Wednesday, July 19, 2006


A Church, a Restaurant or a Pub? July 18, 2006

It sounds like a joke or a riddle. So have a guess at what the picture is about. Meanwhile let’s walk down Union Street in Aberdeen, then down Corrections Close to the maze of narrow, cobbled streets. Many steeples rise above the granite city, making you think that people here are religious. Approaching the buildings you’ll see classic Presbyterian architecture – some of the stateliest in Scotland. But upon entering the peaked doorway, you’re more likely to find a pub or a restaurant. Amber and I spent a delightful evening in one, sampling the local French cuisine. Unfortunately the fish was overcooked. Several other churches had some of the best local beer on tap. Little remains inside of the quiet space where choirs once sang and ministers with raised fist laid down the law. On Sundays, be careful which building you enter. You’ll find either the minister or the bartender.

Aberdeen may hold the record for churches converted to pubs, restaurants or apartment houses. A phenomenon all over Scotland, it’s nevertheless legendary in the northeast. Either the city used to be excessively religious, or since the oil boom, it’s become excessively a-religious. Growing up in Perthshire I never sensed that religion was an integral part of people’s lives. My neighbors went to church once a year. The few times I entered a Presbyterian church, I found the minister mostly preaching to a choir. Catholic churches were better populated, but not by folk who were gung ho to be there. You had to be there every Sunday, or else there’d be hell to pay for. Today the opium of the people has been replaced by whisky and beer. Well might the minister quote Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas: “I took my stand in the midst of the world and in the flesh I appeared to them, and I found them all drunk.”

On Sundays, we’re made aware of our religious roots. Most businesses are shut. You can’t buy alcohol. Bells in the remaining real churches play beautiful medleys. Not cheap recordings but live performances with bell ringers pulling at the ropes.

I’ve yet to discover a mega-church in Aberdeen -- an excited congregation of several thousands with the preacher offering salvation, health and prosperity, but that church has its home in warmer climates. Life in the northeast can be tough.You have a harsh climate, gray skies. cold wind and long winter nights. The oil boom has not benefited most working people whose wages remain low while the cost of housing has gone through the roof. Local taxes keep climbing, and the hospitals remain as shabby as ever. Old farms are being replaced with housing developments and the money disappears into a few rich pockets. I suspect that churches do not speak to the common people in language that they understand, hence they remain empty.

Churches still prosper in Cults, Banchory and suburbs where folk are more affluent, many connected with the oil and gas business; where expats live. The banal connection between religiosity and income may not indicate that folk need God to take care of their money. Or that they have more disposable time to spend in church but that they are the mobile -- here for three years or so. Church is a good way to meet others. Working people have well established networks and would rather socialize in pubs or in their homes.

Amber and I can usually tell when the pubs let out, around 2AM, because we are awakened by singing in the streets. Though not on key, the tune is recognizable. In the US the only socially acceptable place to sing is – you guessed it, in church. I once tried to sing at the Onion Creek pub in the Heights and occasioned many dirty looks. It’s not that the old church vibes in the converted pub encourage singing. Scottish folk sing everywhere: at football games, when they’re tipsy, at parties, on buses, generally when they’re happy.

DADDY!!!! YOU TRIED TO SING AT THE ONION CREEK!!! WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?!?!?!?!?!?! Oh, I am so embaressed for you!
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