Five of the best buildings to explore in Dundee beyond the V&A

The new V&A museum on the waterfront is not the only piece of architecture worth seeking out if you are visiting the city. Brian King offers five gems ancient and modern

Dudhope Castle, an extended late medieval tower house located on the southern face of Dundee Law
Dudhope Castle, an extended late medieval tower house located on the southern face of Dundee Law

The V&A is expected to bring thousands of extra visitors to Dundee when it opens in September – but what other buildings should they look out for in the city?

1. The Old Steeple

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Dundee’s oldest surviving building is the Tower of St Mary, commonly known as the Old Steeple. It was completed around 1480 and has withstood the upheavals of the Reformation, several invasions of the city and the repeated destruction of the church buildings to which it is connected. So badly damaged was the church nave in the attack on Dundee by James Graham, Marquis of Montrose in 1645, that for more than a century, the Steeple stood alone as a separate structure.

The Old Steeple is Scotland's oldest surviving medieval church tower

When General Monck’s army invaded Dundee in 1651, the town’s governor, Sir Robert Lumsden and a few brave supporters held out in the Old Steeple for three days until Monck’s men lit fires at the foot of the building and forced them out. All were beheaded – Lumsden’s head was stuck on a spike half-way up the tower, where it remained for the next nine years until it rotted away.

For many years it was possible to climb the 232 steps of the Steeple and enjoy the magnificent views from the parapet for the payment of a small entrance fee. Admission is not quite so routine these days, but there are usually guided tours on selected days in the summer and these have the advantage of also allowing access to other parts of the building – namely the Antiquities Room (which was once a prison), the Bell-Ringers’ Room, the Belfry, the Clock Room and finally the Cape House on top of the tower.

2. Gardyne’s Land

So much of Dundee’s architectural heritage has been lost over the years that it is truly remarkable to find Gardyne’s Land, a late medieval merchant’s house, surviving in the very heart of the city. The L-shaped house is the oldest domestic dwelling in Dundee and dates from around 1560 and the time of one John Gardyne.

Gardynes Land, a complex of five buildings, representing the earliest surviving domestic buildings in Dundee.

It sits, hidden from view, at the rear of a complex of historic buildings fronting the High Street. It is perhaps only because the building’s great age was not readily visible that it managed to survive the effects of the Improvement Act of 1871 and the demolitions that irrevocably changed the face of Dundee city centre in the 1960s and 1970s.

The other buildings in the group are two tenements dating from the early 17th and late 18th centuries, as well as a billiard room and a shop from the 19th century. In 1995, excavations at the site produced evidence of habitation – including a well – pre-dating all these buildings and stretching back to the earliest days of the burgh of Dundee in the 12th-13th centuries.

The whole complex of buildings was acquired by the Tayside Building Preservation Trust and restored. It was converted between 2005- 7 by Simpson and Brown architects, and now forms the Dundee Backpackers’ Hostel. As well as saving these historic buildings, this award-winning conversion has given them a practical function and provided a unique lodging place for visitors in the city centre.

3. Dudhope Castle

Dudhope Castle sits in beautiful grounds within walking distance of Dundee city centre, but probably does not feature on the itineraries of many visitors. The present building dates from around 1590 but the land it occupies was granted to Alexander Scrymgeour (the name derives from the nickname “Skirmisher”), along with the hereditary office of Constable of Dundee, by William Wallace on behalf of King John Baliol in 1298.

For 370 years both castle and office remained with the Scrymgeours. In 1668, however, they passed out of their hands and were granted to Charles Maitland of Hatton. Maitland’s tenure was short, though, and in 1684 the castle was sold to John Graham of Claverhouse. After his death at the Battle of Killiecrankie, the forfeited property was granted to the Douglas family who occupied it for around a century.

For most of the 19th century, Dudhope Castle was a barracks. The local council leased part of the grounds from 1854 and later purchased the whole castle and grounds, opening the area as a public park in 1895. The castle returned to military use during both the First and Second World War, but later fell into disrepair. Despite an attempt by suffragettes to blow it up in 1914, and being considered for demolition in 1958, Dudhope Castle survived. It was renovated in the 1980s and is now used for office accommodation by Dundee City Council. Some rooms have been open to the public during Doors Open days and the park and grounds are open all year round.

4. McManus Galleries

More than a century and a half before the opening of the V&A, Dundee had a public building bearing the name of Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert. Following his death in 1861, a group of prominent citizens proposed that an institute to promote literature, science and art should be built in his memory on the town’s meadow ground.

The architect chosen was George Gilbert Scott, who would later be responsible for the Albert Memorial in London. His design was in the gothic style for which he was famous and which was retained in two later extensions. The boggy nature of the ground meant that £10,000 had to be spent on timber piles before work could even begin. A planned central tower with a spiral staircase was abandoned, being replaced by the striking exterior circular staircase.

The building opened in 1867, with a public library opening on the ground floor in 1869. The upstairs was given over to a Great Hall for public lectures and events. This eventually accommodated the expanding library while the rest of the building housed Dundee’s art gallery and museum. The library moved to the Wellgate Centre in the 1970s and around this time, the Albert Institute was renamed after former Lord Provost Maurice McManus.

In the early 21st century, there was a major refurbishment by Page\Park architects, which has stood the building in good stead, enabling it to celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2017 while remaining as one of Dundee’s top attractions.

5. Dundee Contemporary Arts

The site between St Andrews Cathedral and Nethergate House was once part of Dundee’s medieval hospital. In the late 20th century it housed an informal skateboard park. In the mid-1990s this unlikely site was acquired for what many thought was an equally unlikely project: a new contemporary arts centre which brought together a printmakers studio, a visual arts research centre, cinema and art gallery space.

The site presented several restrictions for the Edinburgh firm Richard Murphy Architects engaged on the project, from the narrow street frontage to the drop from front to back, but these were not only overcome but used to the building’s advantage.

Rather than replicate the street frontage of the old garage premises, the entrance was set back from the road to give a sense of open public space. Imaginative use was made, too, of the brickwork of the garage warehouse, with the new building appearing to have been inserted into the shell of the old. The interior saw the café placed at its heart with all the activities grouped around it, and easily accessible from it, so that a visitor who may only have come for a coffee might be tempted to see an exhibition or a film.

Dundee Contemporary Arts (or DCA) opened in 1999 to critical acclaim for the building but scepticism as to whether the people of Dundee would make use of such a facility. Such fears were misplaced, and the centre is a proven success with visitor numbers much higher than anticipated.