Dundee, with its name likely deriving from ‘Dun Diagh’, with Dun meaning ‘fort’, was first mentioned as a town in the late 12th or early 13th centuries. The next four or five centuries saw repeated sackings of the town, much bloodshed at the hands of the English and significant political instability. As such, historic sites such as Claypotts Castle and Broughty Castle make for an essential visit for anyone wanting to learn about Dundee’s turbulent past.
In spite of this, Dundee’s population boomed in the 19th century, growing from 26,000 people in 1801 to 90,000 by 1861. This was largely due to the prospering whaling, shipbuilding and jute industries, which are survived by historic sites such as the vast industrial complex of Verdant Works, and HMS Unicorn, which is the oldest ship in Scotland.
Today, modern sites such as the V&A, built as part of the regeneration of Dundee’s waterfront attest to the busy city’s exciting and ongoing evolution.
Here’s our pick of 10 of the best historic sites in Dundee.
1. RRS Discovery
Launched in 1901, the RRS Discovery is a barque-rigged auxiliary steamship built for Antarctic research. She was the last three-masted ship to be built in the United Kingdom. Her first mission was the British National Antarctic Expedition, and carried Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton. The first, and highly successful expedition it conducted to the Antarctic, was known as the Discovery Expedition. After service both before and during the First World War, in 1923 it was taken into the service of the British government to carry out scientific research in the Southern Ocean. From 1929 to 1931 Discovery served as the base for the British Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE), an exploration into what is now the Australian Antarctic Territory.
Afterwards, she was moored in London as a static training ship and visitor transaction until 1979 when she was placed in the care of the Maritime Trust as a museum ship. After extensive restoration, Discovery is now a popular visitor attraction in Dundee, where she was built.
2. Verdant Works
Located in the heart of one of the earliest urban industrial areas of Scotland, Verdant Works is one of various mills which grew up in the area from the 1790s because of the water supply available from the Scouring Burn, which in turn ran the steam engines which powered the machinery. The name ‘Verdant’ for a mill in an industrial area dates back to the time it was built, when it was surrounded by green fields. The High Mill of Verdant Works was built in 1833 for David Lindsay, a flax spinner and merchant. More buildings were added over the following 30 years, and the mill later switched to processing jute and had a workforce of 500 or so people.
In 1991, the site was bought by Dundee Heritage Trust, and the majority of the site opened as a museum in 1996. The High Mill was remarkably restored before being opened to the public in 2015.
3. HMS Unicorn
HMS Unicorn is the oldest ship in Scotland, one of the six oldest ships in the world and one of the last intact warships from the age of sail. She was built during peacetime in Chatham Dockyard, Kent, and was launched in 1824. Since Unicorn was built shortly after the naval wars against Napoleon ended, she was never rigged; instead, she only went to sea in a journey from Chatham to Dundee, during which she was under tow. For the next 140 years, she was used as a hulk and depot ship, meaning her lack of active duty meant that she was well-preserved.
In the 1960s, steps were added to convert her into a museum ship. It is remarkable for the condition of its interior, which is largely original, though increasingly fragile.
4. Tay Railway Bridge
The Tay Bridge, which carries the railway across the Firth of Tay between Dundee and the suburb of Wormit in Fife, is actually the second bridge on the site. The first, which opened in 1878, was the site of the Tay Bridge Disaster in 1879, when the bridge suddenly collapsed while a train was passing over it, resulting in the deaths of all 75 people aboard. It is regarded as one of the worst bridge-related engineering disasters to have occurred.
In 1887, the bridge was replaced with a second bridge constructed of iron and steel with a double-track, parallel to the remains of the first bridge. In 2003, the bridge was strengthened. Today, it still operates as a rail track, and is a scenic and popular landmark for photographers to enjoy.
5. V&A Design Museum
A remarkable feat of engineering, Scotland’s first design museum is a feat of engineering that draws upon Dundee’s vibrant history as a centre of commerce and shipbuilding. The plan for a museum originated in 2007 when it was suggested to the principal of London’s V&A Museum that it might be an anchor for the urban renewal of Dundee’s waterfront.
In 2010, a design competition took place, which was subsequently won by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, who was inspired by the eastern cliff edges of Scotland. It is the primary showpiece of Dundee’s £1 billion, 30-year regeneration of its waterfront. It features a fascinating rotation of exhibitions. The Scottish Design Galleries feature permanent design works from across Scotland, while the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Oak Room has been painstakingly reconstructed from an earlier design and is now on display.
6. Claypotts Castle
Claypotts Castle is a late medieval castle in the suburban West Ferry area of Dundee, and remains one of the best-preserved examples of a 16th century Z-plan tower house in Scotland. It was originally built between 1569-88 by the Strachan family. In 1601, the Strachan family sold the castle to Sir William Graham, and in 1689 it became property of the crown after the death of the then-owner at the battle of Killiecrankie. In 1694, the castle was given to James Douglas, the 2nd Marquess of Douglas.
Ownership later passed to the 13th Earl of Home through marriage before later being given to the state in 1926. Today, it is in the care of Historic Environment Scotland.
7. Cox's Stack
Situated in the Lochee area of the city, Cox’s Stack is an 85m high chimney and one of the few remaining relics of Dundee’s once buoyant jute industry. It was constructed in 1866 and formed part of the Cox Brothers’ Camperdown Works, which was once one of the largest jute factories of its time. More than a million bricks were used for its construction, and it cost around £6000 to build, which was a significant sum at the time.
Interestingly, the chimney has more of an appearance of an Italianate bell tower than a chimney, featuring multi-coloured brickwork trimmed with stonework on a masonry base. The stack replaced several existing chimneys, and the smoke from 58 furnaces and several forges was brought to it via underground tunnels, which greatly improved the local atmosphere.
8. Wishart Arch
Dundee was once surrounded by a defensive stone fortress, of which the Wishart Arch is a remainder. It is named for Protestant reformer George Wishart, who preached upon the arch during the plague of 1544 to those who were quarantined on the other side. Indeed, a plaque on the arch attests to the fact.
The wall was originally referred to as the Eastgate, but was more commonly known as the Cowgate. It was later replaced with the name Wishart Arch. Wishart himself was burned at the stake as a heretic in St. Andrews, while the fort was destroyed as retribution for the losses incurred by the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
9. McManus Art Gallery and Museum
The McManus is a resplendent Victorian, Gothic building where art, history and the environment combine to offer a fascinating insight into the city of Dundee. It is home to Dundee’s main collection and has been the centre of art and culture in the city since 1867.
Today, eight open-plan gallery spaces house exhibitions that cover the art, history and environment of the area, from information about early man to how the area was transformed during the Industrial Revolution. Using an audio guide is recommended for a more rounded experience. Entrance is free.
10. Brouchty Castle
The Gray family originally built the castle in the 1490s. During the English invasion of Scotland between 1547-50, Patrick, 4th Lord Gray, delivered the castle to the English. From there, they harried Dundee. In 1540, the castle was stormed by Scottish troops with the help of the French and was partly demolished. However, it was held for Mary, Queen of Scots by the Hamilton Duke of Chatelherault, until 1571.
By 1821, the castle was a roofless ruin, but in 1851 was bought by the war office, radically enlarged and altered internally. Since 1969, as a branch of Dundee museums, it has been a museum of arms and armour, whaling and fishery. A particular highlight is the Orchar Gallery, which houses a stunning collection of 30 or so paintings.