A glorious, late winter’s day provided the ideal excuse to venture over to the east coast for a mooch round Dundee: Britain’s ‘coolest little city’ (according to GQ magazine) and the UK’s first designated UNESCO City of Design.
Almost 40 years had elapsed since I last visited Dundee and, even then, in the midst of the devastating manufacturing decline of the early 1980s, it retained its vibrancy and creativity and was home to a thriving student community. Today, two of its famous Three Js – jam, jute – have virtually disappeared and, like all other publishers of print journalism, DC Thomson has reduced and restructured in the face of online media.
But, throughout its history, Dundee has been nothing if not innovative and, while once famous for Keiller’s marmalade and the Beano, it is now renowned as the creative centre of computer gaming.
The opening of the V & A Dundee, Scotland’s first museum of design, in September, is eagerly awaited, particularly as its first major exhibition – currently at the V&A in London – will showcase the speed and style of the great ocean liners that revolutionised travel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and whose design and construction are irrevocably associated with Scotland.
But there’s more to Dundee than Grand Theft Auto and the new V & A. Dundee’s origins date from pre-history and its location at the mouth of the Tay estuary ensured its importance as a trading centre over the centuries.
The re-furbished McManus Galleries charts the city’s development throughout the ages. It also houses two paintings by Thomas Musgrave Day illustrating Grace Darling’s rescue of passengers from the wreck of the Forfarshire (built in Dundee) in 1838. The bravery of Grace and her father, setting out in their rowing boat into high seas and a Force 10, was one of my favourite childhood stories.
As befits a powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution, Dundee contains many impressive buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries. It has also benefitted from the bequests of several famous entrepreneurs and industrialists; such as the Caird Hall, named after its benefactor, the jute baron James Caird. One of Scotland’s premier concert venues, it has hosted the Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, Sinatra, amongst many others.
Jute provided great wealth to a few in the city, but subjected many of Dundee’s population to dreadful and dangerous working conditions. These are vividly recreated at the excellent Verdant Museum, housed in an old jute works: another must-visit.
So, a nice little taster for a further visit later in the year. And, despite the bitterly cold east wind, no trip to Dundee is complete without a glimpse of the the Tay Rail Bridge The replacement for its ill-fated predecessor, the bridge is now 131 years old and still links Fife with Angus and Scotland’s north east.
But, despite the city’s many and varied cultural attractions, the piece de resistance of my day out in Dundee was the discovery of The Bach, a gem of a cafe/restaurant near the McManus Galleries. Not content with providing an imaginative and reasonably priced menu and serving up first class, locally roasted coffee from Sacred Grounds of Arbroath, it is also a proper dog cafe, welcoming each canine customer with a fleecy bed, bowl of water and small treat. Wonderful!