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Exclusive: Inside Our Abandoned Student Union

We discover what remains of the Student Union, once boasting six bars and clubs fit to hold 2,000 people.

By: Gabriel Kolanen

All photographs courtesy of Gabriel Kolanen.

Gaudie reporters visited the Bon Accord centre last week, in order to gain access into the bowels of what was once the Student Union building, located on the corner of Gallowgate and Upperkirkgate near Marischal College in the city centre.

Although now more recognisable for commercial outlets like Starbucks or Brewdog, the sprawling three-story complex, almost wholly owned by Bon Accord, was since its opening in 1938 known to generations of Aberdeen students as simply, “The Union.”

That all ended with its turbulent closing in 2004, when a portion of its final 250-300 nightclub patrons clashed with staff in the wee hours following a raucous, boozed soaked night (Fiona McWirther, ‘Bust up at Union Means It’s All Over,’ The Gaudie, March 2004).

Aberdeen Alumni and Union patron during his student years, Principal George Boyne, remarked to The Gaudie that “it was the one place that brought students together.”

The sprawl of the University of Aberdeen was then much different to 2019. The Union at Upperkirkgate was ideally situated as a centre point for students arriving from across various campuses in the city including Marischal College, King’s College, Foresterhill, and the Hilton Campus. It comprised a compelling collection of bars, clubs, cheap eats, TV rooms, working spaces and billiard rooms, where students from various disciplines could meet, mingle, and mix.

According to the blueprints from 1935 (Council archives, BW/P202), there was even a space for a possible pastor-in-residence.

However, the Union in its later years was not, perhaps, the most apt place for a pastor. During the early aughts, just prior to its closure, the building which boasted six bars and clubs could cater for almost 2,000 people. The Union even earned the title of “Best Students Union in the UK” in 2001 (Cara Berkeley, ‘Union-ited We Fall’, The Gaudie February 2004 and Marc Hume, ‘Student Union Set to Close Its Doors’, The Gaudie November 2003).

In a first-hand account of the expedition, one Gaudie reporter wrote, “As our eyes adjusted to the dark hall, lit here and there by dull pools of white-green fluorescent light, it wasn’t too hard to reimagine the reckless abandon and cathartic expression that the Union provided for its student body; the smell of alcohol seemed to still linger in the air, on the carpets and floorboards, consuming much of the open

space at Sivell’s Bar which operated in the largest, mural-covered hall at the back of the Union.

The University’s motto: Initium sapientiae timur domini– “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom”, briefly glistened in golden letters above the stage as our flashlight passed over.

The windows facing north-west, decorated in vivid colours portraying the Greek moira or Fates, were sealed in by the construction of the Bon Accord Car Park.”Pedestrians taking Gallowgate into the town centre can still take a look up as they pass by Brewdog. In the first floor windows the old logo can be seen, stamped on wide, grey blinds. Now shrouded in silence, the Union has been lying dormant for the past fifteen years. Time intermixed with a lack of interest–and funds thereof–have left the building to its own devices.

Following the inevitable decay that accompanies dilapidation, plaster crumbles litter the floor and yawning holes gape in the wall; black strands of wire jut out like unkempt hair that would make a safety inspector bristle at their sight. Described in its heyday as “a sprawling, ramshackle cavern, Aberdeen Student Union was several shades of awesome.” Ramshackle still stands, albeit with several shades of asbestos.

its move from Gallowgate, the history of the Student’s Association has been a peripatetic one: Butchart, Johnston, and now, the Hub. Factors for the departure from Gallowgate are numerous. Then SA President Jenny Duncan stated to Gaudie reporters that the Union’s closure was inevitable. A “dramatic downturn,” she stated, “in business levels within the bar, entertainment, and catering operation,” meant that whilst “we recognise that many former students hold special memories of their time at the Union, […] changing trends mean we have to move with the times.” (Marc Hume, ‘Student Union Set To Close Its Doors’, The Gaudie 2003). New club and bar venues on Belmont bled customers away from Union; a year before closure, the Union was only open for three days a week, cutting down from a full week’s worth of extra-curricular entertainment.

According to other Gaudie reports from the time period, AUSA finances were in trouble, with a deficit of “half-a-million pounds” owed to the University.

President Duncan added that “if [the Union] were a purely commercial enterprise the consequences would have been much more drastic.” (Ailsa Dixon and Fiona McWhirter, ‘Union No More’, The Gaudie November 2003).

Regardless of the causes, the transformation from a prize-winning Union into a dilapidated ruin in the space of a fifteen years is truly remarkable. However, it is now understood to be in Bon Accord’s remit to determine how, and when, they wish to employ their Gallowgate asset.

Images courtesy of Gabriel Kolanen.