Dundee, Perth and around

 

Although there’s plenty of culture and so on in Dundee (but see below for an update), we were actually there to cycle. First stop was Perth, which might have made a better base if only it had a backpacker’s hostel (there’s a hostel at Perth College which is only open from mid-June until the end of August). It seems a sort of Scottish Truro, with an old-money feel to it and a high-brow cultural profile – in particular at the Perth Concert Hall and Perth Theatre. I was especially struck by the line-up of performers in the Perth Piano Sundays series – the likes of Peter Donohoe, Jeremy Denk, Viktoria Postnikova – nae bad! Just a few days after getting home, a Radio 3 announcer praised the wood-panelled Perth Concert Hall as one of the great spaces for chamber music in the UK. Neither Perth nor Truro is forced by the presence of a university to be cool and relevant. You could argue that Dundee is to Perth as Glasgow is to Edinburgh – a brasher younger sibling that’s trying to cast off an industrial past and become a cultural hub, largely through riverside regeneration – and it’s doing fine, of course, but with a more street/youth profile.

The Perth Museum is fairly small but well presented, covering geology, natural history, prehistory and actual history. Perthshire has a rich store of prehistoric remains, with about 70 stone circles and later henges and hillforts. There’s also the Carpow longboat, about 3000 years old, so not as ancient as the Ferriby Boats. I had no idea that the Romans had made it up here and even started building Rome’s earliest frontier system (before the Antonine and Hadrian’s Walls further south in Scotland, and also the Limes Danubianus past Bratislava) along the Gask Ridge southwest from Perth – I must try to retrace it some time.

Nor did I know that William the Conqueror (Billy the Conk, as he’s known on The History of England podcast) came to Forteviot, near Perth, in 1072, when King Malcolm accepted him as his overlord – but he must have had his fingers crossed, because within a decade he was raiding England again. Perth became known as ‘a capital’ of Scotland, due to the royal court frequently staying here and the presence of Scone Abbey, where the King of Scots was crowned, just across the river; like Dundee, it became a Royal Burgh in the early 12th century. After this local history went a bit quiet until the nineteenth century, when the railway arrived and hotels started serving local drinks – Arthur Bell, John Dewar, and Matthew Gloag became known for their whiskies, and Sandemans imported port. In 1819 there were 44 distilleries here, the last closing in 2016. General Accident was founded here in 1885 and had its headquarters here for 113 years – it evolved into Aviva, which is based, inevitably, in London, but reintroduced the General Accident brand in 2013.

There’s also a bit of art here, notably two sculpture rotundas and two big Lawrence portraits and a Raeburn of the fiddler Niel Gow. There was also a temporary show about Margaret Morris (1891-1980), who created modern dance (a la Isadora Duncan) in Britain – she married the Scottish Colourist painter John Duncan Fergusson, whose parents were from Perthshire and who regarded the Perthshire Highlands as his spiritual home – many of his works and also her archive are held at the Fergusson Gallery, a former watertower nearby at the corner of Tay St and Marshall Place – this apparently sees few visitors, so there’s talk of relocating the collection.

Incidentally, we did have a scone in Scone, and a cuppa in Cupar.

Saint Andrews

I’ve been to St Andrews a couple of times before and didn’t linger this time – but I couldn’t help noticing that there are a lot of ruined churches, that the golf obsession is under control and largely confined to the west side of town near the Royal & Ancient, and that even though there are plenty of visitors there are quite a lot of cafés (and all the bike shops) which don’t open on a Sunday. It has more museums than I remembered, but the nicely named MUSA (Museum of the University of St Andrews) is closed for a refurb. There also seemed to be rather a lot of visible lesbians around this time, which was definitely not the case in Dundee or Perth (and was news to my friends who studied there a couple of decades ago).

Broughty Ferry

There’s a pleasant cycle route up the coast northeast from Dundee (now that they’ve sorted out the section past the docks) to Broughty Ferry and on (between railway and golf links) to Carnoustie, where I stayed on my last visit. Broughty Ferry is a more salubrious suburb of Dundee, with decent pubs (see below) and cafés, including (since 1897) the excellent Goodfellow & Steven bakery and tea rooms. Broughty Ferry castle was closed for toilet refurbishment when we passed through, but houses a free museum; guarding the mouth of the Tay since 1496, it sticks out like a rotten tooth from far away.

Problematic pubs

A really good pub takes a bit of finding in Dundee, I’m sorry to say. The Dundonians do like a drink, and there are plenty of pubs in the centre that are always full and noisy, but the main problem is that they’re not interested in live (real) ale – there are rows of gas-pressure dispensers promising IPAs and so on, as well as regular lagers, and frankly they taste much the same – pretty flat. The range of malt whiskies was fairly generic, too. Early in 2018 a real ale pub, the Copper Still, opened in the centre, but by the end of the year it had closed. As you’d expect, the university area, just west of the centre, has some more interesting options, notably the Speedwell, known mainly for its fabulous 1903 interior (there’s an interesting partition with a swinging door between two bar areas) – it has just three well-hidden real ales among a forest of gas dispensers, but the Deuchars was fine and the company was cheery.

Tickety Boo’s, at 51 Commercial St, has a fine interior too, with original stained glass, and is one of the nicest options in the centre, although it’s a bit small and short of seating. Even more than elsewhere, many of the pubs in the centre of Dundee are former banks – there’s the Bank Bar, a former TSB branch at 7 Union St (which usually has four real ales on tap as well as gins and food), not to be confused with the Old Bank Bar at 34 Reform St, The Trades House at 40 Nethergate (with wonderful stained glass and an engraved mirror) or The Counting House at 67 Reform St (once a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland, opened in 1856). The last is a Wetherspoons, run by a Europhobic nutter, but it’s attractively restored and has decent enough (and cheap) beers, notably from Stewart’s in Edinburgh. Wetherspoons also run Jolly’s Hotel in Broughty Ferry and the Capital Asset in Perth (neither of which we sampled).

The best option in Broughty Ferry is the Fisherman’s Tavern, which has been in the Good Beer Guide since 1975 (except for 2013, whoops) – like The Trades House, it’s owned by Belhaven, which generally means a better than average pub.

In Perth, the Green Room (good for live music too), the Greyfriars Bar and the Kirkside Bar are the best real ale pubs, but actually the ideal would be to go a little way north to Moulin, a suburb of Pitlochry, where the Moulin Brewery has been building a great reputation since 1995 (Inveralmond isn’t bad either, but they’ve only been going since 1997, so what would they know?). The multinational craft beer monster that is Brewdog (founded in Aberdeen) also has pubs (or ‘bars’) in Dundee and Perth, if that’s your thing. I just noticed yesterday that Brewdog will be opening a pub here in Cambridge soon – good news, if you take the view that any new pub expands the market for real ale and good beer.

Update

As promised at the start – an update on Dundee’s cultural offering – the West Ward Works on Guthrie Street, where the Beano and Dandy annuals were printed, is to be redeveloped into a hub for designers, artists and other creative workers and companies, and will house a comic museum and spaces for live performances and exhibitions.
And it seems that an e-bike sharing scheme will open in July (2019) – presumably using charging stations rather than the dockless model that has become so popular recently for non-electric bike-sharing schemes.

Dundee – a tale of two V&As

A few years ago I stayed in Carnoustie and went across the Tay Bridge to St Andrews a few times – all I really noticed of Dundee then was the huge oil rigs immediately east of the city centre awaiting repair or decommissioning, and how the city’s waterfront was blighted by dual carriageways and lots of traffic queueing to get onto the bridge. Those remain true, although I also now know just how hard it is for pedestrians and cyclists to get across those roads, despite the efforts to open up the waterfront. I also know that they’re on reclaimed land, and the historic city centre (basically nineteenth- and twentieth-century) is largely intact just inland.

As with so many cities, the docks and railway sidings along the waterfront are being regenerated, which in the case of Dundee means (from west to east) a huge Tesco, some new loft-style apartment blocks, a Premier Inn, Captain Scott’s ship the RRS Discovery in a dry dock, and, best of all, just before the road bridge, the new outpost of London’s V&A (the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington – see below). This opened in September 2018 and I like many others noticed the publicity and wanted to take a look, but I was also here to cycle with Rob (qv) for a few days, to Perth, St Andrews, Carnoustie and elsewhere. To deal with the V&A first, it’s stunning externally, with a prow jutting out over the Firth of Tay, but also echoing the cliffs of Scotland’s east coast (with a ‘cave’ that you can walk or cycle through) and very striking but functional internally. The permanent display, on the history of Scottish design, is a bit smaller than one might expect but does give a great overview of one of the many things that makes Scotland special. For many people the highlight will be the Oak Room from Miss Cranston’s Tearooms in Glasgow, designed in 1907-8 by the great Charles Rennie Macintosh – I found it surprisingly low and dark, but definitely part of a continuum from Odön Lechner’s delightful Blue Church and other Secession buildings in Bratislava.

There’s a lot more to see, but my eye was caught by the theatrical posters (by John Byrne) and designs (by Bunny Christie and Finn Ross, who produced a stunning (and award-winning) set for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which I saw just a month or two ago). It’s also interesting that the UK’s video games industry was largely created in Dundee (essentially because Clive Sinclair’s Spectrum ZX was manufactured in the Timex factory from 1982) – Lemmings was released in 1991, and Grand Theft Auto in 1997. In 1997 Abertay University (formerly Dundee Institute of Technology) launched the world’s first degree in computer games design, and there’s been no looking back since. Dundee is also a biotech hub, arising out of the design of ingenious surgical instruments – so I should feel at home, as Cambridge is of course also a silicon and biotech hub. Silicon Fen and Silicon Forth, perhaps.

By sheer coincidence, a day after I got home to Cambridge, I read that a prototype ZX Spectrum (no case or anything fancy like that) has been donated to the city’s Centre for Computing History by John Grant who used it to create the machine’s BASIC code.

The permanent display at the V&A is free, and so is the city’s main museum, the McManus Museum and Art Gallery – this was founded in 1869 as the Albert Institute for Literature, Science and Art, allowing me to refer you both to the V&A in London (see below) but also to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, which I wrote about just a week or two back. Actually a lot of places remember Prince Albert, so it’s not the total coincidence it might seem. Anyway, it was closed for a refurb from 2006 to 2009 and is now in fine fettle, with good history displays leading up to the Dundee and the World room, showing off items from around the world collected by missionaries and merchants, and also by two redoubtable lady journalists sent off on a round-the-world trip in 1894 by DC Thomson (yes, the Dundee newspaper company that would later be famous for publishing the Beano and the Dandy), which turned out to be quite a coup for the company. Incidentally, the University of Dundee, not wanting to be outshone by Abertay, launched Masters courses in Comics and Graphic Novels in 2016, despite DC Thomson’s famous refusal to allow access to its archives.

There’s plenty more here, including ‘the best collection of late Victorian Scottish painting’ (displayed in a gallery built in 1889 with cunningly curved walls) – yes, there are various paintings by Rossetti, Millais, Landseer and Sargent, but I was as usual more interested in the slightly earlier portraitists Nasmyth, Raeburn and Ramsay. There are also quite a few paintings by William McTaggart (1835-1910, the so-called ‘Scottish Impressionist’), and a couple by John Maclauchlan Milne (1885-1957) the so-called ‘Dundee Colourist’ – he was a friend of Samuel Peploe and Francis Cadell, but there aren’t any works by the Scottish Colourists themselves (bright vibrant painters, somewhere between the Post-Impressionists and Canada’s Group of Seven). Finally, and perhaps not always on show, there’s Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004) who was born in St Andrews and kept studios there and in St Ives, giving another link to my recent travels.

Until the V&A docked here, Dundee’s best-known sight was the RRS (Royal Research Ship) Discovery, famed for taking Scott and Shackleton to the Antarctic, although she was also used for the Australian/New Zealand expedition of 1929-31, led by Douglas Mawson, and spent time in the Canadian Arctic too. I remember her being moored off the Embankment in London in the 1970s when she was flagship of the Royal Naval Reserve – I think I may even have been aboard, as my father was in the navy and also the Deep Sea Scouts (she was used by the Sea Scouts until 1954, definitely before my time). Anyway, we didn’t have time to visit, although a joint ticket with the Verdant Works (a former jute factory) is reasonable value. I did see HMS Unicorn, another wooden ship built in 1824 and at once converted to a floating depot ship – masts were never fitted, and the main deck was roofed over. She was towed from Chatham to Dundee and hasn’t moved since, so she’s in very good condition – but the first impression was so ludicrous that I couldn’t face visiting, even if I’d had time.

I did stick my nose into Dundee Contemporary Arts, which is celebrating its twentieth anniversary – it was between exhibitions, but there was a very energetic children’s art day going on and the bar is lively too – definitely recommended. After all this history and culture, and cycling, we needed a drink, of course – but I think I’ll leave that for another post.

In order to contrast and compare properly I popped into the V&A in London a month or two back – the decorative arts are not my thing, so I don’t often go there, but it is a pretty impressive place and has seen a lot of new development recently, such as the Sackler Courtyard (a new entrance from Exhibition Road) and the Photography Centre, displaying some of the vast archives of the V&A and the Royal Photographic Society, as well as some of the earliest cameras. In addition to recent blockbuster shows on David Bowie, Pink Floyd and various fashion icons, the V&A has just staged the major Videogames exhibition, which not exemplifies their urge to be relevant, nay trendy, but is also perfect for transfer to Dundee. The historic collections are in great nick too, in particular the Cast Courts, reopened in November 2018, housing full-size replicas of Michelangelo’s David, Trajan’s Column (important to Romanians and those of us who have written about Romania) and much more. The V&S was notorious for its Saatchi & Saatchi advertising campaign in the 1980s which described it as ‘An ace cafe with quite a nice museum attached’, but the Refreshment Rooms (the first in any museum, opened in 1856) really are amazing, with extravagant tiling and stained glass. The third room was one of William Morris’s first commissions, and one day I may write about visiting the Morris Museum in Walthamstow relatively recently – but probably only if somebody nags me.

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