A walk through Dundee ( with a few wee stories) part one
Saturday 25 April 2020
This is us 5 weeks into the lockdown, setup to combat the Coronavirus epidemic. We are allowed out only for work in necessary industries, food shopping and limited exercise. These strictures were imposed rather late in the epidemic and travel from abroad has not yet been included which means that our airports are bringing in thousands of people every day without any testing or quarantine . This lack of proper policy has no doubt caused many unnecessary deaths and hopefully will be properly investigated in due course.
Hwever that is for another day and today I decided to walk into and around the center of Dundee. Leaving the house I started down Westgrove Avenue towards the Perth Rd , Westgrove Avenue is a nice Lane bounded by high sandstone walls , keeping the homes on either side very Private. There are some lovely buildings here. this being part of the West end of the city and many of the houses here were built during the hay days of the Jute industry in the late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds, by the Jute barons. The West end was chosen, as the prevailing wind is from the west and kept the smell from the slums and tenements in the center of the city away from the abodes of the privileged class at that time . Most of the large houses and almost mini estates have been converted into smaller housing units and flats but still probably the most desirable part of the city.
After a brisk downhill walk I turned left at the Perth road, heading towards the City Centre. I passed the Harris School , recently completely rebuilt and indeed the school that three of my children attended.
Not far from the school is the western cemetery. It was originally opened by a commercial company in 1845; it was purchased by the City of Dundee District Council in 1979. In 2007, a group of local residents, supported by the West End Community Council, founded the Western Cemetery Association, to maintain the character and appearance of the cemetery.
Continuing along the Perth Road past Windsor street on the right I came to the Sinderens which sits at the junction of the Perth Road Hawkhill and Blackness avenue overlooked by the impressive Blackness Library. The Sinderins in Dundee refers to a parting of the ways or sundering of the roads, one going east along the present Perth Road and the other up the Hawkhill.
Blackness library was one of the libraries built through the generosity of Andrew Carnegie , born in Dunfermline and made his fortune in the steel industry in America. He was a ruthless businessman and in later live made amends for his exploitation of his workforce by becoming a philanthropist . His philanthropy being expressed in his home country by donating libraries in most of the large cities. Carnegie hall in New York was another of his gifts
So leaving the Sinderins and continuing along the Perth Road I passed one of the most beautiful cobbled lanes in the country . Strawberry bank, which leads from the Perth Road to Magdalen Yard road.
And so to the heart break of the walk . My local, Mennies, or to give it its Sunday name The Speedwell bar . Closed because of the lock down. It is given the name Mennies after one of the previous owners , a Mrs. Mennie, who ran a tight ship, so much so that she once threw the Rolling stones out of the pub for rowdiness after one of their concerts in the Caird hall.
Mennies, always a place where you will get a cheery welcome from mine host Jonathan Stewart together with the many costumers who pass through the doors of probably one of the most popular hostelries in Dundee. A hive of political intrigue and the place the Yes bus team would come to after a day in the city square during the independence campaign in 2014. Sad to see it with the shutters up during this lock down
Onward towards the City center, passing Ryhill church , which like many churches these days, has been converted into flats. Ryehill church is situated on a very restricted site on the corner of Perth Road and Mid Wynd. It was designed by George Shaw Aitken in 1878 and completed in 1889.
Onward , passing Duncan of Jordonston Collage of Art & Design (DJCAD) which is part of the University of Dundee. It is ranked as one of the top schools of art and design in the United Kingdom and has an outstanding reputation in teaching, practice and research. A couple of hundred meters and I came to Seabraes garden, a beautiful Oasis. just off the normally busy Perth road with its confusion of palm trees and a mini band stand. Great views out over the river Tay and a great excuse to stop for a break and take in the views on this glorious day.
Almost directly across the road from the garden is the university of Dundee. The University of Dundee is a public research university. Founded in 1881 the institution was, for most of its early existence, a constituent college of the University of St Andrews alongside United College and St Mary’s College located in the town of St Andrews itself. Following significant expansion, the University of Dundee gained independent university status in 1967 while retaining much of its ancient heritage and governance structure.
The university is at the cutting edge of medical research being linked to Ninewells hospital which is one of the largest teaching hospitals in the UK. At present they are working on a cure for Covid 19 and are expecting trials to start this week.
So, after a well deserved rest I continued towards the City center, shortly passing by the Queens hotel. An imposing building with a sandstone façade. Opened in 1878 by Dundee wine merchant Col Smith as a “Station Hotel” in anticipation of the imminent arrival of the railway station in Dundee it was famously described as the “swankiest, poshest hotel in Bonnie Dundee”. It once had Winston Churchill as a guest when he was a Member of Parliament for the city. A career that was short lived as he was defeated by Nedy Scrimgeour who believe it or not stood on an abolitionist ticket. Churchill never quite got over that, and he once said that he would” see the weeds grow in the streets of Dundee”, not realizing that the people of Dundee looked upon his removal as being well rid of one of the weeds.
Coincidently the Queens is in fact the scene of a couple of my political interventions in recent years., The first being in 2016 the week before the Scottish parliamentary elections when I walked out on a meeting that Nicola Sturgeon was speaking at. The reason being that I had been deliberately prevented from posing the question as to why she had not included in the manifesto for the forthcoming election, the intention to wrest control of the ability to hold a Scottish referendum from Westminster ( section 30). A question that will forever haunt her as she has been refused a section 30 now on several occasions.
The second occasion, was relatively recently, in fact just before the most recent UK General Election when the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbin came to town. He had recently announced that he would not countenance granting permission for Scotland to hold a referendum on independence . The same section 30 that I wished to ask Nicola Sturgeon about. This time I had decided not to be quite so polite as I had been with Nicola Sturgeon and had opted for a more direct approach.
Several problems had to be overcome one was entry to the room where the meeting was to take place, which by coincidence was the same room that Nicola Sturgeon had used. The other problem was that I knew there was no question and answer session planned. As far as entry was concerned, it is well known in Dundee that I am not a supporter of the labor party and in fact came up against them on numerous occasions during the independence campaign in 2014. Therefore signing in to the meeting was not an option.
There are two entrances to that room one direct from the car park at the rear and one from a staircase which leads from the hotel reception. I decided on the staircase option as it has a bend in it and lent itself more aptly to a discreet entry.
I simply walked into the reception , milled with some of the people standing about and edged my way to the top of the staircase and made my way down, stopping at the bend to surreptitiously peer around to see what lay ahead. Problem! there was a table at the entrance to the room manned by one of the officials, however as I looked he picked up some papers and made his way into the room. I quickly followed him and it must have looked as though I had entered the room with him. Once in the door he turned right and I turned left, walking around the back of the people who by this time were all seated. I found a row with spare seats and managed to get myself about the center of the room with people on both sides of me, the idea being that if the worst came to the worst they would have a job getting to me.
When I came in I had noticed a few eyebrows going up amongst the audience but no reaction from the officials. I heard later from someone close to Labour that I had been noticed but they had been of the opinion that they could “contain any problem”
I started up a conversation with the lady next to me and it turned out that she was in fact a supporter of independence. Eventually Jeremy came in and started his speech, much of which I agreed with. It looked like he was not going to address the independence issue so I decided to take the bull by the horns and stood up . “Jeremy” , I said, “I would like to ask why to think fit to deprive the Scottish people of the democracy they deserve by refusing a section 30. Are you not a believer in democracy” Jeremy decided that he would continue with his speech and I had decided that he wouldn’t, so I raised my voice to counter the fact that he had a mike. meanwhile panic ensued among the officials. I had considered, that because Jeremy was the leader of the opposition at Westminster he could in all possibility have had the services of MI5 officers who would be armed therefore I had to be very careful not to go over the score or in any way allow them to think I might pose a danger to their charge. This was one of the reasons I had deliberately positioned myself deep into the audience.
Three officials including Jim Mc Govern ( previous MP for Dundee West) tried to get past the people sitting to my left and did not make a very good job of it. They were shouting at me to get out and getting in one another’s way.One of them took hold of my shoulder. Now I realized that this was in fact assault, and because this was a licensed premises the only people who could ask me to leave was the management or employees of the license holder. I told the guy to take his hands off me and made it very plain that if they touched me again they would be responsible for the consequences .
Meanwhile the audience had turned into a baying mob and once I had pushed off the three ineffectual and self appointed bouncers I turned and said to Jeremy( who had actually stopped talking at this point) at the same time pointing to the mob , “so this is what you call democracy”. I had made my point and decided to leave, heading for the door which led to the car park.
If anyone is interested I covered this incident in more detail including the aftermath in a blog I did the following day titled “The dark heart of New Labour”.
As I walked past the Queens all of this came back to me, I afforded myself a wry smile.
As a foot note, that day, after the meeting when Jeremy was interviewed, he had changed his mind about granting the section 30 and his position was now that he could grant it within a couple of years of taking power
At this point in the walk, the Perth road stops and the street becomes the Nethergate before crossing West Marketgate.
Continuing past the Overgate Shopping Mall I stopped at the Old Steeple, my memory going back to my childhood and of climbing the steps to the top of the tower. Sometimes called St Marys tower , it has stood against fire and siege since the 15th century. It held out against Cromwell when his forces laid siege to the City in 1651 until the holding forces were smoked out.
I remember when the council were changing the road and gardens outside the Steeple, the workmen came across a large amount of skeletons, which ,it was thought. were buried there during and after the siege.
Sitting in front of the steeple is a memorial to Mary Slessor. A missionary who started as a worker in Baxter Brothers one of Dundee’s Jute mills . She went to Africa to spread the word of the Bible and as you can see on her memorial she persuaded the natives to abandon their ” superstitions” I think what it should say is that she “replaced” their superstitions.
So that was me at the two mile mark with quite a bit to go but a perfect day for it. I will finish it there for the day and carry on with part two of the walk tomorow , to save anyone from falling asleep. Hopefully when all of this is over , people will get out and walk , it is great exercise and it costs nothing , especially when all the shops are closed.