Footdee or 'Fittie' as it is pronounced locally is one of Aberdeen's hidden gems although it actually sits in plain sight. Having read about the quaint former fishing village just before my last trip to the 'Granite City', it sounded like the kind of place I definitely had to explore.
As I drove by the modern leisure complex that runs along the beachfront I kept my eyes peeled for my destination, but even when my Google Map indicated I was right next to the historic quarter, I still couldn't make out anything obvious.
Footdee really is tucked away off the main tourist route and is easy to miss if you didn't know it was there despite its proximity to the busy promenade, which is why it is still very much considered a hidden gem.
'Today it is a vibrant little area with an eccentric mix of orderly cottages and quirky ramshackle outbuildings with little evidence of its previous life as 'Fish Town' - obviously I loved it!'
With some more investigation, I discovered one of the narrow entrances that led me to rows of almost uniform mid-19th century cottages, organised in neat little squares. The planned community was originally built to re-home the city's fishermen who were living in poor quality housing around the harbour area. The design dates back to 1809 and was the concept of renowned local architect John Smith who is more famously known for his alterations to Balmoral Castle.
Today it is a vibrant little area with an eccentric mix of orderly cottages and quirky ramshackle outbuildings with little evidence of its previous life as 'Fish Town' - obviously I loved it!
I entered through North Square, which was one of the original areas to be built along with South Square. Footdee started out with 56 small 'but and ben' style homes, however due to an expanding population and overcrowding issues, further buildings were added increasing the total to 80 homes. Middle Row was added in 1837 and Pilot's Square in 1855. which contained better quality 2 storey high housing for the pilots of the ships entering and leaving the harbour.
The first thing that struck me was how similar all the cottages were which I later found out was due to them all being built to the same width, height and breadth, with matching windows and doors. It was only after the council sold off the housing in the 1870s that homeowners were allowed to make any changes to their property. Many expanded upwards but due to the limited local building materials available, the original character of the village has been preserved.
The second thing that struck me was the funky and curiously designed outhouses and sheds dotted around the central greens. To say they looked out of place would be an understatement, with vivid paintwork and sometimes bizarre decorations, I struggled to figure out what they actually were used for. Offices, summer houses, storage, man caves? I could imagine living in a few of them as they resembled tiny houses but others were more of a mystery. I would love to have a peek inside some of them to see if the interiors are as unique as the exteriors.
The structures all occupy the space on what was originally a common green within each square. However, lack of space in the small cottages inspired residents to build sheds to store fishing equipment and a washroom for laundry. When the cottages were sold off it was a condition that the sheds must be rebuilt in masonry within 2 years, however as is evident today, that ruling was largely ignored!
'Many residents have moved here to enjoy the community feel that comes with shared spaces and living so closely to your neighbours that is normally hard to find in a city.'
As I walked around, I tried to imagine what the squares must have looked like when nets were hanging out to dry and fishing gear was stacked up ready for the next trip. Today it feels more like an artists colony and in some ways the unique creative structures reminded me of the Findhorn Foundation in Moray, although that is on a much bigger scale.
With the decline in fishing and closing of the local shipyards, the fortunes of Footdee didn't look promising at one point although it's fair to say that it is a very desirable area to live these days, with house prices at a premium. Many residents have moved here to enjoy the community feel that comes with shared spaces and living so closely to your neighbours that is normally hard to find in a city. The intimate neighbourhood feeling that has existed since closely connected, and often related, fishing families first moved here over two centuries ago appears to live on.
Another thing I noticed is how quiet and still 'Fittee' was despite it blowing a hoolie along the seafront. I guess the only reason the rickety outhouses are still standing is thanks to the sheltered design of the squares, surrounded by tight rows of houses, which themselves face inwards to protect them from the stormy North Sea. Living here must feel like a sanctuary for the residents in a part of the country that is often exposed to some of the harshest maritime weather.
When Footdee was first conceived, it was built as a practical place for working fisher folk. There were no luxuries, with the brightly painted fountains a reminder that not all houses had running water. Having an outside toilet was a bonus and cholera was recurrent. Often more than one family lived in the two room cottages and life was undoubtedly hard. I'm sure the original residents would never have envisaged how desirable their property would become in the 21st century.
It is actually a miracle that Footdee still exists today as the booming oil industry put it under real threat of demolition. The small fishing village of Old Torry on the opposite side of the mouth of the River Dee wasn't so lucky. In 1971 the 350 residents were served a notice to quit and in 1974, Old Torry was raised to the ground so the harbour could be upgraded on the demands of the oil companies.
Now classed as a conservation area, Footdee is a unique and colourful oasis within a city that can sometimes feel a little ashen thanks to the widespread use of building in grey granite, although Aberdeen is looking a lot brighter these days thanks to street art projects.
For me, 'Fittie' is the perfect mix of history and uniqueness which is why I recommend you add it to your Aberdeenshire or Scotland itinerary.
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