gardens Trust Company’.

Just as well we’re told it will bring in over a hundred million a year – we’ll be needing it.

Back to the mathematics.  OK – let’s assume the £55 million is £50m of Ian Wood’s, plus the mystery philanthropist.

We should also be told who the £15 million is coming from, but leaving that aside, that’s apparently £70 million pounds.

Some people would question what kind of tax breaks if any will be given to the donors, and whether or not the tax that does not get into the treasury (because it’s being put in a hole in the ground) would be of benefit to our ever-dwindling services instead.

Right – 70 million is forty percent of 175 million.  We have just been told that the ‘cost of the property is 182 million’.  Sorry – I would have thought that the 182 million is the value of the assets, but there it is.  Just for the record: forty percent of 182 million is 72.8 million.  And just so you know, Scottish Enterprise had by May of this year spent over £420,000 on this project on consultations and PR and the like, and the City Council have just agreed to spend up to £300,000 of our money on the legal costs.

Just as well we’re told it will bring in over a hundred million a year – we’ll be needing it.  Hands up anyone who suspects this project will have many little extras here and there.  Do you think at the end of the day the estimates we are getting now (nebulous as they are) will:  a.  stay exactly the same, b.  decrease and cost less than we think, or c.  cost more?

  • The City Council takes out a loan to pay for the remainder. This loan is paid back over 25 years using the income from the new business rates raised. The City is therefore being given both the deposit and the income to pay back the loan – clever eh? That’s why TIFs are so widely used in the States and promoted in Scotland by the Government. But remember a TIF can only be used for this – not for anything else and if we don’t use our TIF, other cities will!

Well, it is indeed time for some myth- busting, because depending on who you listen to, this either is or is not a commercial venture.  TIF is supposed to be for commercial ventures – and it is unclear how anything but a commercial venture can make the millions in loan repayments we would need to make.

In fact, I seem to recall seeing a video of one of the ‘philanthropists’  saying this is ‘Not a commercial venture’.  ‘Clever eh?’  – I am not exactly convinced.  I do think risky, untested, potentially fiscally disastrous.

And overall, unnecessary to my way of thinking.  Nothing is wrong with the gardens.  We could regenerate the city’s shops by lowering our extremely high business rates.  Making more shopping spaces, eating places and entertainment venues creates more competition for the venues we have.

Did you know we as taxpayers are subsidising the AECC and the Lemon Tree – and now they want us to borrow money to build competition for these venues we’re already paying for?  It would be to my way of thinking like betting on several horses in a race.  You might win on one of them, but you will lose money.

3. The City Garden is a commercial development – FALSE

This is about creating a new civic space and gardens that will be brought back into daily use… 

(note – see definition above of ‘propaganda’)

…and become part of the daily life of the people of Aberdeen. The space will include exciting new venues for everyone to use and enjoy including a cultural and arts centre, a 500-seat black box theatre and 5,000 seat amphitheatre and stage.  

See my quotes above about these theatre/stage options.  We don’t need them.  We’re already paying for such venues.  The writer of this paper has first set out to ‘bust myths’.  However, they are lapsing into emotive, subjective prose when they say how wonderful this will all be.  We don’t know that – we don’t know anything of the kind.

But now we get to the ‘venues for everyone to use and enjoy’.  Right.  At present, we can come and go as we please when the gardens are open.  No one can prevent us from enjoying the space as we see fit – no one can charge us any fee to use the gardens.  Why?  Because they belong to each and every one of us as Common Good Land.  Are these ‘non-commercial’ theatres going  to be free of any admission charge?  If yes, then fine – they are not commercial.  If no – then they can’t make money and pay off the TIF loan.

And if they charge you money to be on your common good land, then whoever holds the deeds to the land, it is no longer common good land in reality.  Are we going to borrow millions to make a theatre that is free to go to?  If so, why don’t we just close the AECC and Lemon Tree and be done with them?

Who is responsible for joining up all these fuzzy, competing concepts – and why aren’t they actually doing it?

  • The land and all the facilities will remain in the ownership of the City of Aberdeen and its citizens.  

Oh yes, we’ll still own it – but better, wiser, richer people will control it.  You might own it – but try going to a concert for free or getting one of the 25-30 car parking spaces free.  There is every possibility that one private entity or another (why does the two-person Aberdeen City Gardens Trust spring to my mind?) will get a very long lease at a very low rate.  In terms of ownership, ‘possession is 9/10 of the law’.

4. Union Terrace Gardens will be turned into a giant car park – FALSE.

I don’t know where our friends picked up this ‘myth’  – I’ve not heard it.  But there you go.

Parking is at a premium in the city and while many people would indeed wish to see more car-parking in the centre, it will not be in the City Garden. There will be between 25 and 30 underground parking spaces to service the new development.  Old Susannah is no mathematical genius like the ones who work out our city’s budgets; but if we are putting in a 5,000 seat venue and a smaller venue in a city centre already pressured for car parking spaces, then I predict some car parking and car congestion problems.  Wild conclusion I know.

However, if there are 30 underground spaces, they will still need ventilation.  Nothing like that is shown on the plans I’ve seen yet.  But back to the maths.  If we have 5,000 people going to see a Robbie Williams tribute act in the brand new space and 30 parking spaces available at the venue, there just might be a little bit of an issue.

That nice Mr Milne (owner of Triple Kirks – soon to be developed, Chair of ACSEF, one of the anonymity-seeking businesspeople behind the beautiful Vote for the City Gardens Project…) seems to need some car parking space for his beautiful glass box offices which will be adjacent to this great ‘non-commercial’ granite web.  I guess the 30 spaces will take care of that nicely.  Either that, or there will be more than 30 spaces.  A lot more.

As I posted on Facebook this week, it comes down to these points (leaving out the environmental carnage and the Common Good Status, that is):

  • 1. Is TIF a tried and tested financial model in the UK? Not yet.
  • 2. Do we know exactly what this project will cost? No – because the scope is unknown and ever-changing. That is one of the main flaws with Edinburgh’s trams scheme – it kept changing – and now we are looking at nearly one billion cost for it.
  • 3. Is the design fully fleshed out enough for anyone who supports it to fully explain the engineering (vents, how will trees – esp. pines grow, how will ramps be made safe, etc)? No.
  • 4. As the taxpayer is already propping up entertainment venues with tax money, venues that cannot survive without financial aid, does it make any financial sense to create venues to compete with them? No.

So – if you’re not sure about any of these points  – and who is? – then maybe we should not rush into anything.