A quick (online) poll of the RGU HR team revealed that, despite being well populated with native Aberdonians, not many of us had heard of Kelly’s Cats. However, when we explained what they are/were – “you know, those cast-iron cats on Union Bridge,” there were cries of “Oh, those, yes …”
According to legend, the leopards that adorn the city coat of arms were a gift to Aberdeen from King James I. The king had been held captive in England and the city of Aberdeen underwrote the expenses incurred during his imprisonment.
The Cats on Union Bridge were supposedly the creation of William Kelly, an architect and antiquarian who was a Fellow of the Aberdeen Society of Architects. There is some debate about whether Kelly really was their creator, with many authorities saying they were actually designed by Sidney Boyes, who taught at Grays School of Art, Aberdeen (now part of RGU), but what we do know is that they were placed along the balustrade on both sides of the bridge when it was widened to allow for pavements in 1908.
In the mid-twentieth century, shopping developments meant that the south side of the bridge, with its Cats, was hidden. Some of them were relocated to Duthie Park Winter Gardens though, where you can still see them.
There are 16 cats on the north side of the bridge. You might think that they are all the same, but in fact, only six are cast iron and the other 10 are cast in concrete and painted black.
In the summer of 2005, a hundred replicas of the Cats were given to artists to decorate. These were then put on display around the city, before being auctioned off for the Catwalk charity project. This project was replicated in 2016, with the Cats being auctioned off for charity once again.
As well as Duthie Park and Union Bridge, you can also find Kelly’s Cat cufflinks, appropriately enough at Jamieson and Carry, the jewellers at the end of Union Bridge. Mind you, they are solid gold, so they are probably more valuable than the ones on the bridge!
When we are all allowed to get out and about again, make a point of looking out for Kelly’s Cats the next time you cross Union Bridge. They are a famous part of our local heritage.
Julie Skinner, Resourcing and Benefits Specialist, RGU