In a Gray City, Some See a Blank Canvas

Sebastian Modak

I wasn’t the only one getting surprised. A pair of friends I met who had booked tickets a year in advance had been inexplicably downgraded to a cabin without an attached bathroom. Staff on the train told me these issues were part of the gradual transition to new trains and should be smoothed out once it was complete.

That was good to hear, because the trip itself was lovely. The new train, outfitted with sleek, modern furnishings, makes for the kind of slow travel that is increasingly rare. I started my evening in the Club Car, a collection of booths and window-facing seats, where you can order from a menu that includes nine Scottish whiskies. With nothing to do, nowhere to be and, because of the train’s departure long after nightfall, nothing to really see, entertainment for a solo traveler like myself came from talking to other travelers. That’s how I ended up walking back to my cabin, at 2:30 in the morning.

Four hours later, I woke up in my surprisingly comfortable bunk, the bright green blur of the Scottish countryside on display through my window. There was just enough time for a “Highlander Breakfast” — haggis, sausage, eggs — before making my connection in Edinburgh for Aberdeen.

“I think this year has been the tipping point,” Jon Reid said. “People really love all the art and now think of it as part of the city.”

“For big street art cities like Stavanger, history has been painted onto the walls,” Mr. Reid said. “For Aberdeen, it’s a new history that’s being written right now.”

Street art in Aberdeen, at least the kind sanctioned by the city, only really took off in the last few years. That is thanks, in part, to Jon Reid’s partner, the painter Mary Louise Butterworth who was one of the coordinators of the Painted Doors project, started in 2016, which transformed the drab doors of the city’s warehouses and office buildings into works of art.

  • There are plenty of whisky distilleries within driving distance of Aberdeen, each offering tours and tastings. But for a primer head to The Grill, a 150-year-old pub that has a selection of 600 — yes, six hundred — Scottish whiskies. A drink list like that can be intimidating, but the people behind the bar were more than happy to walk me through my options. Talk to them long enough and they’ll also regale you with stories from the bar’s past — like the time in 1973 when women attending a trade union conference across the street stormed the bar, which at that point served only men, demanding to be served. (Two years later it began officially serving women.)

  • The best meal I had in Aberdeen was at Moonfish Cafe, where the seasonally rotating menu is built on locally sourced beef and seafood. Despite the level of culinary innovation and beautiful presentation, prices are very reasonable, likely a product of the city’s widespread disdain for over-the-top pomposity.

But it’s not just public art that betrays Aberdeen’s gray, industrial reputation. Through Mr. Reid and Ms. Butterworth, I met other creatives who are quietly working to change the city. I visited the Nigerian-born artist Ade Adesina, whose massive linocut prints juxtapose Edenic natural scenes with the heavy footprint of industries like Aberdeen’s own offshore oil rigs. When I met him, he was in the midst of preparing for an exhibition in Edinburgh, a logistical nightmare when it comes to transporting such big pieces. When I asked why he didn’t just move down there, a place famous for its arts scene, his answer was simple.

“There are no distractions here,” he said. “I can’t have people constantly knocking on my door when I’m trying to work.”

Mr. Adesina does his printing at Peacock Visual Arts, hidden down a narrow lane. The nonprofit printmaking studio works with luminaries like Ralph Steadman and university students alike. It didn’t take me long to realize that though Aberdeen’s art community is small, any inferiority complex brought about by the lack of attention it gets compared to bigger Scottish cities is outweighed by the solidarity and sense of community felt by its artists.

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