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The History of Dundee

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Dundee is Scotland’s fourth largest city and surely one of its oldest. Inhabited since the Stone Age, the city on the banks of the silvery River Tay is steeped in Pictish lore and emboldened by economic triumph during the city’s expansion through the Industrial Revolution , famously becoming the city of jute, jam and journalism. Dundee is a city which caught the wayfarer’s heart, building the hardiest faring whaling vessels this side of Nantucket and becoming Scotland’s City Of Discovery. It was from the port of Dundee that the Royal Research ship, Discovery, was built and launched in 1901, sending Captain Robert Falcon Scott to the frozen wastes of Antarctica for the first time.
While a number of archeological digs have unearthed a wealth of mesolithic litter, it was during the Iron Age that Dundee began to coalesce on the higher ground off the banks of the Tay. On Law Hill, where centuries later a Jacobite rebellion was sired, there are remains of an Iron Age fort, portraying the area as a muster point for military action through hundreds of generations. Dundee’s Pictish traditions are shrouded in a fog of half truths and conjecture, but the Picts’ secrets are hidden in the soil around Dundee and the surrounding county of Angus. Was Dundee the scene of a battle between Pict and Scot, where Alpin the Scots’ leader was beheaded? Perhaps we will never know. But what we do know is, like many towns in the late 12th Century, Dundee’s importance became swollen with the significance of King William I’s Royal Charter. Though Dundee would have to wait until 1292 before it became Royal Burgh, the city had been took root round its castle.
But having John Balliol as king was perilous to Scotland at large. Effectively reducing Scotland to the role of a vassal state to the English under King Edward I , the Wars Of Scottish Independence would bring the nation to the brink as the English invaded. Dundee did not escape Edward’s attentions; the English king seized Dundee and garrisoned his men at Dundee Castle until William Wallace laid seige and wrested the castle from English hands. It wouldn’t be the last time that English aggression would give the city due cause to defend itself. When King Henry VIII began the Rough Wooing of Scotland, a conflict arising from the Scots’ reneging on the 1543 Treaty Of Greenwich, Dundee circled the wagons and constructed a wall to keep the English out. The Greenwich Treaty betrothed Mary Queen Of Scots ’ hand to Prince Edward , but the Scots sent her to France, where after she was to marry the Dauphin. Dundee’s port was ravished by the English cannons.
But the Rough Wooing would seem like a picnic in comparison to Oliver Cromwell ’s ferocious visit in 1651. Dundee was well and truly sacked, and it set the town back years. Wishart Arch at Cowgate is the only piece of wall still standing. After the Jacobites’ defeat at Culloden in 1746, Dundee was instructed to tear down its walls. Dundee was flattened by Cromwell’s military machine. Dundee’s renaissance would come in a jar. Marmalade, ably joined by textiles and journalism would prop up Dundee’s economy and bring the city the sort of wealth it was always capable of. That the city’s fortunes would turn on a batch of bitter Seville oranges is quite something, but when Janet Keiller made marmalade from unpalatable oranges and went into business with her husband James in 1797, Dundee was back. Well, that is a little disingenuous, but alongside the jute mills Keiller’s preserves gave Dundee the success story it needed.
The rapid industrialisation of the country in the 18th Century came as a fillip to Dundee. In the 19th Century the city was renowned for shipbuilding. Dundee was a major exporter of linen for a number of years, but as jute supplanted the linen trade the city’s economy became hugely reliant on the jute mills. Dundee’s jute industry employed 50,000 people were employed. The city would be dubbed Juteopolis. Journalism came in the early part of the 20th Century, when publishers DC Thomson opened for business in 1905. Publishing comics The Dandy and The Beano alongside magazine The People’s Friend and The Sunday Post, DC Thomson produce more than 200 million magazines, comics and papers each year. Historians have yet to agree on who is Dundee’s most famous resident: Dennis The Menace or Desperate Dan?
Perhaps it is Sir Robert Falcon Scott. His ship, the RRS Discovery is now stationed at Discovery Point , standing as a reminder of Captain Scott’s adventures at the South Pole, and ultimately his icy death in the doomed 1910 race to reach the South Pole. As Dundee’s fortunes soared, the Tay Rail Bridge was opened in 1878. At the time it was a triumph of civil engineering, six years in the making, two-miles long and costing some £300,000 to build. It lasted just over a year. On the 28th December 1879 , the bridge collapsed. 75 people died. Designer Thomas Bouch shouldered much of the blame. The new Tay Bridge was completed in 1887.
Dundee’s economic prosperity took a nosedive after the First World War . The world economy was changing and the city’s jute mills came under threat from those in India. No longer able to compete, the mills closed. For a city who once employed more than a third of its population in the jute industry, the closures were devastating. But Dundee’s economic recovery has been steady, led by its two Universities, the University Of Dundee and Abertay University , the outlook is more optimistic for a city building a new technology focussed economy.

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