At the start of the 21st Century Aberdeen is the oil capital of Europe and home to many major companies. In the middle of the 19th Century the idea that oil could be obtained from the North Sea would have been regarded as fantasy, but the city was already well established as the centre of several industries that still contribute, along with the black gold from the sea, to the economy of North East Scotland.
Agriculture, fishing, granite, textiles and paper provided the region’s wealth long before the oil was brought onshore.
Paper-making was a major source of employment, particularly in the villages of Stoneywood and Bucksburn, just north of Aberdeen. Several paper mills were established on the banks of the River Don, the biggest being Stoneywood.
The Pirie family who owned the mill were enlightened employers. They provided a school for the workers’ children and established a free library. Education and self employment were encouraged. In this relatively benevolent environment people like George Gibb thrived.
Born at Bridge of Don in 1826, Gibb worked as a factory hand in the mill, but in his spare time he became a student of literature. He began to write poetry and soon his verses were appearing regularly in ‘The Aberdeen Herald’. Music also captured his imagination and in 1850, along with John Beveridge and ten others, he formed the Stoneywood and Auchmull Union Band. Auchmull was the earlier name from the village now known as Bucksburn.
The term ‘Union’ appears to have been adopted simply to signify that the two villages were united in the project.
New instruments were purchased for the twelve original members, but their ownership was vested in a trust as the public property of the two villages.
George Gibb probably had a hand in the elegantly phrased letter that was circulated to local gentlemen in an effort to secure funding for the band.
‘…. we trust, that through the liberality of the friends of progress, we will be enabled to bring it within the reach of all who have a desire for the cultivation of Music, Thus forming a source of harmless recreation to us, and a pleasing gratification to the community generally’.
Within a few years the railway reached Aberdeen, with Alex Pirie Jnr playing a major part in the formation of the Great North of Scotland Railway Company. Not surprisingly, George Gibb was one of the bright young men head hunted for the new organisation. He became station-master at Kennethmont.
Meanwhile brass band playing was becoming increasingly popular around Stoneywood. It was reported that a second company of the Volunteer Corps had been formed ‘at which time a brass band was added to the equipment’. John Beveridge stayed on at the mill. In 1908 he may well have been the sole survivor of the original twelve; certainly he was a long serving employee and an appropriate person to stand alongside the mill manager and one of the company directors as a trustee when the band was given a new constitution under the name of The Stoneywood Brass Band. A formal link was now established with Alex Pirie & Sons and it was agreed that band practices would be held in The Works Hall, the building which had originally housed the mill School. The band was again fully equipped with instruments and uniforms. The inventory records that the original twelve instruments purchased 58 years previously were still available ‘for practice’
To begin with the band’s engagements were mainly in Stoneywood and the neighbouring villages, but its reputation began to spread and soon it became the best known band in the North East of Scotland.
By the end of the Second World War the name had been changed to Stoneywood Silver Band In the post war years the band travelled widely to take part in contests – this included several trips to London for national finals. Over the years the percentage of musicians actually employed in the paper mill declined. By the 1980’s the players were drawn from all walks of life and when the old works hall was damaged by fire, the link with the mill was finally severed.
New rehearsal accommodation was offered by UDI, an off-shore services company with premises in Bridge of Don. So in 1985 Stoneywood Silver Band became UDI Brass and entered into a busy schedule of concerts, contests, civic occasions and other events including an appearance on BBC TV’s ‘Songs of Praise’ and backing Peter Skellern in concert.
A name change was to come. In 1997 UDI Brass merged with Aberdeen City Band which had been founded in 1957 by a former conductor of the Stoneywood Band, Alexander Buchan. Some of the original members transferred from Stoneywood, finding it more convenient to attend practices in Aberdeen. Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s the City band was much in demand for concert appearances and had some notable successes in concerts.
On two occasions the band took first place in the Scottish Championships, thus qualifying to play in the British finals in London. By the 90’s however membership had declined to the point that the band had many more instruments than musicians, and a merger with the thriving UDI Brass made sense. This led to the creation of UDI Aberdeen City Band and a new ensemble, the Aberdeen Community Band, which offers band playing to musicians of any standard, young and old alike, for recreation and education.
One final name change takes us up to date: after UDI were bought over by Fugro Survey, the Band were allowed to drop the UDI part of their name, and voted to rebrand themselves “Granite City Brass”, referring to Aberdeen’s well known soubriquet. The story came full circle when, a couple of years later, the Band were welcomed back into the premises of Stoneywood Paper Mill by owners Arjo Wiggins with the offer of excellent rehearsal and storage facilities (an act of corporate generosity of which the Pirie family would surely have approved), thus allowing the Band to continue to fulfil the aims set out by George Gibb and his friends over 150 years ago.
Thanks to the late David Haggart for the research into the history of the band.