Scotland's fourth largest city sits on two prominent hills, Balgay and the Law, overlooking the River Tay. Few cities in Britain can match Dundee's impressive setting, seen at its breathtaking best from Fife, across the Tay.
But, despite the common consensus that the views of the city are indeed spectacular, certain guide books have suggested that visitors keep their distance. Which just goes to show how out of touch they are, for Dundee has transformed itself into a vibrant, thriving city and an increasingly popular destination for tourists.
In the nineteenth century, Dundee was Britain's main processor of jute even earning it the name 'Juteopolis'. Today, 'regeneration' is the buzzword here.Prior to its Victorian heyday, Dundee was a town of considerable importance and remains so even today.
The name Dundee is derived from the Gaelic words 'dun' meaning hill or fort and 'daig', who was thought to be an early local chieftain. Dundee has been settled since prehistoric times, and Pictish earthworks and chambers can still be seen at Tealing, Ardestie and Carlungie, just beyond the city's boundaries. The city was an important trading port as long ago as the 12th century, and it was here that Robert the Bruce was proclaimed King of Scots in 1309.
Its importance, however, made it a prime target for a succession of English invaders. It was captured by Edward I, besieged by Henry VIII, destroyed by Royalists and Cromwell's army during the Civil War, and then again by Viscount Dundee prior to the Battle of Killiecrankie.
The young William Wallace, the fiery Scottish patriot, was educated in Dundee, and during its occupation by Edward's forces Wallace stabbed the son of an English overlord for daring to insult him, and had to flee south. A plaque on the High Street marks the spot where the incident took place.
Dundee is famous within Scotland as the city of the three J's; Jute, Jam and Journalism. These three industries were part of the city's commercial success, and the jute mills in particular, from the early 19th century, were the foundation of the city's wealth. Along with Edinburgh, Dundee became a centre for investment trusts which sunk cash into ventures all over the world, particularly the USA. In 1873 Dundee jute man Robert Fleming set up the Scottish Investment Trust to channel money into US cattle ranches, mining companies and railways.
The biggest cattle ranch in the USA was run from Dundee until 1951 and the Texas oil industry was largely financed by Dundee jute wealth. The jam-making came about almost by accident, when a ship carrying a cargo of oranges was forced to put into Dundee harbour during a storm. A local grocer bought the oranges, which his wife then made into marmalade, and an industry was born.
Journalism is the only 'J' still in operation in the city. DC Thomson are now the city's largest employers outside the health and leisure industries, and continue to produce many newspapers and magazines. Perhaps their most famous creations are the children's comics The Dandy and The Beano, begun in 1937 and 1938 respectively. The Dandy sadly no longer printed (though there is an internet version) but the Beano is still going strong. Generations of British children have been brought up on the antics of Dennis the Menace, Desperate Dan, The Bash Street Kids et al, and the popularity of these cartoon characters is reflected in the choice of the comic-inspired lettering for Dundee's promotional logo.
While the three 'J's' were undoubtedly important to Dundee, other industries also played a substantial role in the city's history. Dundee was a major centre for shipbuilding and ships were built for both the whaling industry and for the import and export of jute and other cargoes. Dundee has a proud maritime heritage and for many years was the capital of the British whaling industry. In these more enlightened times we may shudder at the decimation of the whale stocks that led to the demise of the industry, but whale oil was a very valuable commodity, and the men who sailed the freezing Arctic seas to catch whales suffered terrible privations and hardships.
On one famous occasion the whalers did not have to travel very far in search of their quarry. In December 1883 a humpback whale swam into the Tay estuary and foundered on the sandbanks. Large crowds gathered to watch the doomed animal's attempts to return to the sea, and it was harpooned on 7 December before finally being landed, completely exhausted, on 8 January the following year. It was put on public display before being sold, and the skeleton of the 'Tay whale' now resides in the city's McManus Galleries.
Local Sights & Activities for Dundee
One of Dundee's big attractions is Captain Scott's ship, the Discovery, and such is the civic pride engendered by its return home that Dundee has become widely known through its slogan - City of Discovery. There are other, less publicized, attractions, such as the Law Hill, which commands fantastic views over the city and the Tay estuary, and the attractive seaside suburb of Broughty Ferry.
Dundee also has a thriving arts scene and plenty of good shops, bars and restaurants. But the city's best kept secret is its people. The accent may at first be somewhat impenetrable, but Dundonians have an endearing earthy humour and are the friendliest bunch of people you'll find anywhere on the east coast of Scotland.
The obvious place to begin your tour of the city is Discovery Point, the impressive riverside location of Dundee's main attraction, the Royal Research Ship Discovery. This excellent facility, which attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year, is across the road from the train station, next to the Leisure Centre and Hilton Hotel. When Dundee was an important shipbuilding centre its speciality was wooden ships, and it was the Royal Geographical Society who commissioned the Discovery, which was launched on the Tay on 21 March 1901.
She was the first specially designed scientific research ship and spent two winters in the Antarctic, where her wooden hull was able to withstand the enormous pressures of the pack ice. Famous as Captain Scott's ship, the Discovery and Scott parted company after his expedition in 1904. Another Dundee-built vessel, the Terra Nova, carried Scott to the South Pole in 1911 - the fateful expedition from which he never returned.
After being purchased by the Maritime Trust, the Discovery was returned to Dundee in 1986 and moored at its present specially built quay with an excellent visitor centre at her side. The state-of-the-art centre presents an entertaining introduction, with audio-visual displays and an exhibition. On board the vessel you can see the cabins used by Scott and his crew, and hear some interesting anecdotes from the enthusiastic guides.
Daily Apr-Oct 1000-1700 (Sun 1100-1700), Nov-Mar till 1600. Tel. 201245.
A short distance west of Discovery, in Victoria Dock on the other side of the road bridge, is Dundee's other major floating attraction, the HM Frigate Unicorn. Built in 1824, this is the oldest British warship still afloat, probably because it never fired a shot in anger. It was used variously as a gunpowder store and a training vessel, until it was rescued from the scrapyard in 1968 by a preservation society. A tour of the ship gives some idea of the cramped conditions in which the 300 men had to live and work, and the unused cannons are still on display.
Mar-Oct daily 1000-1700; Nov-Feb Mon-Fri 1000-1600. Tel. 200900.
Around The Centre
The focal point of the city centre is City Square, which is surrounded by shops and cafés, the imposing Caird Hall, the city's main concert hall, and the City Chambers, scene of much shady dealing in the 1960s and 70s, which led to the demolition of the city's medieval core. The resulting shopping mall, the infamous Overgate, has itself been replaced by a brand new retail complex. In front is the Old Steeple, the highest surviving medieval tower in the country.
Apr-Sep Mon-Sat 1000-1700, Sun 1200-1600; Oct-Mar 1100-1600.
The pedestrianized Reform Street leads north from City Square to Albert Square, site of the McManus Galleries, housed in Gilbert Scott's impressive Victorian Gothic edifice. Inside are some very fine exhibits detailing the city's history from the Iron Age to the Tay Bridge Disaster. The latter event was chronicled by the inimitable William McGonagall, the 'World's Worst Poet', and here you can read his excruciatingly awful verse, along with an equally painful account of the famous 'Tay Whale', the skeleton of which is also on display. Upstairs is the superb Albert Hall, which contains various antique collections, and the Victoria Gallery, whose 19th- and 20th-century collections include some notable Scottish painters such as McTaggart.
Mon 1100-1700, Tue-Sat 1000-1700. Tel. 432020. Free.
Also in Albert Square are the huge red sandstone offices of local publishing giant, DC Thomson, who have entertained generations of British kids with their Beano and Dandy comics. A five-minute walk west, along Meadowside and Ward Road, across the dual carriageway and up Guthrie Street, is the excellent Verdant Works heritage centre, in West Henderson's Wynd. This former jute mill gives a rare insight into what life was like for mill workers, and details the history of the jute industry.
Behind the DCA, on Greenmarket, is Sensation, one of those hands-on, interactive kind of places, so loved by kids.
Open from 1000. Tel. 228800.
Law Hill and Balgay Hill
The most prominent feature of the city is the Law Hill, a 571ft-high ancient volcanic plug. The views from the summit, over the entire city and south to Fife across the River Tay and its two bridges, are fantastic. It's a steep climb to the foot of the Law from the city centre, up the Hilltown, so it's best to take a bus (Nos 3 or 4) from Albert Square. The 1 1/2-mile-long Tay Road Bridge was opened in 1966, while the Tay Rail Bridge is over two miles long and the longest railway bridge in Europe. It was built in 1878 but the following year the final section collapsed during a terrible storm. No one could alert the driver of the approaching train and it plunged into the cold, dark waters of the Tay, killing the crew and 75 passengers. A replacement section was built in 1887 and still stands today.
About a mile west of the Law, is Balgay Hill, site of the Mills Observatory, a free public facility which houses a planetarium as well as displays on astronomy and space exploration.
Apr-Sep Mon-Fri 1100-1700, Sat 1400-1700; Oct-Mar Mon-Fri 1600-2200, Sat 1400-1700. Free. Take bus Nos 2, 36 or 37 to Balgay Road, at the entrance to Balgay Park. Tel. 435846.
Four miles east of Dundee, is the attractive seaside resort of Broughty Ferry. 'The Ferry' was once a separate settlement, with fishermen's cottages lining the shore and the large villas of wealthy jute barons climbing the hills behind, but it has since been swallowed up by the city's eastern suburbs. There's a long sandy beach and several good pubs and places to eat. The 15th-century Broughty Castle stands on the seafront, guarding the mouth of the Tay, and now houses an interesting museum of local history which includes a detailed description of the whaling industry.
Apr-Sep Mon-Sat 1000-1600, Sun 1230-1600; Oct-Mar closed Mon. Free. Tel. 436916.
Dundee Hotels & Accommodation
Check out the best deals for hotels and guesthouses in and around Dundee with LateRooms here. You can book through the link for immediate booking confirmation.