Dundee - the city of discovery

Thinking of the museum as 'without walls' gives me the opportunity to talk a bit about a recent trip to Dundee I made, in fact could be applied to any visit any where. The past is collected, displayed, retained all around us and whilst it is perhaps not recognised that people 'collect' buildings as such, the decisions that are made as regards to keeping some, knocking down others can be identified as the same process whereas museums decide which objects to keep and which to throw away. Fortunately Dundee has retained much of its history.

Dundee by train is approached across the River Tay, remembered in poetry as the "silvery Tay" and also cropping up in the Associates' song 'Nude spoons', which is not completely irrelevent to museums being about finding objects and wondering at their meaning.

From the railway station, the city climbs upwards over the hills and presents an interesting skyline, admittedly it might appear better on a sunnier day.

An industrial city, Dundee was famous, and made its money, as a port and from the making of jute, a kind of material. As with most industrial cities, its fortunes have climbed and sunk over the years and at the moment Dundee is in the process of rejuvenation. Despite the proliferation of shopping centres and dock-side flats that look like they could belong anywhere, Dundee has some very attractive buildings. For fans of medieval towers, the church in the centre of town, incongruous against the modern shopping centre, has the highest medieval tower in Scotland.

Perhaps the most startling find was Howff burial ground in the city centre. Formerly land belonging to a monastery, it was given to the city in the sixteenth century by Mary Queen of Scots, and is now is tucked away behind buildings. Even more startling was the provision of an information board giving both the history of the site and interesting things to look out for amongst the graves. Such things can be rare in graveyards so it was good to see that the city takes diverse forms of heritage seriously.

I went to a talk yesterday as part of the University of Leicester's 50th birthday celebrations which was about grave memorials and what they can tell us about society. For the period before the mid-eighteenth century there was seen to be a preoccupation with the finality of death with little hope for salvation. Thus symbols of mortality abound on gravestones that survive, such as the skull, the hourglass and the sexton's tools (spades). The lecturer felt these to be rather grim reminders of death. However I see that many of the skulls can be quite jaunty, and the graveyard in Dundee was certainly full of grinning skulls. I did not find them grim at all, rather comic in fact. That probably says more about me though than the society at the time!

Other points of interest in Dundee include the docks which I only had time for a quick look round but are currently the resting place for two interesting ships. The first is the Unicorn, built in 1824 its the oldest British warship still floating. perhaps because it was never actually used in battle!

The second ship is at Discovery Point, the aptly-named Discovery, built in Dundee in 1901 to take the ill-fated Captain Robert Scott on his polar expeditions (thanks to the Rough Guide to Scotland for details on both the ships). Unfortunately I ran out of time to look around the attached heritage centre but it gives me an excuse to head back to Dundee one day. Not that I need an excuse because it is a very interesting city and well worth further exploration.


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