According to The Sunday Times, Dundee is now the best place to live in Scotland. The new V&A, the rejuvenated dockside, a new station, and numerous fancy hotels have brought the city to the attention of the national press after many years of being seen as the Shame of Scotland (a phrase I have just made up, but which I’m sure everyone would have used if they’d heard it back then). I lived in Dundee at the turn of the century, leaving the city in 2004, and I disagree with The Sunday Times article.
Because Dundee was always the best place to live in Scotland, even when it wasn’t.
I was born in Glasgow but grew up in Warwickshire and the West Midlands. When I moved back to Scotland (escaping the fall-out from an extra-marital affair) I was lucky, I had friends in the city from my low-key music career and was welcomed immediately. I was able to plug straight into a vibrant music and arts scene, made up of a dizzying array of exceptionally talented people. I was introduced to a city groaning under the weight of artists, musicians, recording studios, independent venues, and tiny record labels. Being ignored by the rest of the world had created a micro-scene, almost entirely self-reliant, resigned to never being ‘discovered’ by the wider world (a sad irony, given the city’s slogan ‘The City of Discovery’)
The city was seen from the outside as run-down, a drab grey darkness sitting at the mouth of the Tay. Where once it had been famous for Jam, Jute, and Journalism, it was now (according to my new friends) the drug death capital of Europe, the AIDS capital of Europe, and the city with the highest level of recorded incest in, you guessed it, Europe. The accuracy of these claims left something to be desired. Certainly, the drug deaths were bad but it’s only recently that the city has officially gained the title (taking it from Glasgow, a city that fiercely defended its crown for many many years), while the AIDS capital was Edinburgh.
The last claim, that incest was more prevalent among the citizens of Dundee than anywhere else, appears to have been made up entirely. Why would anyone make that up? There was a mordant humour to the people of the city when I arrived, a sort of ‘We’re number one, so why try harder?’ attitude to make light of the many many problems facing them.
So, yes, Dundee had problems, but it was also brilliant, utterly brilliant. Small enough to walk from one end to the other in less than two hours, it had more hours of sunshine than anywhere else in the country due to its geography. Dundee had a comparatively low population of around 120,000 while still boasting two universities. During term time more than 10% of the population was students, and that constant flow of talented youth left its mark. Games companies sprung up, small venues flourished, local bands made some of the most amazing music I’ve ever heard.
Gerils epitomised the spirit of the city, a band who should have been massive contenting themselves with local infamy. There were more bands per head of population than anywhere else I’ve ever lived, and new ones constantly formed. Spare Snare, Stoor, the Wilderness Children, the Wild House, Danny Wilson, Candystore Prophets, Mercury Tilt Switch, Laeto, Snow Patrol (back when they were called Polarbear and sounded like Sebadoh) all played regularly at the Westport Bar, or Drouthy Neebors, or The Beat Bar, or the Balcony Bar. The local papers both ran weekly music columns, Radio Tay had a local music show, there was even a local TV station for a while, playing local music amongst videos by Muse, Alcazar, and Robbie Williams. A local website, called Underground Scene and run by a guy called KJ gave the huge pool of talent a place to argue in its lively forums.
The people of the city, gruff, sometimes bad-tempered, but always pragmatic grudgingly accepted change. This was nothing new to them, the city had already gained and lost industries, rope making had made the city wealthy in the 19th century but had then all been outsourced overseas, then Timex had provided employment building Sinclair ZX Spectrums in the 80s, before call centres came and went in the 90s and 00s. Change is practically baked into the fabric of Dundee.
I loved living in Dundee, I loved the streets, the Law, the dilapidated docks, the strip-light-illuminated pubs with tiled floors, the swearing pensioners, the miserable pre-redevelopment Overgate Shopping Centre. I loved the grim-faced pride the people had in just how shit their city was, the second-hand shops on Albert Street, the buses clad in West Midlands Travel livery for some peculiar and never fully understood reason. I loved the tenements, the miserable taxi drivers, the high-rise flats at the top of the Hilltown. I loved the DCA when it opened in the early 2000s, several years late and over budget.
I still love it and miss it every single day.
Dundee is the best place to live in Scotland, it’s the best place to live in the UK, and it’s probably top five in Europe. It always will be, even when it goes through periods of being awful. It is Dundee, it is number one, so why would it try harder?