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what I learned from studying at the University of Aberdeen

Nine things you need to know to survive (and love) Aberdeen

Coming from the south of Sweden to Aberdeen, I had made sure I wanted to study at the university but knew very little about the city itself. What I found was that the north-east of Scotland, while cold, wild and rainy, offered many pleasant surprises and soon enough felt like home. Here are the things that I could never have known about the Aberdeen experience before I arrived.

1. The seagulls rule the city

It is passed down from one generation of students to the next that the Aberdonian seagulls are bloodthirsty children of evil, but this fact never really made an impression on me until I got into the habit of running to seminars eating sandwiches. The seagulls are massive from all the food they’ve stolen and I screamed my lungs out every time one of them came at me from behind to snatch my lunch from me. If you don’t believe me, read the ‘Living with Urban Gulls’ leaflet published online by the Aberdeen City Council. This is not a joke. Don’t eat food outside in Aberdeen.

2. This corner of Scotland is home to students from all around the world

Once you get used to the seagulls, you notice that the university is incredibly international in terms of both students and staff. I myself am Swedish, and made friends from Australia, Slovenia, Italy, Norway, Canada, Germany, the UK… the list goes on. There’s nothing quite like moving away for the first time, and friendships grow very strong when the majority of your friends don’t know a soul in the entire country you’re in – and when the closest big city is hours away. A close-knit friendship group can change your entire university experience.

3. You need to look beyond the grey for the best spots…

At some point, someone nicknamed Aberdeen ‘The Silver City by the Sea’. This is just code for ‘it’s grey and windy’; everything is made of granite and the wind from the sea has messed up many a hairdo. This always gets to you in the first semester, but eventually you will learn to distinguish one grey building from another – and you can start exploring. The medieval buildings in Old Aberdeen (the university campus) don’t exactly count as you will have taken enough photos with your parents around King’s College in freshers’ week. Instead, have lunch at Kilau on High Street and move on to the St Machar Bar to get the proper student pub experience. Also, from the seventh floor of the library, you get a splendid view of the sea as well as the city.

4. … And then look even further beyond

Once you feel braver, leave Old Aberdeen and go down to the harbour in New Aberdeen. Footdee (Fittie? Foot of the Dee? St Fittick? The Scots don’t know either) is an exceptionally pretty old fishing village, and is the perfect place to take a new friend, your parents on their second visit or your girlfriend/boyfriend. If you feel like spending rather than saving, you’ll find The Silver Darling down by the water (so maybe go with your parents). Other options for food and drink include the Moonfish Cafe, Café Bohème and Madame Mew’s. Ambal’s on Bridge Street will give you a free starter or dessert for a positive online review.

5. It’s a great place for second-hand shopping

There are many charity shops in Aberdeen and the prices are good compared to other cities. The main street in New Aberdeen, Union Street, is home to quite a few, but you’ll find charity shops all over. I’m a bit of a shopaholic, and I loved being able to accumulate a huge wardrobe while on a student budget. I assume there are other kinds of shops in Aberdeen too, but I never saw them.

6. There is a random tradition involving a bull

A new rector of the university has to sit on a model bull and be carried down High Street. Falling off is supposedly a bad sign (who would have thought?). It took me four years to hear of this tradition, which goes to show that as quirky as traditions can be, they don’t really fulfil any kind of function for most students. The reason why I’m mentioning it here is that, although I can’t quite call it a regret that I didn’t know or care, I wouldn’t want anyone else to miss out on the opportunity to see a grown-up ride a life-size bull for the sake of tradition.

7. It’s the birthplace of Scotch whisky

OK, more like home to the earliest record of a still for distilling Scotch whisky, as the BBC reported in July 2019. The first reference to the drink is from 1494, whereas the Aberdeen record is from 1505. The Aberdeen burgh records, where the reference was found, have been UNESCO-recognised, making Aberdeen an exciting place to study medieval history even if you’re not a whisky fan. If you’re more interested in the water of life than medieval documents, there are also the (insanely popular and consequently very crowded) weekly tastings with the Whisky Society.

8. Working out can work out

I’m the biggest fan of the Aberdeen Sports Village. This is not because I’m sporty or even particularly fit – I was just always ridiculously impressed by the size and quality of the place. They’ve got it all, from a gym to pools to football fields. If there is ever a time when you will attempt to start working out regularly and succeed, it will be when you move to Aberdeen.

9. You can get hardened and softened by the same place

Aberdeen taught me to handle cold-blooded seagull attacks, to drink as well as research whisky, and that it somehow makes sense to ride model bulls (if you’re publicly elected, of course). Aberdeen is also where I made some of the friends I’ll keep for life and nabbed some of the best second-hand bargains. The rain, wind and granite meet old fishing villages, friendships across borders and occasional days of sunshine, and that’s Aberdeen for you.

Ebba Strutzenbladh, University of Aberdeen history graduate

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