What have Desperate Dan and Captain Scott got in common? The answer is Dundee, so if you think Scotland’s fourth city has little going for it, other than a history of boiling marmalade, think again
“A big bridge for a small city”
That’s what former US President Ulysses S Grant had to say about the Tay Railway Bridge back in 1877. Two years later it collapsed into the estuary, but I’m sure he’d have been just as impressed by the two miles of Victorian engineered steel, brick and concrete that delivered us over the Tay and into Scotland’s fourth largest city.
Now if you thought Dundee had little going for it other than the faded glories of its history of whaling, jute spinning and marmalade making you could not be more wrong. Yes you can still buy a jar of Keiller's Original Marmelade to take home if you want, but I found plenty to keep me busy exploring Dundee’s heritage of Antarctic exploration and seafaring adventure, not to mention meeting some comic characters, enjoying a few drinks and eating in a rather exotic restaurant.
As our train crossed the Tay Bridge you couldn't miss the magnificent sight of Scott of the Antarctic’s three masted vessel - the Royal Research Ship Discovery is moored right by Dundee railway station. Built for the 1901 British National Antarctic Expedition with the expertise of the Dundee whaling fleet's shipwrights, the ship is now the centrepiece of Discovery Point (Discovery Quay; 01382 309060; www.rrsdiscovery.com; admission £7.50).
While the ship itself provides an insight into the crew’s daily life on Scott’s first voyage, the land based Discovery Centre is packed full of artefacts that show what the expedition discovered when it reached the icy continent, what they took with them and how they coped with the conditions there - not keen on the crew's description of a roast penguin dinner though:
"Like shoe leather steeped in turpentine".
Heading into the town centre for a spot of our own exploration, we ran into some of Dundee’s most famous citizens - Desperate Dan and Minnie the Minx - or at least the bronze effigies of the Dandy and Beano characters. Close by in Albert Square is the American styled red stone Dundee Courier Building, This is the headquarters of DC Thomson the Dundee publishing house, where they were created along with the Scottish institutions of Oor Wullie and the Broons. DC Thomson is one of Dundee's biggest employers.
Back on our maritime heritage trail, next stop was HMS Unicorn (HM Frigate Unicorn, Victoria Dock; 01382 200900; www.frigateunicorn.com; admission £4). Launched in 1824, this 46 gun frigate is a unique survivor from the age of fighting sail, as most ships of this type were broken up as they were replaced by steamers.
Already obsolete when she came off the slipway her survival was assured by being immediately laid up, roofed over and then towed to Dundee to become a Royal Navy harbour drill ship. Over 1,000 oak trees went to build this element of “the Wooden Walls of England” and today she provides an insight into what Royal Navy life must have been like for the men and the odd woman of Nelson’s navy. From the splendour of the Captain's dining room to the rat infested galley, the ship is full of period artefacts including a fine selection of cannon.
Dropping from the main deck, to the gundeck and then down the hatch to the confines of the orlop deck it soon became apparent how claustrophobic these ships must have been when fully crewed. I cracked my head a couple of times on the low beams as we pottered around, which probably goes some way to explaining why so many sailors ended up going a bit mad. Well that along with the lashings of rum and the cat-o’-nine-tails I suppose.
Another fixture of Victoria Dock, but of a later vintage, is the North Carr Lightship (www.northcarr.org.uk/). Stationed off Fife Ness until 1975, the North Carr saw distinguished service during the Second World War, guiding the Atlantic convoys to safety. Now retired, this sole surviving Scottish Lightship is being restored for the Maritime Volunteer Service, so, unable to go aboard, we had to be content with what we could see from the quayside.
By the time we’d finished with the historic ships it was definitely beer o’clock. The Counting House (67-71 Reform Street; 01382 225251; www.jdwetherspoon.co.uk) was just what we were looking for. A typical JD Wetherspoon boozer, the Counting House has a wide selection of real ales and lagers and is pretty popular with students from both of Dundee’s universities due to the winning combination of cheap beer and food. We went back for a slap up Scottish breakfast the following morning: fried egg, sausage, bacon, beans potato scone, black pudding, tomato and that Scottish delicacy - square Lorne sausage, a heart attack on a plate - all for £2.69, what a bargain.
Now, there is nothing like a few beers to put you into the mood for a curry and the Jahangir (1 Session Street; 01382 201054) is a Dundee landmark. While it might not look much from the outside, inside it’s a different matter. The walls are hung with fabric transporting you to an oriental marquee complete with a central koi carp pool and tinkling fountain. The early evening buffet is exceptional value at £9.99. Give the house wine a miss and stick with the beer and you can’t go wrong.
Dundee is only an hour and a quarter from Edinburgh’s Waverley Station so the city can easily be done in a day from the Scottish capital, but an overnight stay does allow you to relax with a few beers in the evening. We stayed overnight at the Travelodge Central Dundee which offers cheap but basic accommodation in the town centre. There is also a Premier Inn on Discovery Quay which has a very good Table Table restaurant where I had my very first bison burger! Not very Scottish but quite delicious.