What’s On Dundee – The City with a Renewed Spring in its Step
The long-awaited launch of Dundee’s latest cultural goldmine, the spectacular new V&A Museum of Design, has seen an unprecedent level of interest in a city traditionally overlooked in tourism chatter. That the leading travel guides and media worldwide have had their eye turned towards Tayside speaks volumes for the sustained effort over recent years to transform the city’s image to that of a veritable culture hub. The waterfront regeneration has seen a massive economic boost as big hotels have popped up, restaurants have lifted their game and tour companies ponder a re-think on their traditional and tired itineraries with a view to roping in Dundee. Embracing that new enthusiasm, here’s my look at what’s on in Dundee and, given the autumnal season, some added inspiration from neighbouring Perthshire.
Things to do in Dundee
V&A Museum of Design
Kengo Kuma’s striking design grabs visitors’ attention immediately. Opening one month ago and already having welcomed well in excess of 100,000 visitors, the V&A (the first outside London) is perhaps the single biggest arrival in my six years working in Scottish tourism. Embracing Dundee’s long association with the River Tay and sea-faring trade and travel, its commanding Tayside position is entirely appropriate. Inspired by the cliff-faces of Scotland’s east coast, the exterior is as photogenic as the interior is vast and light-inspired.
That Charles Rennie Mackintosh steals centre stage with his incredible Oak Room keeps this Glaswegian happy and the Scottish Design Galleries within feature 300 exhibits covering any and all themes, industries and fields of endeavour. Temporary exhibitions will come and go and they wisely kicked off with Ocean Liners: Speed and Style. Offering a highly romantic view of 20th Century cruise travel, this is a sweep-you-up look at life aboard glamourous floating towns and the unprecedented excitement and possibilities that they brought. Endlessly tasteful, it’s been worth every bit of the hype.
Clearly benefitting from all this economic flurry, Discovery Point has undergone recent improvement to house an even more touching tribute to the extraordinary journey of the RRS Discovery. This sturdy beauty spent three years endeavouring to explore the as-yet unknown limits of the Antarctic in the very early 1900s. Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his crew had to endure every conceivable hardship as they battled with fierce weather and prohibitive waters. That they returned with scientific findings on new species and mapped undiscovered landscapes is almost forgotten as the scale of their achievement in just returning at all is fully absorbed. Truly an example of exploration at its most dangerously significant.
With the ship moored between the impressive Visitor Centre and the V&A, the majestic vessel remains a highly evocative attraction and an absolute must for visitors to Dundee.
I’ve always drawn easy comparisons between Dundee and my home city of Glasgow. A tad lazy perhaps, but they have a very similar look and feel. Both had their heyday during Britain’s imperial peak, both were very reliant on old industry and trade, both suffered severe economic woes for large chunks of the 20th Century and both have since turned to culture and creative industries as the fundamental pillars on which their economic future is built. I like to see this grand Victorian structure as at the heart of that cultural focus, in the same way that Kelvingrove is to Glasgow. A museum of just about everything, there is a strong leaning towards local cultural contributions (from the Iron Age to the gaming industry) and, of course, numerous tributes to Dundee’s status as a Cartoon Capital and birthplace of many childhood favourites. Allow anywhere between half an hour and half a day to drift between exhibits in this place.
I’ve been singing the praises of Verdant Works for some time now. Truly one of my favourite Scottish museums, it provides a very personal insight into the once-mighty world of industrial jute production. Dundee was very much the centre of the universe in this field in the 19th Century as, with raw materials coming in from India, the cityscape would have been a sea of mills as some 60+ of them would have mass produced the likes of rope, wagon covers and sacking. In gruelling workspaces, it was predominantly the cheaper labour of women and children that slaved around the clock in brutally unhealthy conditions. Verdant is the city’s remaining example of a working mill and, complete with authentic machinery and a well-presented timeline in the events that led to Dundee being dubbed ‘Juteopolis’, it is well worth the short journey from the city centre.
A day trip north to Perthshire
Dundee is an excellent base for branching into the South East Highlands and Perthshire is the best place in Scotland to appreciate the visual power of autumn. Making for one of the great road trips from Central Scotland, stops at The Hermitage and Killiecrankie are a given. Serene walking trails that will suit families and explorers alike, these lands are home to some of the oldest and wisest trees in existence. Giants of every shape, size and colour, the only stress is the battle for the most spectacular images, as every photographer in the land has had the same idea as you.
Perhaps it was that competition that led me away from the usual spots though and deeper into the region, to a place that has been on my hit-list for many months. The Dunalastair Estate contains some of the most beautiful lands in Perthshire. Where lochs, mountains and stunning stretches of forest mix about cheerily in perfect harmony. And at the heart of all of this lies one of Scotland’s most visual and eerily atmospheric ruins. In my highly romanticised wee Neil Robertson headspace that would please Walt Disney himself, I’ve decided to regard it as Robertson Castle.
Dunalastair House is an 1860s Baronial-style mansion. Built on lands traditionally owned by the Donnachaidh Clan – encompassing Robertson, Duncan and Reid – the place ceased its use as a home during the First World War and fell into serious decline in the decades following. Built on or near the original home of the chieftain of Clan Robertson (torched immediately after Culloden in retribution for the clan’s steadfast support of the Jacobites), what remains seems to span centuries’ worth of melancholic Highland history. It’s also the latest in a line of such abandoned ruins that I’ve been stalking in recent months. There’s something endlessly fascinating about their aura and evocation. I still love my old medieval castles and abbeys but, if anything, there seems to be something even more tangible about these guys. While they may not have seen sieges, blockades and battering rams, they undoubtedly hold more than their share of secrets, happy and grim alike. Note that the ruin is fenced off, is not signposted as an attraction and the interior is not accessible.
Returning to my base, the superbly placed Apex Hotel in the heart of Dundee, it’s been lovely to have had the time to explore an area that I often only seem to fly past on the way from A to B. And that, perhaps, will be the biggest impact that the V&A has on the city. No longer will it just be a stop between Edinburgh and the Highlands that gets a fleeting look-see at best. Savvy travellers are likely to take a few days to explore Dundee and Angus as the combination of culture, history and the outdoors leave you with countless options. I’m delighted that the standard route taken by visitors is likely to be given a serious shake up and I’m chuffed to see Dundee basking in its well-deserved moment in the spotlight.
My most recent trip to Dundee saw me partner up once again with Apex Hotels. With an extremely comfortable, modern base less than 10 minutes’ walk from the V&A and offering all the excellent facilities I’ve come to expect from them I have no hesitation in again endorsing them as a great provider. With the added bonus of a comprehensive on-site spa and wonderful view over the city I could not have hoped for better as I took on a busy itinerary in and around Dundee. This endorsement is based entirely on my recent visit and genuine experience of the place and I am always very selective in the providers I team up with.
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