09 April 2015
Author Fiona MacDonald presents some quirky facts about the city of Dundee. ...
Author Fiona MacDonald presents some quirky facts about the city of Dundee.
1. Has a volcano at its heart
Dundee Law is a mound of solidified lava 572 feet high. It hasn’t erupted for 400 million years, but is still pretty impressive. Iron Age farmers built a fort there 3,500 years ago, and invading Roman armies kept lookout. Today, it’s topped by a war memorial.
2. Defied a death-dealing dragon
The dragon lived in a well and devoured nine pretty girls who went to fetch water. It was killed by Martin the blacksmith, a local hero. What inspired the legend? Probably, carvings on a Pictish stone at Balluderon, about five miles north of the city.
Read our special feature Twelve things you (probably) never knew about Scotland.
3. Was where William Wallace went to school
Raised to burgh status by King William the Lion around 1180, the little market town of Dundee grew quickly. By 1240, it boasted one of Scotland’s first schools, and, around 1288, teenage William Wallace was sent there to study. Wallace also killed his first Englishman in Dundee, and escaped, unheroically, dressed as a woman. But that’s another story…
4. Shamefully, sold slaves
By 1500, Dundee was the wealthiest town in Scotland after Edinburgh and Aberdeen. Dundee merchants imported wine and timber from Europe, and exported fish and woollen plaids. Before too long, they were also dealing in Caribbean sugar, Atlantic whale oil - and African slaves. Shocked and sentimental, Robert Burns wrote ‘A Slave’s Lament’ after visiting Dundee in 1787.
5. Covered ‘Prairie Schooners’
Dundee ships brought flax from Russia and the Baltic; Dundee folk spun and wove it into coarse cloth, by hand. By around 1800, output had risen to three million metres per year. Most was sold to America, to make sacks, ammunition bags and canvas roofs for pioneer wagons. Nearer to home, Dundee also supplied sails for Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory.
6. Inspired Frankenstein
Young Mary Shelley (pictured left) loved to visit her friends Christina and Isabel Baxter at their fine house in Ferry Road, Dundee. The dramatic Tayside scenery clearly impressed her. Looking back, she remembered:
‘It was beneath the trees of the grounds belonging to our house, or on the bleak sides of the woodless mountains near, that my true compositions …were born and fostered.’
7. Was nicknamed ‘Woman Town’
Dundee’s jute and linen factories were hot, steamy, smelly and suffocating. The stench of whale oil and a prickly haze of fibres filled the air. But Dundee women could stand it – because they had to. They were the breadwinners. Employers preferred nimbler, cheaper, women and children. Unemployed Dundee men stayed at home, earning the scornful nickname ‘kettle-bilers’.
8. Had more millionaires
In 1861, the UK census recorded 33 millionaires living in one square mile of Dundee (West Ferry district); a greater concentration than anywhere else in the British Empire. However, the same census also told another, grimmer, story: two-thirds of Dundee citizens lived in one or two rooms only.
Still, Dundee men and women found pleasure where they could; in public parks and music halls, at street markets and fairs, and from fast-food stalls (Britain’s first take-away chips were sold in Dundee, by a Belgian.) And, by 1884, Dundee had more pubs per head of the population than any other British city.
9. Was – and still is – world-changing
What would life be like without inventors and investigators from Dundee? Over the past 200 years, they’ve pioneered stick-on postage stamps, aspirin, medical X-rays, flight, RADAR, electrocardiograms, liquid crystals, keyhole surgery and much more. Today, Dundee’s a world leader in genetics, cancer research, forensic pathology - and computer games.
10. Raised a top-secret code-breaker – and a clueless spy
We’ve all heard of Bletchley Park, but few remember Dundee’s Sir James Ewing, who headed the Room 40 undercover intelligence team during World War I. The spy? Her name was Jessie Jordan, she worked for Nazi Germany, and her ‘cover’ was a hairdressing salon in Hilltown, Dundee. But she was careless, got caught, and spent the war years in prison.
11. Is Scotland’s sunniest city
Dundee is north of Moscow and closer to Norway than London, but enjoys more hours of sunshine than most other places in Scotland. That’s one reason for a visit, but there are many others – Scott’s polar ship, Dundee-built RRS Discovery; Verdant Works; statues of childhood comic heroes, the McManus Galleries; nearby golf-courses and scenic glens; fine Victorian buildings and stunning new ones (come on, V&A, we’re all waiting …), plus the redeveloping Waterfront. Dundee is now a smart tourist destination. Strange but true.
Dundee, A Very Peculiar History by Fiona Macdonald is published by Book House (priced £7.99). On sale now.
Fiona MacDonald delves into the very peculiar history of Scotland's best kept secret. From the Picts - and Plots, to the fish and the fleece, learn all about this fascinating Scottish city. Featuring black and white illustrations, witty anecdotes and incredible trivIa, readers will be entertained and educated.
Images: Dundee panorama © Hans Musil; William Wallace © Joe Thomiessen; Baxter Park © Val Vannet.