V&A Museum of Design © VisitScotland / Kenny Lam

Not all Jute, Jam and Journalism

8th February 2019

Deborah Mulhearn explores Scotland’s cool and culturally ambitious ‘City of Discovery’…

The new V&A Museum of Design, with its strange concrete slats and twisting, truncated structure is drawing people in droves to Dundee’s waterfront on the Firth of Tay in eastern Scotland.

But we don’t start there. We park at the top of the hill just inside the inner ring road and start walking down towards the river through the city centre, fully expecting to spend most of our time admiring the new museum, inside and out.

First, though, we find ourselves dawdling in the city centre, waylaid by its mellow stone buildings and piazza-like squares. It’s a quiet Sunday morning, so far peopled only by early shoppers and a few buskers competing in a desultory way. It feels continental, like a planned city centre, with impressive architectural set pieces and the curved facades of caramel sandstone terraces turning graceful corners into broad streets that sweep down to the river.

The large civic buildings have different architectural styles – the neo-Classical High School, the colonnaded Caird Hall and the delightful Gothic/Scottish baronial, almost fairytale McManus (you can almost imagine Cinderalla running down the curving steps below the turretted roofline) – but what they have in common is open, spacious settings.

We are further distracted by a series of delightful bronze street sculptures that include penguins and the legendary Strathmartine dragon, but most of all, comic strip characters from the stable of publishers DC Thomson, creators in the 1930s of The Dandy and The Beano.

Here’s Desperate Dan, belly full of cow pie, striding along with his trusty bulldog Dawg straining at the leash to growl at Minnie the Minx, following hot on their heels, cheeky grin and catapult at the ready. No matter that Dan was from The Dandy while Minnie graced the pages of The Beano (still does in fact, while Dan disappeared with The Dandy in 2012) – because here’s Oor Wullie from the Sunday Post, sitting on a low wall nearby and aiming his peashooter at the poetic behind of Robert Burns, himself gracing a plinth a little way off.

This statue of Burns is very much how the late Victorians would have seen him, or cast him, as the thoughtful poet gazing skywards, quill pen in hand. It’s more than likely, however, that the real Burns would have been chuckling at the pages of The Beano and The Dandy had he lived in our times.

These well-loved comic strip characters are claiming a new generation of impish little fans, typified in the form of my seven-year old nephew, Theo, whom we are having trouble prising away. Even if he has no idea of their provenance, it’s clear they are perennial favourites.

Dundee, of course, is still the home of DC Thomson. As well as The Beano, they also publish The People’s Friend, the longest running women’s magazine in the world, with its distinctive hand-drawn front covers and homely domesticity – and now own the genealogy website findmypast.

Once we have enticed Theo away from the statues with the promise of food, we choose (and now recommend) the café of the McManus in Albert Square, the museum and art gallery originally known as ‘the Albert’ after Victoria’s Prince Consort. This is a wonderful city museum, with serene, uncluttered galleries – one with a beautifully-preserved wooden beamed roof – that offer an eclectic range of treasures including a huge whale skeleton, fine decorative arts and dramatic maritime paintings.

In the café where we stop for a hearty lunch, a beautiful stained glass window celebrates Mary Slessor, a Dundee jute factory worker who became a missionary in Nigeria. We all love the McManus, including Theo, and are so glad we sidestepped into it for a couple of hours.

Eventually we are pulled towards the broad and breathtaking Tay, the longest river in Scotland and scene of the Tay Bridge disaster in 1880, memorialised in an oft-ridiculed poem by William McGonagall. At first, as it starts to peek between the buildings, the V&A fails to impress. It’s not as tall or as imposing as we expected; it has no look-at-me asymmetrical roofline or metallic cladding to draw the eye. It looks like a great inverted earthern iceberg, or an upturned pyramid, twisted at the waist like a dun-coloured Rubik’s Cube, and shoved askew into the ground.

But moving around it, seeing it from different angles and allowing the vistas to reveal it to full effect in its watery setting, it starts to deliver its £80m promise. The concrete slats are apparently influenced by the landscape of north east Scotland and, in particular, the striations of the rock coastline.

After a while I like that it doesn’t shout about itself too much and overwhelm the surrounding riverfront, which is, frankly, still in development. Now, closer up, it feels more like a moated crusader castle, standing sentinel on the river, that draws you into its depths. There’s a sense of crossing a drawbridge into an enclosed world. It’s actually two buildings joined together at high level, so from some angles it looks like a catamaran.

Inside, the high and airy foyer also reminds me of a medieval great hall or hull of a docked ship, animated by commingling crowds and warmed by rows of sauna-like timber sloping up the walls. I’m not sure what their function is, if indeed they have one, but it’s a fabulous communal space, rare in its generosity of space and light. Up the stairway that clings to the vertiginous inside walls, windows and terraces look out to vantage points across the Tay, and again it reminds me of a defensive, protective structure, but one that envelops all within.

There are two major spaces upstairs; one for temporary exhibitions and the other a permanent gallery dedicated to Scottish design. This is absorbingly eclectic, drawn from the V&A’s wide-ranging collections to tell this particular story. There are exquisite Paisley shawls, a French illuminated Book of Hours containing Scottish saints, a meticulously reconstructed Charles Rennie Mackintosh tearoom interior, dazzling jewellery, high couture dresses, a linoleum elephant (linoleum was made in Kirkcaldy across the Tay in Fife), and contemporary video and computer games (modern Dundee is home to an array of high-tech industries). And of course, DC Thomson artwork.

The regeneration project also encompasses the RRS Discovery, Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic exploration vessel, sited alongside the V&A. This wooden sailing ship was built in the city’s shipyards and launched in 1901. It’s a reminder of Dundee’s historic shipbuilding and maritime trading industry but also its role in British polar exploration. It’s now a floating (and very atmospheric) museum ship alongside a permanent landside exhibition called Discovery Point.

The jute, jam and journalism that Dundee was known for have now all but receded into history and heritage. The Keiller jam factory and jute mills have long gone, though Verdant Works, a former jute mill, is now a museum. The jute industry was associated with Dundee from the mid-nineteenth century, when the poorly paid, mainly female workforce produced sacking, ropes and horse bags until after the First World War, when the industry declined, but not before jute barons such as James Key Caird had built imposing buildings such as Caird Hall.

Dundee also knows how to honour its women. There is a fascinating Dundee Women’s Trail, marked by 25 plaques across the city commemorating not just the great and good female philanthropists who put up their money for grand schemes, but also unsung women who campaigned for better conditions for women workers from maids to millworkers.

There are also women who ran businesses such as Janet Keiller, who, with her son James, ran the famous Keiller jam and marmalade company. Janet is believed to have been the first to make marmalade with peel after James unwittingly purchased a consignment of bitter Seville oranges. If you hate the bits in marmalade, blame Janet.

It’s unlikely that Dundee would have made National Geographic Traveller magazine’s Cool List for 2019 (sandwiched between Bhutan and Uganda as number 16 of 19 destinations to visit in 2019) if it were not for the V&A. But a visit here is not all about the new museum, stunning though that is.

When we emerge from Discovery Point, it’s too late for us to visit Verdant Works, and too dark to see the Howff, the ancient graveyard right in the heart of the city. But Dundee is, after all, the designated City of Discovery, as well as home to the ship Discovery. We have made many discoveries, and we know there is so much more to draw us back.

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