The city at the heart of the “Friend”
YOU’D think that penguins would be accustomed to the cold, but just the same, it’s nice that someone has been considerate enough to provide the bronze penguins outside Dundee’s Overgate with cosy scarves.
It must be right enough what they say, that Dundee is Scotland’s friendliest city.
It’s appropriate, then, that it should be home to “The People’s Friend” magazine. And, whatever the temperature outside, January 13 will be a big day for celebration. It’s the magazine’s 150th birthday!
Imagine all the changes it’s seen along the way. When the “Friend” first hit the shops there were no televisions, computers or even telephones and washing machines. Cars and aeroplanes hadn’t been invented yet, either.
I’m glad I put my own scarf on today, for although the December sun’s shining, it’s none too warm. Not too cold, though, to dissuade shoppers from the high street and the Christmas Fair in City Square.
A few hardy youngsters are queuing for a ride on the merry-go-round, while a piper whose fingers must be frozen rattles out some tunes.
Dundee has stood here longer than the dustiest history books can remember. Some suggest the origin of its name comes from dei donum
– the gift of God.
Others believe that it could stem from Dun-tay since an ancient fort or dun once occupied the summit of the 572-feet-high Law above the Tay Estuary. We’ll never know for sure.
What’s more, through the past millennium its spelling changed more than 30 times from Dunde, Don, Dund, Dude to Dwndie. Oddly, it’s an early spelling, from the late 1200s, that we seem to have gone back to – for now at least.
It’s over 40 years since my college days in Dundee. My digs were handy, being a fairly easy walk up to the Dundee Law or down the steep brae of Constitution Road to the college in Bell Street. I know which direction I preferred!
Like any old town or city, it is constantly changing and evolving, with the old being sacrificed to make way for the new. This wasn’t always through choice. Devastating fires and destructive attacks by our auld enemy took their toll.
But the city of the Three Js – Jam, Jute and Journalism – bounced back stronger.
By the 16th century, Dundee was second only to Edinburgh in terms of trade. It was well placed to trade with the world, having one of the safest natural harbours on Scotland’s eastern seaboard.
To those who look beyond the alluring shop windows and walk through some of its streets and wynds, Dundee reveals a rich architectural heritage, well steeped in colourful stories from days gone by.
Last year was an exciting one for the city with the opening of the new V&A down by the waterfront. Designed by distinguished
Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, this £80-million museum is one of Scotland’s most stunning works of modern architecture.
One of its aims is to reconnect the city with its historic waterfront and it achieves that goal, having as a neighbour the
Discovery – the famous Dundee-built ship that carried Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his crew to the icy waters of Antarctica just over a century ago.
Sadly, the grand Victoria Arch that stood between the Earl Grey Dock and King William IV Dock has gone.
The 80-feet wide imposing landmark commemorated the visit of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort in September 1844. The Royal Party would often pass on their way to Balmoral.
The arch was blown up in 1964 as it was in the way of the slip road to the new Tay Road Bridge.
You can still see what it looked like, though, as there’s a miniature model of it, along with Cox’s Stack and the Wishart Arch, at the entrance to the Overgate Shopping Centre.
If you’d like to see another well-known work by the architect who designed the Victoria Arch, just go and visit the Wallace Monument at Stirling.
From the shore it’s a short walk up Union Street to the busy Nethergate and high street. At the west end is the Steeple Tower of St Mary’s Kirk dating from 1460 – one of the city’s oldest surviving buildings.
Across the street rises the equally tall tower of the Playhouse. Dundee’s cinema was once the second largest in Europe.
At the eastern end of the high street is the old Clydesdale Bank building. It’s an impressive edifice with its carvings and statues, but by all accounts its predecessor, the classical Trades Hall, was just as impressive, reflecting the prosperity of the city’s trades.
It’s another of the things lost in Dundee’s evolution.
A while before the Trades Hall was built in 1776, the trades’ traditional meeting place was Greyfriars Gardens, still known as the Howff – howff being an old word for a meeting place.
In the mid 1500s, by Charter of Queen Mary, the Howff was to become the city’s new cemetery. We passed the old one earlier without ever realising it was there – beneath the City Square.
Dundee’s Incorporation of Trades, including shoemakers, dyers, glovers, bonnetmakers, weavers, butchers, bakers and hammermen, paid the Town Council £5/12- for the privilege of meeting in the Howff. The old stump of stone is still there where, in January 1581, an agreement was signed uniting the nine trades of the city.
Incidentally, as you post your Christmas cards, it’s here you’ll find the resting place of James Chalmers, the inventor of the adhesive postage stamp.
Connecting the high street with Albert Square is possibly Dundee’s most elegant street – Reform Street. It was named after the 1832 Reform Act.
The alternative “Mortgage Street” was suggested, no doubt a dig at the huge cost of its construction.
At either end of the street you’ll meet a couple of weel-kent D.C. Thomson cartoon characters – Desperate Dan and Oor Wullie with his bucket.
Dundonians certainly have a good sense of humour. Someone has given Wullie a cosy reindeer sweater.
He looks chuffed with himself, too, sitting on the dyke in front of the Mcmanus Gallery. He’s
definitely joining in the festive spirit and is no doubt hoping Santa brings him a new catapult or pea shooter.
Another cheeky character you could easily miss in the high street is a little chimp that’s climbed on top of an information board and, with a wee bit artistic licence, has rearranged the letters to “In Ma Fair Toon”.
Casting a long shadow over the Howff is the tall red sandstone Courier Building of D.C. Thomson – home to, among many other favourite publications, “The People’s Friend”. Immediately behind it is Dundee High School with its fine Doric-columned portico.
Dundee is well known for education. Not all of its pupils were like Oor Wullie – last in and first out.
Maybe the most famous name to be schooled in Dundee was William Wallace – the man who went on to become Guardian of Scotland.
He was well educated but seems to have missed out on the lesson of turning the other cheek. When Selbie, the son of the English governor of Dundee Castle, insulted him, Wallace brutally murdered him.
Fearing the consequences, he ran off to hide in the Carse of Gowrie. Little did he know what chain of events would flow from this and the effect it would have, not only on the rest of his life, but on the country, too.
Nothing remains of Dundee Castle, which stood at the site of the present St Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral. After Wallace’s victory at Stirling Bridge in 1297, his reputation went before him, and on returning to Dundee he gained a quick surrender of the English garrison that occupied the castle.
When Wallace headed south to England, however, they returned and retook the stronghold. They were soon despatched to the hereafter upon Wallace’s return, and to prevent the castle ever falling back into enemy hands, he ordered that it be demolished.
One of the city’s most ancient relics is the 16th century Wishart Arch in the Cowgate. The old mediaeval archway takes its name from the protestant martyr George Wishart.
It’s said that he once preached from its wallhead to both the townsfolk on one side and to plague victims expelled from the city on the other. Only a locked wooden gate kept them apart.
Climbing down from the arch, Wishart almost met his own end when one John Wighton, sent by Cardinal Beaton, attempted to draw a knife on him. Fortunately, Wishart spotted the suspicious-looking character and managed to stop him in his tracks.
Beaton may have failed on that occasion, but poor Wishart was to meet his grim end at the cardinal’s home of St Andrews Castle. I’m sure few tears would have been shed when rough justice then saw Beaton assassinated.
Whichever streets you walk along – through the high street, the Nethergate, the Cowgate, the Meadows and down by the Shore – you can’t go far in Dundee without hearing voices from the past.
But Dundee isn’t just proud of its past; it very much has an eye to the future, too.
Dundee University is one of the UK’S leading universities, its research making direct positive effects on the lives of people all around the world.
At Ninewells Hospital, one of the UK’S largest teaching hospitals, some of the world’s top research scientists are striving to make advances in specialist fields like Precision Medicine, Neuroscience, Pharmacology and Cancer.
Research into agricultural science, too, is helping to find innovative ways to tackle sustainability of the world’s finite resources and develop ways to improve crop yields for the world’s ever-growing population.
In Dundee, recreation is treated no less seriously. The city is right at the cutting edge of the games industry with some of the world’s best-known titles, like Grand Theft Auto and Lemmings, being born here.
In its 150 years “The People’s Friend” has certainly seen a lot of changes to our world and, over the next 150 years, Dundee is well set to show it a few more. ■
These cute penguins are ready for winter.
The RRS Discovery greets rail passengers.
The view from the top of the Law.
Bronze statue of Oor Wullie.
The V&A, its stunning shape jutting into the Tay.
Minnie The Minx and Desperate Dan in the city centre.
William Wallace stands tall.