Welcome to Dundee

Dundee has a spectacular setting on the north bank of the Firth of Tay. One cannot help but be impressed by how this powerful watercourse, which can be seen from any vantage point in the city, brings the presence of nature into this, Scotland's fourth city. Unsurprisingly, Dundee's proximity to the sea has influenced the course of its history.

Dundee has been settled for many thousands of years but most likely only began to be used as a port in the last two thousand. It was probably used as a port by the Romans during their brief stay in northern Scotland after AD 83. Certainly by the 2nd century AD there was a port here called "Deeuana". The present name is a corruption of Dun Daig, meaning Fort of Daig (Daig is believed to be an early tribal chieftain). In the centuries that followed Roman withdrawal, Dundee became part of the Pictish Kingdom. Just beyond the city's boundaries, at Ardestie, Carlungie and Tealing, Pictish chambers and earthenworks can still be seen.


Morning sunshine on River Tay

Dundee became well established as a trading port as early as the 12th century, although there is no record of a harbour being constructed until the following century. Other signs of Dundee's growing importance in these centuries include; the holding of an annual fair (which drew in people from all over Angus, Fife and Perthshire), the arrival of Dominican Friars who went out to preach in and around the city, and the building of a castle just to the west of the end of today's Tay Road Bridge. Alas, this castle only lives on in the name Castle Street. In 1239 a school was established which had as one of its early pupils the young William Wallace (c1270 - 1305), Scotland's national hero. A plaque in High Street marks the spot where he is said to have stabbed to death an English lord for insulting him. Although Wallace was then forced to flee south, he returned triumphant in 1297 to take the city during the Wars of Independence. Dundee is also connected with another of Scotland's heroes: Robert I (1274-1329) was crowned in the city in 1309.

Dundee's growth in the following centuries was fuelled largely by trade with the Baltic ports. From the Baltic (and from Scandinavia) timber, pitch and hemp were imported, as well as large quantities of wine from France and Spain. In return Dundee exported raw wool and hides. In Broughty Ferry, now a suburb of Dundee at the mouth of the Tay, a castle was built in 1496 overlooking these important trade routes. Built on a rocky promontory, the castle stands today as a museum and major tourist attraction, affording spectacular views of the bay, the Firth and out to sea.

But is was not all plain sailing for Dundee and the Dundonians: in the 1540s, during the reign of Henry VIII the city was bombarded by the English and partly burned; in 1607-08 an outbreak of the plague struck the city; in 1644 the Marquis of Montrose and his Royalist forces besieged it; in 1651 General Monk, commander of Cromwell's forces in Scotland, spent up to two weeks in the town pillaging and killing around 2,000 of the the city's 12,000 population; in 1658 a storm destroyed much of the harbour; and by the late 17th century the wool industry, on which many Dundonian livelihoods depended, fell into decline. Unsurprisingly then, by the late 17th century Dundee itself had fallen into decline and the population began to decrease.

However, in the 18th century it was time for Dundee to rise again. This was partly on the back of the linen making industry but there were also important thread making and leatherworking industries. Increasingly, as the century progressed, whaling began to become a way of life for many hardy Dundonians while the manufacture of marmalade was booming by the end of the century. In 1801, with an estimated population of about 26,000, Dundee began to be regarded as an important town. Nonetheless, Dundee's progress in the 18th century was nothing compared with what was about to come Jute was imported from India and used to make sacks and rope. By 1835 Dundee had 36 flax spinning mills employing well over a half of the city's population. By 1861 the population had risen to about 90,000. These mighty Mills may have lined the pockets of a few entrepreneurs, but the conditions in the factories destroyed the heath and lives of the workers: life expectancy in 19th century Dundee was around 32 years, two thirds of the Scottish average. The Verdant Works, one of Dundee's infamous jute mills, has been recreated using original machinery and is now an award winning museum, on West Henderson's Wynd.

Dundee also developed as an important shipbuilding centre. The city's most famous ship was to be the RRS Discovery. Launched in 1901, it was the first ship constructed purely for scientific research. It is the ship in which Captain Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912), more commonly known as "Scot of the Antarctic", traveled further south than any man had before him, in 1901. The ship is now a permanent and popular attraction at Discovery Quay. The ship has given Dundee its nickname: "The City of Discovery". Another vessel worth seeing is the HMS Unicorn (in Victoria Dock). Launched in 1824 it is the oldest British built warship still afloat.

The confidence that buoyed Dundee during the industrial revolution would be dealt a serious blow when in 1879 the Tay Rail Bridge, which had been completed just 19 months before, collapsed during a force 10 gale, taking a train and 75 lives. Some have seen this event as being prophetic of a broader collapse that would occur in Dundee's industrial sector over the next 80 years. The main pillars of the economy, jute and shipbuilding, began to fail: jute because of declining demand and because the fibre began to be processed in India and shipbuilding for various reasons including lack of government support and foreign competition.

But Dundee has bounced back before and there are signs that it is doing so again. One continuing success story is Journalism. D.C. Thomson, founded in 1905, produce more than 200 million magazines, newspapers and comics per year and the company is Dundee's largest employer outside the health and leisure industries. One sign of their success is that their comic strip characters, from The Beano and The Dandy (Denis the Menace, the Bash Street Kids, Desperate Dan, etc.), are household names all over the British Isles. In 1967 Dundee University became independent and the institution has been prominent in giving the city a young and cosmopolitan feel. Another important growth industry has been tourism. People are drawn to Dundee because of its ancient history, its castles, its award winning museums and to marvel at the natural beauty which softens the edges of its impressive Victorian edifices.