Exploring Aberdeen’s Festival of the Sea with Lesley Anne Rose

Open Road’s Lesley Anne Rose discusses the upcoming Festival of the Sea, exploring the city’s maritime roots.

Exploring Aberdeen’s Festival of the Sea with Lesley Anne Rose
The "Fittie Peninsula" from the Air - Photograph by Chris Sansbury / POST

The last time we interviewed Lesley Anne Rose she was preparing for an exhibit that explored the history and future of her beloved Fittie. This week, ahead of Aberdeen’s new Festival of the Sea, we have a new interview with the Open Road co-founder. Her team will lead the community programme for Aberdeen’s upcoming Festival of the Sea. This annual festival, which will run for the first time from 15th to 28th July, celebrates Aberdeen’s maritime heritage and is a lead-up to the 2025 Tall Ships event. 

The festival features a rich programme, including storytelling sessions, exhibitions, film showings, and hands-on activities for families. Events like family rock pooling, art and music mornings, and heritage exhibitions aim to engage and inspire the local community. Open Road has collaborated with local artists, community groups, and cultural organisations to create a programme that represents the spirit of these coastal communities.

We love speaking to Lesley Anne. She has a huge enthusiasm for exploring Aberdeen’s harbour side communities. It's very infectious, and this interview doesn’t disappoint.

Can you tell us about the vision behind the festival?

The Festival of the Sea is a new festival connected with the arrival of the Tall Ships into Aberdeen in July 2025. In the lead up to the Tall Ships Aberdeen is hosting a Festival of the Sea from 15 – 28 July 2024. The idea for the festival came from Aberdeen City Council who have programmed events in Union Terrace Gardens and other initiatives such as public visits to the ship The Reaper and a Taste of the Sea offering from local restaurants and bars.

Aberdeen Art Gallery and Maritime Museum have programmed festival events at their venues and Open Road has been asked to deliver the festival’s community programme. This involves programming events into the two harbour side communities of Fittie and Torry either ourselves or in partnership with other organisations. Our Festival of the Sea community programme leads on from a two year cultural programme we’ve delivered in Fittie and Torry called Safe Harbour Open Sea. 

How did you decide on the specific events and activities included in the festival?

For the community programme our focus has been on the two harbour side communities of Fittie and Torry and how the festival can best represent and benefit them. This links with the wider work we undertake which considers at the role of culture within Twenty Minute Neighbourhoods. 

This part of the festival programme began with us talking with organisations and community groups already undertaking good work in these communities and what they would like from a festival programme. In Torry, this includes organisations such as Greyhope Bay and Deemouth Artist Studios, along with local community groups including the Torry Heritage and Memories group and the Torry Heritage Group 2019. In Fittie we’ve worked with local artists and crafters and the surfing community as well as the local community development trust. More widely around the harbour area we consulted with the RNLI and Fittie Bar. 

Once we were clear on how they would like to contribute to, or be represented by, the festival programme we reached out to city-wide cultural organisations who expressed an interest in working with us, such as Citymoves who’ve pulled together a brilliant community dance programme. 

Finally, we’ve built on the work we’ve undertaken through Safe Harbour Open Sea and are working with the Harbour Voices Community Choir, Harbour Film Nights and our Harbour Voices podcasts.

Aerial view of Aberdeen Harbour with Torry on the left. The River Dee, ships, industrial docks, and residential areas are visible on the right.
Torry and Aberdeen Harbour - Photograph by Chris Sansbury / POST

Which part of the festival are you most excited about and why?

As someone who lives in one of Aberdeen’s harbour side communities and who grew up by the sea, maritime history, heritage and lived experience is in my DNA. I’m very much looking forward to seeing both harbour side communities represented in the cultural life of Aberdeen. Fittie and Torry are important to the story of Aberdeen – past, present and future – and I’m excited to see them celebrated through this festival.

I also want to give a big shout-out to the local artist community and the events and workshops they are hosting as part of the festival especially Deemouth Artist Studios Workshops Weekender over the second weekend of the festival and all of the local artists and crafters taking part in the two fairs taking place in the Fittie Community Hall on Saturday 20 & 27 July (10am – 4 pm). I’m excited to see their creativity recognised and promoted in the festival programme. 

Tell us a little about how the communities in Fittie and Torry share a maritime heritage.

The history and heritage of Fittie and Torry is joined at the hip as sister harbour side communities. We’ve been working with both over the past couple of years to gather stories and memories as well as current lived experiences and hopes for the future. Both are former fishing communities – Torry’s focus was deep sea fishing while Fittie was home to local fishing families and has a history (and present) of residents serving in the RNLI. Fishing communities are tight knit – none more so than Fittie and Torry.

Art and music projects we’ve run across both communities speak of a shared awareness of the turning tides, the light and, of course, the weather that rolls in across the North Sea, as well as a pride in their history and strong community spirit. Both communities were also at the heart of Aberdeen’s shipbuilding industry and a number of local residents still work in, or for, the harbour. 

Fittie houses from the beach promenade, with sandy shore, red lifebuoy, and the modern Silver Fin Building in the background.
Fittie from the Promenade - Photograph by Chris Sansbury / POST

Can you share more details about the exhibitions and film showings planned in Fittie and Torry?

We’re super proud of our film programme. We’ve been screening independent cinema through our Harbour Film Nights for a couple of years now – both in the Fittie Community Hall on New Pier Road and Torry St Fittick’s church hall off Walker Road.

Our first Harbour Film screenings kick off our festival programme on Saturday 13 July. We’re showing Song of the Sea (cert PG) in the afternoon (doors 2.30pm, film starts 3pm) as a free family film. In the evening we’re hosting a fundraising screening for the RNLI and showing Launch! (cert U) (doors 6.30pm, film starts 7pm) a fantastic film celebrating Scotland’s lifeboats created from archive film and video of RNLI crews, with an immersive soundtrack from some of the UK’s best contemporary musicians. The film is created from rarely seen footage of Scotland’s lifeboat communities including a glimpse of Aberdeen. 

We’re then screening two films in Fittie. Girl’s Can’t Surf (cert 12) on Friday 19 July (doors 6.30pm, film starts 7pm) in partnership with the Wavy Wahines Aberdeen’s Women’s surf group. The film follows a group of renegade women surfers who challenge the male-dominated professional surfing world for the shared goal of equality and change. The screening will be followed by a discussion with the Wavy Wahines.

Our final film as part of the festival programme is It’ll Never Work on Friday 26 July (doors 6.30pm, film starts 7pm) a documentary about West Coast fisherman Hans Unkles who, with a band of fellow eco-aware fishermen, takes apart his old boat to refit it with cutting-edge electronic tech. The documentary follows Hans building, learning, making mistakes, chopping and welding a path to an easier way of fishing. With stories, opinions, support (and the occasional unhelpful comment) from old and young generations of fishermen, discover the pros and cons of an electric world pioneered by these men. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Hans Unkles. 

The main exhibition as part of the festival’s community programme is the Torry Heritage & Memories Exhibition (Greyhope Community Hub, Tullos Circle, Torry, AB11 8HD

Waves crashing on Aberdeen Beach with a solitary walker on the sandy shore under a clear sky.
Aberdeen Beach - Photograph by Chris Sansbury / POST

Friday 26 July 10:00am-3pm and Saturday 27 July 10:00am-1pm. Free drop in). The history and heritage of Torry is intertwined with Aberdeen Harbour. Torry Heritage Group 2019 and the Torry Heritage and Memories Society have joined forces to create an exhibition celebrating the community’s rich history. We’re also hoping to showcase some of the photographs from the George Washington Wilson collection held by the Museums and Special Collections department at the University of Aberdeen at this exhibition. 

What kind of hands-on activities can families look forward to during the festival?

We’ve programmed loads of free activities for families over the course of the festival. All ages can roll their selves up and get active with sessions including everything from rock pooling to art and music. Events include two family drop-in arts, crafts and activities sessions (Tuesday 16 July 10am-12noon, Tullos Community Centre, Girdlesness Road, Tullos, AB11 8FJ and Wednesday 17 July, 10:30-am - 12:30pm, Fittie Community Hall, New Pier Road, Fittie, AB11 5DR).

Community Music Practitioner Sarah Boyle is running two Family-friendly Art and Music Mornings (Thursday 25 July 10am – 12.30pm, Greyhope Community Hub, Tullos Circle, Torry, AB11 8HD and Friday 26 July 10am – 12.30pm, Fittie Community Hall, New Pier Road, Fittie, AB11 5DR). Sarah will be helping families turn a piece of blank paper into music and setting free their artistic flair. 

Families who want to get active on the beach can enjoy a Family Rock pooling Morning (Thursday 25 July, 10.30am – 12.30pm Fittie Community Hall, New Pier Road, Fittie, AB11 5DR) with Aberdeen Countryside Rangers Jack and Emma. Family Learning will also be on hand with a host of fun activities for children of all ages. Please wear appropriate shoes and clothes for exploring the beach and rocks. 

Scottish Storyteller Andy Cannon will be entertaining children and families with his special Festival of the Sea storytelling sessions where he’ll weave fantastical and magical tales of the sea for all ages (Saturday 27 July 10am, 11am and 12pm, Greyhope Community Hub, Tullos Circle, Torry, AB11 8HD).

All of these sessions are free and drop in. Children must be accompanied by a responsible adult.

Greyhope Bay Centre on the left, with Aberdeen Harbour visible in the background under a cloudy sky.
Greyhope Bay Centre - Photograph by Chris Sansbury / POST

Greyhope Bay also have a programme of Guided Coastal Discover sessions, Torry Battery Tours and Rockpool Survival sessions across the festival fortnight. We’d also like to give a big shout out to Aberdeen City Council’s Countryside Ranger and Family Learning teams and Deemouth Artist Studios for their support with our family programme.

How do you hope the festival will impact the local community and its relationship with the sea?

Both Torry and Fittie already have a strong connection with the sea and Aberdeen Harbour. We hope the wider impact of the community programme of the Festival of the Sea is that this relationship is celebrated and championed within their own communities.

Festivals usually happen in city centres. A significant part of the work of Open Road is getting culture out into local communities and we’re delighted to have the opportunity to do this and give Fittie and Torry a voice and platform within the wider festival programme. 

How do you envision the Festival of the Sea evolving in the lead-up to and years following the Tall Ships Race in 2025?

The wider festival is up to Aberdeen City Council and Open Road is delighted to be part of the Aberdeen Tall Ships 2025 working party. What form the festival will take next year is yet to be decided.

However, our Safe Harbour Open Sea programme continues year-round and we’ve exciting plans on how to develop this post-festival and continue to grow the activity we deliver with Aberdeen’s harbour side communities as well as its community of artists and creative practitioners. 

Thank you so much to Lesley Anne Rose for sharing her insights and time. We can’t wait to see the community come together to celebrate Aberdeen’s maritime heritage.

Aberdeen Festival of the Sea runs from 15th to 28th July. For the full Festival of the Sea community programme, visit the Open Road website.

We look forward to seeing you there!