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.
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.
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”.
And 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.