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Granite city glitters in the glow of oil and gas

ABERDEEN, which earlier this week hosted not one but two government cabinets, is like nowhere else in these islands.

As Jim Naughtie waited patiently for Alex Salmond to present himself for interview on the Today programme, he told listeners that his guest was delayed because of the early morning rush hour, a sign, he added, that Aberdeen is booming.

And so it surely is. While we are reminded regularly that the oil and gas on which the city's prosperity is based is finite, and that there is no guarantee their price will not plummet, the occasional visitor gets no sense of a bubble about to burst.

On the contrary, as you explore its precincts, you cannot help but reflect that this is a place, unlike so many others at present, that is on the up. As you step off the train, the first thing that hits you is Union Square. It is a huge, glass-fronted shopping mall and filled, whenever I've had an hour to kill, with shoppers and feasters and cinema-goers, all of whom appear to have money to burn.

The next indication of Aberdeen's wealth are the tariffs charged for accommodation. Hotel rooms are relatively few and often eye-wateringly expensive. More, apparently, are on the way. They cannot come soon enough. A colleague, looking for somewhere relatively inexpensive to spend a night, eventually ended up in a dreary B&B where she was charged £80 for an experience she is not eager to repeat.

By comparison, the characterful hotel I use is unlikely to bankrupt you, hence my reluctance to name it. It is in a well-heeled part of town and my route to it takes me through streets of turreted mansions with two or three limousines in the drive.

On dull days the granite, which has run out, seems to suck the energy from the air and one almost feels the onset of seasonal affective disorder. But when the sun shines the stone glitters and glows and exudes optimism and everything, even the resurgence of Aberdeen FC and the revitalisation of woebegone Union Street, appears possible.

Sooner or later I find myself in Old Aberdeen, where I have spent many happy hours in King's College Library and St Machar's - the bar not the cathedral, I'm afraid to say. These days, though, I'm more likely to be seen heading for the Sir Duncan Rice Library, which was opened by the Queen in 2012, and which is one of the few great bulwarks built against the forces of ignorance in Scotland this millennium.

It is a reminder that Aberdeen has a long and proud tradition and an enviable reputation as a seat of learning. The foundation of the university, of which it is now an integral part, can be traced to the 15th century.

Apart from the aforementioned Mr Naughtie, its alumni include Alistair Darling, Tessa Jowell and Nicky Campbell, the Radio 5 presenter. In the past, it attracted students mainly from its immediate hinterland. Today they come from anywhere and everywhere.

One wonders what they make of Aberdeen. When I first arrived in the 1970s, I had no idea what to expect. My landlady, the redoubtable Mrs Robertson, took one look at me shivering and recommended I purchase a duffle coat. For a few quid a week I had bed, breakfast, and an evening meal, the very thought of which - the stovies, the cod roe, the Angel Delight - is still capable of sending me into a Proustian dwam. If memory serves me right, Mrs R also did my washing and ironing for no extra charge. So much for the myth of the tight-fisted Aberdonian.

Some years earlier, BP had discovered oil in the North Sea. Invariably, it was called "black gold" and Aberdeen was likened to the Klondyke. Meanwhile, on the horizon lay the first devolution referendum. Then, as now, oil was seen as the means to future plenty. Post the Arab-Israeli war, the price of a barrel was high and even a small field was seen as a potential money spinner.

However, Aberdonians were not deluded by the hype. No-one I knew ever thought they were about to become a Doric version of Saudi Arabia. Rather, there was a realisation that they had struck lucky and had better make the most of it while they had the chance.

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