Dundee has a colourful past and an even more colourful present, with historic buildings and naval masterpieces in a stunning setting on the River Tay
Once a humble fishing port, modern-day Dundee is a buzzing, metropolitan city, the fourth largest in Scotland. Its stunning natural setting on the banks of the mighty River Tay makes it one of my favourite places in the UK. This strategic location also inextricably shaped the development of the city.
Dundee prospered as an international trading port from the 14th century right through to the late 19th century – a golden age, when the local economy was variously fuelled by a burgeoning wool trade, the export of linen and jute, whaling and even the production of Dundee marmalade. In 1905, the publishers DC Thomson rose to the fore, completing the last of the three ‘js’ (jute, jam and journalism) that the city is synonymous with.
Jute and jam production may be consigned to the history pages, but the former still plays an important role in tourism. The Verdant Works Museum, an old mill that once employed 500 workers, is a hands-on visitor attraction that examines the manufacture of jute and its impact on Dundee. In the 1870s over 60 factories employed around 50,000 people (more than half the city’s population).
Two of Dundee’s main attractions also bring the past to life. The Discovery Point Visitor Centre takes you back to 1910 and Captain Scott’s doomed attempt on the South Pole, before letting you clamber aboard his magnificently restored tall ship, RSS Discovery.
As one of the oldest surviving warships in the world the, HM Frigate Unicorn, another floating museum, is well worth visiting. While her proud boast may not be as impressive as it first sounds (she was never engaged in active service), the boat's cannon-laden gun deck is a big hit with kids and big kids alike.
The most poignant of all Dundee’s historic sights is the old pier remains of the Tay Bridge that jut hauntingly from the Firth of Tay. The structure, which was hailed as an engineering masterpiece when it opened in May 1878, was built to carry trains south to the Kingdom of Fife. On 28 December 1879, during a raging storm, the new bridge collapsed into the river, plunging the six-carriage train and an estimated 75 passengers and crew to their watery graves. For the best view over Dundee and the Tay bridges (the replacement rail bridge opened in 1887, while the road bridge was added in 1966), head to the Mills Observatory. Located 174m above sea level on the top of the Law (an extinct volcano), the observatory is also a good place for stargazing.
Other historic buildings that help bring Dundee’s colourful history to life include the 18th-century St Andrew’s Church, the McManus Galleries (built in 1867), the old Tay Hotel (1889), the Caird Hall Theatre (constructed between 1914 and 1922), the old town houses on South Tay Street and St Mary’s Tower (dating from the 15th century, this is Dundee’s oldest building).
Discovering Dundee, though, is not just about its past. Today Dundee is a modern metropolis with a raft of contemporary buildings like the landmark Overgate Shopping Centre and the Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) centre, where the exhibitions and performances are as cutting edge as the venue itself. A thriving student population infuses the city with a vibrant, cosmopolitan edge. Meanwhile Dundee’s leading role in biotechnology, health and engineering, combined with the massive £500 million-plus redevelopment of the city’s waterfront, looks set to ensure that its new golden age will continue well into the 21st century.
Where to stay
Apex Dundee City Quay: stylish waterfront hotel with excellent restaurants and spa.
Hilton Dundee: reclining on the banks of the River Tay, with all the facilities you would expect from this international chain.
Strachan Tours offer tailor-made tours of Dundee and the surrounding area.
Where to eat
Glass Pavilion: honest home cooking in a conservatory-style building. Enjoy views over the beach at Broughty Ferry through floor-to-ceiling windows.