Any visitor to Aberdeen, often referred to as the Granite City because of the stone it is constructed out of, can ask a resident for the location of “Kelly’s Cats” and they will most likely be pointed in the direction of the Union Bridge. An overpass located on Union Street allows safe passage over the Den Burn Valley and its operational railway line some 50 feet below.
Aberdeen’s Union Bridge is the largest single-span granite bridge in the world, at 130 feet (40 meters). When it was built in the early 19th century, the design included no cats at all. But at the beginning of the 20th century, the bridge was widened, and new decorative elements were added along the edges of the new footpath.
What might not be known to many is that the name given to this row of cast iron cats misidentifies their creator. City architect William Kelly commissioned a series of cast iron leopards that would stand along the balustrade of the bridge, and over time they became known as Kelly’s Cats. There are some who would say that the nickname is a misnomer—though Kelly commissioned the sculptures, it was the artist Sidney Boyes who is truly responsible for creating the look of the dozen leopards that are synonymous with the seal of the city, and for the frieze of toga-wearing gods and goddesses located at its center.
Since the 1400s, Aberdeen’s Coat of Arms has consisted of three towers surrounded by a pair of fleurs-de-lis, above this is the motto “Bon Accord,” French for “Good Agreement.” This saying refers to the secret password that the soldiers of Robert the Bruce used as they retook Aberdeen Castle back from the English. On either side of this banner are a pair of leopards. They are said to represent a gift that James I gave to the city as reimbursement for their financial aid when he was held captive by the English.
Kelly’s Cats continue to be a source of public pride as well as a civic nuisance. There are some that say the bodies of the big cats should be facing inwards rather than outwards. There are others that say they should be removed altogether. But as long as they stand these solemn sentries will continue to keep watch over the citizens of and the tourist to Granite City. Just remember to whisper “Bon Accord” as you pass by.