There was the time in Aberdeen when Fred Bull ate his first yak burger. And the time, in a town called Aberdeen, when he stayed with a family of ostrich breeders. And, of course, the time he got tipsy in a pub to the screak of bagpipes in, you guessed it, Aberdeen.
Those adventures—in Washington State, South Africa and Australia, respectively—are just a few highlights from Fred Bull’s odd but noble quest: to visit every community in the world named Aberdeen. Born in the original Aberdeen, in northern Scotland, Bull, 64, a retired arts teacher, has in the last couple of months traveled 52,000 miles to 11 Aberdeens on four continents and plans to knock off the remaining 23 on his list in the next several weeks. “It was an interest that became a passion,” says Bull. “And then it became a mission.”
It all started when Bull began feeling restless after taking early retirement from a teaching post in Ayr, Scotland, in 1991. Around that time he and his wife, Margaret, 62, moved back to his native Aberdeen. Casting about for a book project, Bull came up with the idea of researching other Aberdeens, which he learned were most likely named by Scottish settlers. After his mother and only brother, Tom, died three months apart in 1996, he decided to visit each and every Aberdeen. “This,” he explains, “was a way to pay homage to my family.”
In time Bull’s itinerary expanded from the eight Aberdeens local officials knew about to the 34 he eventually uncovered, 18 of which are in the United States. With some $75,000 in financing from private sources and the Aberdeen City Council, Bull set off this February for his first stop in South Africa. “And then Fred’s baggage got lost 12 hours into the trip,” says Alan “White, 53, the Aberdonian filmmaker who documented Bull’s 6-week, 11-Aberdeen odyssey and who continues to film the trek. Despite that early setback, Bull’s energy and enthusiasm have never waned. “He’s certainly passionate about his Aberdeens,” says White. “He’d be the first to use the term ‘obsessed.’ ”
It also helped that Bull is “very much a people person,” says Peter Korngiebel, 59, a printer in California whom Bull had befriended while researching the Aberdeens. “He’s a free spirit, and he has this incredible curiosity.” In Jamaica, Bull interviewed children who were descended from Scottish slaves “and had blue eyes and ginger hair and names like McIntosh and Forbes,” he recalls. In the Andaman Islands, in the Bay of Bengal, he encountered water buffalo roaming the streets. “That’s when I realized that I wasn’t just far from home,” he says, “but I was far from any European culture.” The most breathtaking Aberdeen? A tiny settlement of about 100 residents in California’s rugged eastern Sierra mountains. “Tumbleweed, sagebrush, coyotes running around,” says Bull. The most surprising? Aberdeen, N.J., which is, next to the one in Scotland, the world’s oldest. “It was beautiful, set in rolling fields,” says Bull. “We thought it was going to be like The Sopranos.”
At every stop Bull was only too happy to help curious locals and town officials explore their Scottish roots. “If you ask him what time it is, he’ll tell you how to make a watch,” says his son Lindsay, 32, a teacher in crafts and technology (Bull’s other son, Stuart, 38, is an education psychologist). “He loves traveling because he’s going to have a host of new stories to tell. And we’ve heard all the old ones.” Bull returned to Scotland for a break before embarking on June 5 upon the second leg, which will likely not include the Aberdeen in civil war-torn Sierra Leone but will certainly feature a stop in Aberdeen, S.Dak.—the town that inspired L. Frank Baum to write The Wizard of Oz.
The one drawback to trotting the globe? “It’s a long time to be away from your best friend,” says Bull, referring to his wife of 39 years, who helps organize his travels but chooses not to tag along. For her part, Margaret is happy her husband has found an invigorating pastime—and that she has an easy way to fend off nosy neighbors. “When people ask, ‘Where’s Fred?’ ” she says, “I just say, ‘Aberdeen.’ ”
Nina Biddle in Aberdeen