Travel: Dundee, Scotland

Overlooking Dundee and the river Tay. Picture: Contributed

Overlooking Dundee and the river Tay. Picture: Contributed

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FROM historic buildings and fine museums to Scott’s ship RRS Discovery, Dundee enchants award-winning children’s writer Fiona Macdonald

Valentine’s Day was approaching. So what about Dundee for a romantic, nostalgic getaway? Our friends thought we were mad. “In February? What about the weather? And isn’t the place all old factories and grim Sixties tower-blocks?” Well, considering Dundee’s location – north of Moscow and nearer to Norway than to London – the winter weather is not as cold as you might think. Often, it’s crisp and clear: Dundee is Scotland’s sunniest city, in the nation’s least rainy region. Its sheltered, south-facing setting beside the glittering river Tay has been described, by Stephen Fry no less, as “ludicrously ideal”. We don’t think he was joking.

Anyway, romance happens where you find it, and, as for nostalgia, my husband and I had both been to Dundee before. We knew it would be full of interest, whatever the weather. Only recently, I’d finished writing a little book about the city. As I’d researched and drafted the text, I’d lived with the city’s fascinating past and fast-changing present. Now, just a few months later, I rather missed Dundee; I wanted to go there again. And, if yet another reason were needed, I also hoped to find the little stone-built Dundee house where my granny was born. The trip was on.

Our friends need not have worried. Dundee is one of Scotland’s best-kept secrets.

The tower blocks are going, fast. About 40 down, and counting – famously, the two tallest only just missed flattening a church when they were blown up in 2013.

The jute and flax mills have been demolished, too, or turned into flats and a shopping mall. But one old mill, Verdant Works in West Henderson’s Wynd, towards the western edge of the city, has been rescued by Dundee Heritage Trust and beautifully restored. Step inside, and you’re transported right back to Dundee’s manufacturing past, when machines were so noisy that workers – mostly women and children – had to communicate in sign language, and the air stank of whale-oil or was full of ‘stour’: floating jute fibres that irritated the lungs and made Dundee folk martyrs to bronchitis.

Yet, noisy, dirty and dangerous as they were, those mills (and mill workers) made Dundee rich. And they’ve left quite a legacy. By the late 19th century Dundee had more millionaires per head of the population than any other British city, and conspicuous, competitive building by jute-and-flax barons seems to have been the order of the day. Parks with fancy bandstands, concert halls, museums, libraries where workers could improve their knowledge, churches, two cathedrals, a fine hospital, a university, schools.... Dundee had them all, and many survive, although the massive triumphal arch which marked the dockside spot where Queen Victoria first set foot in the city in 1844 has sadly disappeared. So, we discovered, had granny’s Dundee birthplace. Most unromantically, the site is now the entrance to a supermarket car park. But one of Dundee’s biggest green spaces, Baxter Park, was close by. We tried to imagine granny strolling there on a summer Sunday afternoon, after her week’s work in the flax factory.

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Back in the city centre, we began sightseeing at City Square. Caird Hall, which takes up all of one side, looks like a giant floodlit Greek temple that’s accidentally landed in Scotland. And it’s magnificent. Everyone from Dame Nellie Melba to Billy Connolly has performed there, including Sinatra and the Beatles. Just a short walk away, Albert Square is handsome and newly paved; a good place to stroll around away from the traffic. Dundee city planners deserve praise for their efforts to repair havoc caused by roads smashed through the city half a century ago, but, it must be said, citywide traffic calming is still a work in progress. In the middle of Albert Square, the restored McManus Galleries, first opened in 1867, are a fine example of Gothic revival style, all pinnacles and twiddles. Entrance is free, and the galleries tell the up-and-down story of the city’s fortunes from prehistoric times onwards, and show off a rich collection of civic treasures. The famous Tay Whale, immortalised in appalling verse by Dundee’s own William McGonagall, is rather tragic and very impressive. We also liked the vast, curious and colourful lightwork made of plastic bottles (Waldella, by David Batchelor) that hangs in the Galleries’ high stairwell.

For shoppers, Dundee city centre streets between the two squares are lined with individual shops and boutiques. Foodies seem especially well catered for. In Castle Street, Braithwaite’s tea and coffee merchants provides a trip down memory lane.

The polished wooden counters and rows of intriguingly-labelled canisters have hardly changed since 1932, when the Braithwaite family moved here from an earlier shop, opened in 1868. Just a short walk away, in Whitehall Street, bakers Fisher and Donaldson are another Dundee institution. As well as Dundee cake – of course – and on-trend cupcakes, I was charmed to see that they still make the little bright green cakes shaped like frogs that fascinated me as a child when I came to Dundee on shopping trips with my granny.

For lunch or tea after sightseeing, we liked the look of T Ann Cake in Exchange Street. As well as sweet treats in gently ironic Scottish style (Mars Bar brownies, anyone?), menus include Bloody Mary BLT (the type of tomato, not the cocktail), Sloppy Jane sandwiches (you are warned that they are messy) and herby Persian bean and spinach stew. For something heavier on the digestion, history supplies a handy excuse. Britain’s first take-away chips were sold in Dundee, and today, the Silvery Tay, just over the Road Bridge in Newport, has an excellent reputation for fish suppers. Or there’s always the traditional Dundee ‘pint and a peh’ (meat pie) in a pub.

The 160-year-old Phoenix, in Nethergate, is regularly voted the best pub in Dundee, though it’s a place for drinking rather than dining. (In case you need to know, the stuffed bull’s head on the wall is called Lavandero, and the landlord brought it back from Spain.) Among newer bars, the Jute at Dundee Contemporary Arts, also in Nethergate, and the Malmaison Hotel, in Whitehall Crescent, are reckoned to be stylish and fashionable.

One trip was not enough. Even though we’d been there before, Dundee had far too much to see in just another short visit. Next time, we want to explore the Science Centre, follow the Women’s History Trail, climb to the top of Dundee Law, see red squirrels in the parks, and board the beautiful old sailing ship, HMS Unicorn. We even want to see District 10 – a new development in Seabraes on the Waterfront, where buildings for Dundee’s booming creative industries are being built from re-used shipping containers. But I’ve left until last, if not the best (how can one compare?), then certainly the most moving of Dundee’s many attractions.

What could possibly be more romantic, nostalgic – and tragic – than Captain Scott’s Antarctic exploration ship, RRS Discovery? The vessel itself, together with displays detailing the men’s life on board and explaining the scientific purpose of Scott’s expedition – which was, of course, only accidentally heroic – is now back home, right where it was built, in the very heart of Dundee.

Dundee, A Very Peculiar History by Fiona Macdonald is published by Book House, £7.99 on Wednesday

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