Thoughts on Dundee

Across the Tay

Poor old Dundee. It’s an easy (and fun) place to criticise.

Invariably much of my prejudice stems from my days as a student at the University of Aberdeen, where we could revel in a city that it was our duty to regard as more beautiful, a university that was more historic, and a students’ union that was much, much better (though, granted, shorter-lived). Partly, too, the reason lay in the long-running and widespread rivalry between the two cities of north-east Scotland, for instance in football.

But mainly it was due to Dundee just being a bit shit.

A city with a long industrial heritage, it suffered the same fate as other cities reliant on heavy industry over the course of the twentieth century, but with little to replace it.  It also suffered like most places in the 1960s as swathes of its oldest parts were brushed aside in favour of towers of concrete.

On a recent trip to Dundee I had some time to kill and popped into the local Waterstone’s bookshop where I stumbled across a book called Lost Dundee.  The introduction, which I flicked through, said that Dundee had suffered more than other Scottish cities from architectural vandalism.  It certainly shows.

Dundee, in black and white

The city once famous for jute, jam and journalism became something of a laughing stock, vastly overshadowed in terms of culture and economy by Scotland’s other big cities.  Its ugly skyline, soulless city centre and perceived lack of character or culture all failed to add up to a city of much repute, and contributed to its nickname “Scumdee”.

One of Dundee’s few famous draws has been as the home of the Discovery, the ship which took Scott and Shackleton to the Antarctic and whose place of both birth and final resting is the city’s docks.  “The City of Discovery”, Dundee was breezily branded; leading to the cruel but inevitable jibe that what you discovered upon arrival was that you want to leave again straight away.

Talking of which, the fact that Dundee’s railway station is across a couple of busy roads and sits comparatively far from the city centre gives you the impression that it’s a city where nobody really cares about your arrival, nor is bothered that it’s hard to leave (and not in the good way).

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday of last week in Dundee for work, one of a number of recent trips I’ve been taking there.  While working next to a window ten storeys up a concrete monstrosity, I overheard two people next to me contemplating the view.  “It’s a shame that Dundee’s finest building, the Caird Hall, still looks like a railway depot,” commented one to the other’s reluctant agreement.

And yet, it doesn’t have to be like that.  Dundee actually has a lot going for it, or at least should do.  While being just an hour or so from Aberdeen or Edinburgh means it is somewhat in their shadows, the proximity should also present opportunities in terms of transport and communications, not least because it is also well-connected to other major centres like Perth or the big towns of Fife.  Topographically, Dundee is in an attractive setting – approach the city over the Tay Bridge and you could almost be looking at Brighton, stretched along a long seafront and nestled on the side of a steep incline, the Law, from which you get fine views.

There are traces of a finer city in the few Victorian buildings left such as the cathedral, or the tramlines that haunt the pedestrianised precinct with echoes of people and journeys past.  And the Caird Hall, while perhaps indeed resembling a railway depot from ten storeys above, actually fronts a pleasant civic space alongside two other finely-facaded structures in a way that is almost reminiscent of Flemish or other northern European town squares.

Albeit, sadly, that the hideous Tayside House insensitively boneheads the scene, ruining the square like the unwanted drunk in your happy group photo.

Yet what befell Dundee in terms of local mismanagement and national neglect befell many other places, not least Inverness which similarly has failed to exploit its waterfront, has lost some of its loveliest and most historic buildings, and sometimes seems to lack a sense of “core”.

Desperate DanAnd over the years that I’ve been visiting Dundee in my current job, there have been some noticeable improvements compared to my occasional trips down the road in my student days.  There has been constant regeneration, particularly around the waterfront, a general tidying up of the city centre, and new modern artwork to baffle shoppers and office workers.  As I walked in the sunshine through the centre from my hotel to work on Wednesday morning last week, I couldn’t help reflecting that Dundee felt a bright, gentle sort of place – admittedly as many places do when the sun shines.

Furthermore, the city boasts a handful of intriguing and inviting independent shops that look like they’ve not changed since the 1960s or even much earlier, the quayside has been smartened up with retail opportunities, office space and no doubt plenty yuppie flats, there are many good-looking modern buildings in the city centre, which itself is compact, bustling and easy to navigate, and in a crowning endorsement of Dundee’s aspirations, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is building a site in the city.

Much remains to be done of course, and the city continue to suffer a disconnection between its waterfront and the city centre, the railway station is a bland shed, and the skyline remains blighted by some brutal eyesores.

But it’s certainly not alone among Scottish cities in being flawed despite its character. There’s hope for Dundee as it attempts to repair the damage of the past, so it has to be admired for dignifiedly trying to shift the mud flung at its name.

Therefore it’s a city I suppose I no longer hate.  Would I go so far as to say that my trips to Dundee have made me a convert?  No.  But perhaps instead it’s a place I simply feel sorry for.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Dundee

  1. I had quite an enjoyable evening last night sitting in my ‘poor old Dundee’ home…that was until I read your unfortunate post. I had watched the STV Football Years programme about the 1982/83 season when Dundee United and Aberdeen were teams that could match anyone in the world. My memories of that time were so rekindled and the sheer pride I had for my team and the relatively small provincial town from where it emerged was really quite a tonic…

    I then stumbled upon your tweet about this post and decided to read…

    My initial reaction led me to a feeling of real insult and anger at the throwaway, flippant and frankly tired and appallingly prejudicial references you made about Dundee. My response was a tweet that said, “What an incredibly patronising post. You want to take a look at yourself.” Your response was to suggest that I was ‘rude’ and that a comment on this article would enable me to explain my rudeness!!!

    I have since re-read your post a few times and although there is some attempt to describe the aspirational change and (continued) positivity of a city that has reinvented itself and how it has faced adversity (many times) there is an undoubted condescending and patronising tone that I bet any Dundonian reading would react to in a similar way. Here are your highlights:

    ‘Poor old Dundee. It’s an easy (and fun) place to criticise.’ What a start. Had my back up right away.

    “I overheard two people next to me contemplating the view. “It’s a shame that Dundee’s finest building, the Caird Hall, still looks like a railway depot,” commented one to the other’s reluctant agreement.” Priceless, now that’s a new one. Considering Lesley Garrett talks of the Caird Hall as one of the finest acoustic venues in the UK (never mind that)

    ‘The city once famous for jute, jam and journalism became something of a laughing stock.. Its ugly skyline, soulless city centre and perceived lack of character or culture all failed to add up to a city of much repute, and contributed to its nickname “Scumdee”

    I have visited your blog before and could not believe that you would use that term, one that I honestly associate with football hoodlums and and complete ignoramuses. Do you not feel a bit dirty and embarrassed to be using such a thick-headed and insulting term to describe a place where people live? How dare you suggest that I, my family and friends and the families in Dundee as being ‘Scum’. What the f*** are you thinking of? I only ever hear this term used by complete dopes. Honestly!!!

    Actually, I share some of your criticisms, as do many Dundonians, about the mismanagement of our city. The biggest shame in my opinion was allowing the building of the Tay Road Bridge and how this destroyed Dundee’s place on the waterfront and created the mess and disconnection that you correctly describe. All for what? Quicker access for a day trip to St Andrews or to allow people to commute to more ‘affluent’ suburban/rural areas? You should check out Lesley Riddoch’s piece called The Great Tay Road Bridge Mystery because I am sure that (as is evident in some of your writing) that underneath the prejudice there is a thoughtful and intelligent person who would no doubt find the material therein of great interest. (oops, a bit patronising from me this time.)

    The fact that Dundee boasts the wonderful McManus Gallery and the DCA and is about to have the V&A built at the newly created waterfront (that will see the drunk in the photo demolished very soon) are things that underpin the regeneration of my city. I look forward with optimism for the continued evolution/next chapter of the place where I live.

    However, you cap it all off by offering your pity for us poor Dundonians by saying that, ” It’s a city I suppose I no longer hate. Would I go so far as to say that my trips to Dundee have made me a convert? No. But perhaps instead its a place I simply feel sorry for.” In fact, the pity is the other way in relation to the unfortunate position you occupy, one that would allow you to post such a superior, insulting and embarrassing post.

    I hope I have gone some way in explaining my ‘rudeness’ however, I still stand by my initial response, you want to take a look at yourself.

  2. Derek, thanks for posting and expanding on your thoughts. It’s always easier to engage in discussion without the 140 character constraint of Twitter.

    Despite Barry’s admittedly witty follow-up, I’ll attempt to address your points and defend what I wrote in some detail. To do so, I’d like to divide up what you said into two general points – firstly your reaction to my subjective comments, and secondly your addressing of the facts in hand.

    To take that second point first, the issue of the state of Dundee, I’d like to point out that you concede Dundee is not without its problems, and indeed you agree with me on many points by writing “I share some of your criticisms, as do many Dundonians, about the mismanagement of our city. The biggest shame in my opinion was allowing the building of the Tay Road Bridge and how this destroyed Dundee’s place on the waterfront and created the mess and disconnection that you correctly describe.” (and thanks incidentally for the pointer to the Lesley Riddoch article – I’ll investigate.)

    Further, you note that I have recognised the attempts by Dundee to improve itself: you write that my post contains “some attempt to describe the aspirational change and (continued) positivity of a city that has reinvented itself and how it has faced adversity (many times)”.

    So on the two main points of substance in my post, firstly that Dundee has its problems and secondly it is being improved and actually is not without its charms, we agree with each other perhaps more than your initial reaction suggests. After all, my final point – and the whole intention of the article – is to suggest that Dundee might be growing on me after all; a conclusion I’d hope any Dundonian would welcome.

    All I am doing in presenting the facts of the post is stating what I’ve seen or heard in my visits. You criticise me for repeating what is apparently a cliched criticism of the Caird Hall looking like a railway depot – but I was after all only stating what I’d overheard, before saying that actually I thought the Caird Hall was in an actually attractive setting (despite being boneheaded by Tayside House – which I’m delighted to hear from you is soon to be demolished).

    My second general point is about your reaction to some of my more subjective comments. But these can be explained, on the whole, as a bit of colourful language to make what could seem a dry article a bit more interesting. You criticise my opening line, ‘Poor old Dundee. It’s an easy (and fun) place to criticise’, yet it really is an easy place to criticise – whether you agree with the criticisms or not, you must agree that such criticism is widespread. Above all it was intended as a short, punchy opening line to catch the attention of potential readers to make them read further – and I’m glad that in your case, Derek, it worked.

    Next, my use of the phrase “Scumdee” was me simply repeating a nickname given to the place – I was neither endorsing the phrase nor pronouncing that this is what I call it, nor describing Dundonians as “scum”; merely stating that people use it, as an illustration of the bad press the city receives. Repeating a statement does not, in context, necessarily mean agreement with that statement’s sentiment.

    Beyond that, if my opinions or views on the city are unpallatable to you, then there’s not a lot I can do. I am after all only stating my opinions, and I am entitled to hold them and express them in my blog – just as you are entitled (and very welcome) to make a comment in disagreement.

    To conclude my response before I witter on too long, despite feeling sorry for Dundee after a long history of it being neglected, ill-planned and mismanaged by those in power, I genuinely do wish it well. You wrote in your comment “I look forward with optimism for the continued evolution/next chapter of the place where I live”, you write. Well I hope it’s clear in my article that I look forward to seeing further improvements in Dundee too,

    Finally, Derek, you said you’ve read my blog before. Thanks for doing so, and I hope you visit again. Thanks again for taking the time to comment and giving me something more constructive to respond to.

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