As I waited for the traffic lights to change before crossing the road outside Dundee’s newly refurbished railway station, a friendly woman engaged me in conversation. “Braw, isn’t it” she said, answering her own question.
We were gazing at the tall masts of the R.R.S. (Royal Research Ship) Discovery berthed in its dock by the River Tay. The ship was built hereabouts beginning March 1900 for the National Antarctic Expedition to be led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott. His quest the following year was to be first ever to reach the South Pole. Scott described the ship as, “a splendidly strong and well-fortified structure and the machinery is in all respects equal to the hull.” At 172 feet long and 32 feet broad it seems small for what was then an adventure into the unknown. But he was right. The ship survived two years imprisonment in the crushing, vice-like grip of Antarctic pack ice.
At Discovery Point Centre, in comfort, visitors can learn something of that Antarctic experience before boarding R.R.S. Discovery to see the crew’s actual living quarters.
From there, a few steps will take you to the front door of Dundee’s newest attraction – the futuristic V&A Museum of Design – the only outpost of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The fantastic building designed by Japanese architectural practice Kenzo Kuma & Associates opened on the 15th September 2018.You’ll find the permanent display dedicated to Scottish design including a Charles Rennie MacIntosh tearoom. A succession of international exhibitions will feature throughout the coming years.
To reach the newly paved waterfront walkway behind the V&A, find the tunnel-like space which leads through the building. From there views across the river are extensive to the shores of Fife.
As you head eastwards, pause for a moment at the memorial slab commemorating the opening of the Tay Road Bridge in 1966, at the time the longest in Britain. The bridge appears graceful from a distance but close up the dull concrete is severely strong and functional.
Past the bridge, the river becomes ever wider and deeper - safe for docking ships and oil rigs.
A sign for the Frigate Unicorn points along a street heading away from the waterside. This was a busy place when ships from India unloaded tons of jute for Dundee’s now defunct jute industry.
The long- empty warehouses have now been converted into riverside apartments. Behind the apartment blocks, lies Victoria Dock. One sad-looking boat, the North Carr, appears to be held together with a coverall coating of red paint and rust. Once it was manned, a working lightship that signalled safe passage for ships negotiating the River Tay estuary. Now, when lightships have been replaced with fixed buoys this is the only survivor in Scotland.
Further along Victoria Dock, the Frigate Unicorn, the oldest British-built wooden ship afloat was built for the Royal Navy in 1824. Visitors can wander amongst the cannons and historical fittings to get a feeling for times when Britannia ruled the waves.
Crossing a new bridge to the north side of Victoria Dock leads to an avenue of new shops and business premises. This refurbishment, renamed City Quay, is part of a long overdue plan to make more of Dundee’s superb riverside location.
Leave the harbour by the wide gates that open onto streets constructed originally for transporting goods quickly from ships to shore markets. Appropriately named Commercial Street was designed to give speedy access to the town centre and continues across the High Street to the McManus Art Gallery and Museum in the surrounds of Albert Square.
The galleries show a collection of Victorian and 20th century Scottish paintings including landscapes by the ever-popular Dundee artist, the late James McIntosh Patrick. The museum houses displays of local history. A stained glass window in the museum cafe commemorates Mary Slessor who worked as a child in a Dundee weaving shed and later became Scotland’s most famous woman missionary to Africa. This is the same woman whose portrait graces present day bank notes. At the rear of the museum, a statue of Queen Victoria appears to approve.
It’s worth taking a turn round the ancient stones of the Howff cemetery, diagonally opposite the statue of Robert Burns on Albert Square. The cemetery was granted to the town by Mary Queen of Scots in 1564. Many of the ancient stone grave markers have a carved symbol denoting the trade of the deceased.
From the graveyard there’s a good view of the red stone building opposite known locally as the Courier Building. This was the historic home of D.C.Thomson, publishers of newspapers, magazines and comics such as The Dandy and The Beano. Cartoon characters in these two esteemed publications were inspirational for the artists who created the life size sculptures of Desperate Dan and Minnie the Minx, complete with loaded catapult, which stand on a pavement near the end of Reform Street.
Ahead, the City Square is enclosed on the south side by the imposing bulk of the Caird Hall, a popular venue for a diverse range of concerts and other gatherings.
West along the Nethergate, St. Mary’s Church was founded in 1190. A guided tour to the top of the adjoining Auld Steeple (232 steps) will give further insights into the City’s mediaeval history and great views. In contrast, immediately behind, all glass front, stainless steel and polished wood is the Overgate Shopping Centre.
It was not so far away, unmarked by any monument, that a different sort of retail outlet probably had a much greater impact on the world. A Belgian immigrant, Edward de Gernier, in the late 1870s, opened what he claimed to be “the first chip potatoes, peas and vinegar stall in Britain.” Today, throughout the land, fast food fanciers have reason to thank M. de Gernier.
Before crossing the road to find the plaque commemorating Winston Churchill’ s time as an M.P. for Dundee, look for the replica of a unicorn on top of a stone column which stands on the pavement in front of the Auld Steeple. This is Dundee’s 16th century Mercat (market) Cross. Like others in Scottish towns and cities, it marked a place where merchants would gather and as it was granted by the monarchy, it gave merchants the right to hold a market.
Further along Nethergate, on the left, hardly noticeable, a small plaque on a tenement wall commemorates Fanny Wright (1795-1852) an early feminist and proponent of women’s rights. In the same house lived Dr. Thomas Maclagan, also a pioneer in his field. His research into salicin, an extract from the bark of white willow trees led to further research abroad. What millions of people are grateful for, and know today as aspirin, was the outcome.
The Nethergate merges with Perth Road and on passing St. Andrew’s Catholic Cathedral you reach the cultural quarter, the bohemian West End. Dundee Contemporary Arts building houses galleries, cinemas and a café/ bar. In the restaurant, large windows give a good view over the Science Centre. There is a choice of other art galleries and eating establishments nearby, including a restaurant in the Repertory Theatre though a “peh” (meat pie) or “ingin bridie” culinary specialities of Dundee might be hard to find here.
Still on the Nethergate, past the University and across the road from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, the street known as Roseangle leads down to the river. Near its end, on the left, is a well - used children’s play area. Passing trains and small aircraft that leave and return to Dundee’s nearby riverside airport add extra interest.
Before leaving Roseangle, stroll at least as far as the bandstand on Magdalen Green, Dundee’s oldest park. The bandstand is used for concerts in summertime.
Retrace your steps to Roseangle and Riverside Approach, which ends almost below a span of the Tay Railway Bridge (1887). From here, panoramic views extend across to Fife and up the river towards Perth. Seals are often seen on sandbanks near the bridge supports when the water level is low.
Stumps on the east side of the old railway bridge are still visible in the water. These are remnants from the calamity since known as the Tay Bridge Disaster, when, in high winds on the 28th December 1879, the evening train from Edinburgh to Dundee - engine, six carriages and all the passengers, plunged into the icy waters of the River Tay. No one survived. A hundred yards or so to the west, on the walkway, there is a memorial to those who lost their lives in the disaster.
Continuing eastwards, Riverside Drive leads back to the railway station, to Discovery point, the V&A and the centre of town. As you leave the rail bridge behind, you might take a few minutes to read William Topaz McGonagall’s poem carved into the walkway – though you’ll have to find the start and walk back towards the bridge.
Alas! I am sorry to say...
First published in The Glasgow Herald
Further information: There is a choice of cafes and restaurants along this walk including at Discovery Point, the V&A and the McManus Art Gallery and Museum.
www.brightdundeetours for a guided tour of the exterior of the McManus Art Gallery and Museum