A brief history of Dundee



There is archaeological evidence of burials going back to 3500 BC and Iron Age Pictish settlements around the Dundee Law, the 140m elevation that was formed as a volcanic plug. Although not widely acknowledged the Romans did invade Scotland and, around 83 AD under Julius Agricola, got at least as far north as Dundee. The port, which was then called Deeuana, was used keep the invading Roman army supplied. However, it’s not until the 12th century that the name Dundee, or Dùn Dèagh, appears in a historical record. The name probably meant Fort of Fire, the Dundee Law being an ideal spot for a fort and beacon. In 1191 the town received a charter making it a royal burgh, which would indicate that already, by that time, the town was of a considerable size.

Throughout the 13th and 14th century Dundee was one of the Scottish coastal towns that were constantly involved in wars with England, most memorably those between Edward I of England and William Wallace of Scotland. During these times the city’s royal charter was revoked and re-invoked, according to who was occupying the castle. Ultimately Robert the Bruce had the final say who, after razing the castle to dislodge the English king, confirmed its burgh status on the town. The end of the 14th century saw the town embroiled in the ‘Hundred Years War’. Despite this being between France and England the English King - Richard II - took Dundee and razed the whole town, after Scotland had sided with France under what was known as the ‘auld alliance’.

A period of rebuilding followed up to the mid 16th century, which included building a wall around the whole town. In 1547 the town suffered a bombardment by the navy of Henry VIII, as he tried to impose the Protestant religion after marrying his son, the Duke of Cornwall, to Mary Queen of Scots - who maintained the ‘auld alliance’. Another 100 years of relative calm and peace was shattered again as the ‘War of Three Kingdoms’ and the ‘English Civil War’ raged. Dundee was invaded for the last time in 1651, when under General Monck, the Parliamentarians laid waste to the town and killed almost one fifth of its 12,000 population.

In 1707 the ‘act of Union’ saw Scotland joining England and Wales in the formation of Great Britain. The ensuing period of stability saw Dundee go from strength to strength in its industrial progress and financial growth. Located on a large estuary, the Firth of Tay, Dundee had always maintained a strong maritime tradition. From 1753 onwards that tradition included whaling, with Dundee becoming the most important British port involved in the whaling trade. To support this trade a thriving shipbuilding industry developed, which built many whaling ships that were used throughout northern Europe.

As with so many UK cities and towns the 19th century was a boom time for Dundee. The city had important shipbuilding and railway engineering works, as well as probably being the world leader in the manufacture of Jute products. Prior to this, with its many streams in the surrounding crags, Dundee had profited from the woollen and textiles mills that had sprung up around the town.
At its peak, in the 19th century, the Jute industry employed over 40,000 people in the city, not far off half its population at that time.  Up until the time of the Crimean war flax, imported from the countries around the Baltic Sea, had been in common use in the UK. After that war Jute, from India, was used as a substitute. However, to process Jute a readily available supply of whale oil is required. The combination of already being a whaling port and the ease with which the Jute could be imported to the city port of Dundee, meant that it was in an ideal position to rapidly become known as ‘Juteopolis’ A combination of the end of the whaling industry in Dundee and cheaper Jute product imports from India signalled the decline of the Jute trade in the early 20th century.
Utilising the engineering skills of shipbuilding, Dundee was one of the first cities in Scotland to establish railways linking it to other places in the country; for example links were built from Dundee to; Newryle (1831), Arbroath (1840) and to Aberdeen in 1849. These routes were integral to the development of the Caledonian Railway. Sadly, the first rail bridge over the Firth of Tay collapsed under the weight of a full train during a violent storm the same year that it was opened, 1879, with the loss of 75 lives. The second bridge, opened in 1887, still stands today.

The depravations that came early in the 20th century, with the end of whaling and the loss of the Jute industry, led to the city gaining a reputation as being one on the extreme left of social politics. Whilst this is undoubtedly unfair to the citizens, the city was a leading light in the suffragette movement.

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