Get off the train at Dundee, go outside and you’re surrounded by building sites. Dundee is re-inventing itself again. Once it was jute and shipbuilding, now creating computer games has made it the UK’s number one location for games software designers.
Walk from the station across the building work dictated walkways – you can’t call them pavements – and follow the well-signposted way into the city center and you’ll find more building there. Go the other way across the road from the station towards the masts of the “Discovery” and there’s more down there as well.
Look at a map of Dundee and it seems widespread; walk it and you realize it is closer than you think. It took me no longer than five minutes to walk from the station to the Overgate Shopping Centre, the biggest in the centre of Dundee and not much longer to get to the McManus Gallery and Museum.
But back to the Discovery. In this year when we have the anniversary celebrations of Capt. Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated attempt to be the first to get to the South Pole, the Discovery will be on the ‘must-see’ list of those interested in this story of heroism and, in the end, tragedy. The ship is moored in an area that is part museum part exhibition centre called Discovery Point. the entrance to which is ‘guarded’ by two rather coy looking stone penguins. And coming nearby will be HMS Unicorn which is currently to be found in the Victoria Dock. This ship is a little odd. Although built in 1824, it has no rigging for after the Napoleonic wars there was not such a need for the navy so she was roofed over and never used. It means that the roof has preserved her to an enviable degree. She might look like a hulk from a distance but on board she definitely isn’t.
Here for nearly 140 years, the proposed move explains some of the building work going on between the Discovery and the Tay Bridge. There has been a lot of regeneration here. Older buildings have been converted to houses; new blocks of flats have been constructed and City Quay – a collection of retail outlets, offices, and restaurants – has been established. Yet the old links remain and you can still say the railway lines in the cobbled pathways where the goods from the ships were taken away into the city. A marina is obviously the next thing here.
The other Tay Bridge, the railway one that brought me into the city still has some pylons next to it left over from the bridge that collapsed over 130 years ago killing so many and celebrated in the poem by that dreadful poet William McGonigall so beloved of Spike Milligan. If you must read the poem, click here.
Moving from the waterfront to the town and outside the Overton is Dundee Parish Church and a few more stone penguins adorning the small wall outside. The Overton is one of many shopping centres in the town but do go to the top floor of the Wellgate one and catch the clock, particularly when it’s about to chime. The moving parts will occupy the attention of kids for a minute or so.
Albert Square is where you’ll find the McManus Galleries but you might go the wrong building because the High School of Dundee has a museum type exterior and with the parking outside could easily be mistaken for one. But the McManus is opposite and the entrance is up a road leading from the square. Described as high Victorian Gothic, I first thought the building was a church. Inside it has been revamped and this 150 year old Dundee institution is a microcosm of the development of the city. You’ll find examples of Dundee silver – today highly prized by collectors – as well as memorabilia connected to The Beano. (D.C. Thomson, the publishers of The Beano have their office opposite the museum in the square. There is also a Desperate Dan outdoor sculpture off City Square.)
There is the story of jute upon which a lot of the wealth of Dundee was created and shipbuilding (Discovery was built here) and there are five Pictish standing stones with very clear patterns carved into them reflecting a much earlier time. Do look out for a rather strange pot. Called the Haar Head, this is a view of the city taken from across the river and then moulded into a rather peculiar pot. And decorated with lego and toy cars!
If the McManus shows some of the stories that made Dundee, the Verdant Works on the outskirts shows one industry, jute, in detail. One of the jute millionaires funded Shackleton’s Arctic trips, many donated widely as you can see from the exhibits in the McManus and others created striking buildings. Look at the S&D Properties building in Meadowside and the adjoining chamber of commerce building. Or the derelict old Tay Hotel building, the McManus and the school opposite it.
The Verdant shows the condition that people worked in, how the jute was refined and how it made millions for the city. And for the workers, there were some – to our modern eyes – rather appalling conditions. But Dundee contains other, slightly more unusual museums as well. The University of Dundee has broadened its appeal by making some of its collections available to a wider public. So at Ninewells Hospital, you can see the Tayside Medical History Museum and the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum. There are also exhibitions in the Tower Building in the university. But I haven’t even mentioned the Mills Observatory, Camperdown Park or many other attractions. So forget Dundee for a day. You need a weekend and a long one at that.
If you’re leaving by rail, walk back down Whitehall Street and pause at the window of Fisher and Donaldson. You’ll see free range haggis cakes, biscuits with Robert Burns on and Tim’rus Beastie cakes. Buy a few that can eat on the way back to remind you of your stay.