Dundee: City of Discovery and the West Dunbartonshire Question

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, April 13th 2016

Dundee, Scotland’s fourth city is on the move. It is often forgotten about or even patronised by those in the Central Belt – ‘it is a place I have only passed through’ is a regular refrain I have heard over the years – and is still seen by many, as my astute Dundonian Auntie Betty observes, as a ‘Cinderella city’.

In reality contemporary Dundee is a hive of energy, optimism and purpose. The V&A is coming, Malmaison is already making a mark, and there is a welter of activity and investment in the Waterfront beside the Tay Road Bridge.

While Dundee looks to the future, it also showcases its past – with the McManus Galleries refurbished, and Dundee’s Jute Museum (Verdant Works) portraying the complex contribution that this product has made to the wealth, commerce and working class history of the city. Could a genuine ‘Dundee: City of Discovery’ replace its reputation as Scotland’s most forgotten and neglected city?

The travel writer H.V. Morton came to the city in the 1920s and found a city marred by poverty. He wrote that ‘it is a place of fearful inequality; riches and poverty are side by side; opulence and squalor hand in hand.’ The city in the 19th century became defined by women’s employment, particularly in the jute industry. One man ‘explained that his wife worked in the mill, while he was nurse, cook and housemaid! … This unnatural domestic life, is I believe, a characteristic of Dundee.’ The city became known as a woman’s town, even a ‘she town’ – a place where women were the breadwinners, and many men ‘kettle boilers’.

There is a tradition of caricaturing Dundee by outsiders and those who know little about it. One example was Merryn Somerset Webb, ‘Money Week’ editor, writing in ‘The Spectator’ before the indyref and surveying the Scottish property market. First she gets in a familiar dig about the city: ‘You may think of it as a miserable, failing Scottish town’, before adding the upbeat, ‘but you might not think that when the new Dundee V&A is up and running.’ Then she gets to the punchline: ‘You can buy two or three bedroom flats on the water in Dundee, close to the V&A site, for not much more than £100,000’ which represents ‘a UK property bargain’.

Visiting the impressive Jute Museum at Verdant Works last week, I met former jute worker, Lily Thomson, who left school in 1954 on Friday and started work the next Monday at the mill, continuing to work in the industry for the next twenty years, and is now a guide.

Lily is an example of all that is best in Dundonian working class women’s culture – one that I know well and grew up surrounded by. She was friendly, articulate, outgoing, funny and self-depreciating, showed us the intricate ways of machine and hand processing jute – commenting, ‘you never saw inside, or smelt the jute, until the first day you started.’

Nothing prepared you for the noise, Lily remembered, with many going deaf or losing some of their hearing (herself included), while others lost fingers in the fast-moving machines. I heard the first reflected many times amongst my family and their acquaintances when I was growing up; numerous older women who had worked in the jute industry would forever shout at you, ‘would you please speak up’, scarred by their years of work.

A very different take on our history was on display at the Verdant Works – The Great Tapestry of Scotland, as part of its national tour. It is an even more magnificent piece of imagination, history and craft in reality than reproduced in books and other media. It was inspired by Prestonpans based Andrew Crummy and created by hundreds of local groups, some based on geography, some family; nearly all, but not exclusively, created by the efforts and skills of women.

Its very existence and the sewing and making of it feel something wonderful and rather important. It says something about the Scotland of its creation, of how we see ourselves, our past and present, and maybe an aspect of our future. It portrays a remarkable history in vivid colours and illustrations, and incredible work, remembering prominent individuals, moments and statements. It is a very human take on Scotland’s history, one in equal parts humbling and inspiring.

Dundee has a feel that it is going places. There is buzz, ambition, drive and hope. Things are happening. Writing this as a Dundonian, with all the complex feelings one has for your hometown, a place I haven’t lived in for over twenty years, gives myself a good feeling. I like the fact that Dundee is changing.

Dundee may no longer be dominated by one industry to the extent it was when it earned the sobriquet ‘Juteopolis’, but most of the development already undertaken or underway is public sector led. There is an absence of significant private sector growth, notwithstanding Malmaison and the undoubted games industry successes.

One sizeable local employer told me, ‘The people who drive the flash cars, the Audis and the BMWs, all or mostly work in the public sector, and there are a lot of them.’ He, like Morton, before wondered about the scale of inequality in the city, ‘Something seems wrong in this. We have loads of people with very little. How do they get by? What is their future going to be if we don’t make things?’

These are big questions about not just Dundee but about Scotland and most of the West. What will work look like in the future? What do we do about those left behind and who are defined as low and no skilled? How can the gap be bridged between those who are increasingly outsiders in the job market, and those who are insiders with status, contacts and education?

Dundee being a small, compact city brings some of these issues into sharp contrast. The city, until the 1971 census, was the third city in Scotland population-wise, then surpassed by Aberdeen and the ensuing oil boom. Whatever happens to the oil price, it seems unlikely that Dundee will close that gap in the future, but the city’s civic leaders have shown an ambition and imagination.

Scotland needs futures beyond Glasgow, Edinburgh and the narrow bandwidth of Central Beltism. We know there is too much centralisation in public life: from central government to public agencies, business and media. One contributing factor in this is the emasculation of local government, combined with the absence of distinct and authoritative voices for most communities in Scotland which could be called the ‘who speaks for Alexandria or Renton question?’ Never mind the West Lothian question, what matters more in Scotland power wise is the West Dunbartonshire question.

The recent experience of Dundee shows the importance of local leadership from the council to public bodies and business uniting behind a common vision and getting things done. Dundee is on the move, but it still begs the question: what kind of future is it aspiring to and is it one that is that sustainable beyond services and tourism? But compared to most communities in Scotland Dundee has a voice and ambition, which begs the challenge: what prospect is there for the Alexandrias and Rentons of the world? In short, how and who will answer the West Dunbartonshire question?