A History of Dundee

By Tim Lambert

Dundee in the Middle Ages

Dundee grew up as a small port in the 11th and 12th centuries. Its name may be derived from the words Dun Diagh (Dun meant fort). In 1191 King William gave Dundee a charter. That was a document granting the townspeople certain rights. It gave them the right to have their own local government and their own court.

By the 14th century, Dundee was one of Scotland’s most important towns. It may have had a population of 4,000 people. That seems tiny to us but settlements were very small in those days.

Medieval Dundee was, of course, a busy port. Large quantities of wine were imported from France and Spain. Grain was also imported into Dundee. The main exports were hides and wool. At first raw wool was exported but by the 15th century, wool was woven and dyed in Dundee.

By the 13th century, Dundee had an annual fair. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year. People would come from all over Angus, Perthshire, and Fife to buy and sell at a Dundee fair.

In the 13th century, friars arrived in Dundee. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. The friars in Dundee were Dominicans. They were known as black friars because of their black costumes. Furthermore, St Mary’s Church was built in the 14th century.

In the Middle Ages Dundee had a castle. It was probably built at the end of the 12th century. Little is known about Dundee Castle and it is not known exactly when it was demolished. The castle lives on in the name of Castle Street.

Dudhope Castle was built in the 13th century for a family who were the hereditary constables of Dundee. It was rebuilt in the 16th century.

Dundee in the 16th century and 17th century

The population of Dundee rose sharply in the 16th and early 17th centuries. In the early 16th century the population of Dundee was probably about 7,000. It may have reached 11,000 by 1650.

In the 16th century, the wool industry in Dundee flourished and large amounts were exported. Goods from Scandinavia and the Baltic such as timber, pitch, and hemp were imported into Dundee. There were also many fishermen in the town.

However, disaster struck Dundee in 1548 when it was partly burned by the English. However, Dundee soon recovered. In 1592 a wall was built around Dundee to protect it from attack.

After 1591 the streets of Dundee were cleaned. However, like all towns at that time, Dundee suffered from epidemics. There was a severe outbreak of plague in 1607-08.

After the Reformation, the Queen gave the land that once belonged to the grey friars to the townspeople of Dundee to use as a cemetery. It became known as the Howff (which means meeting place) because the craftsmen held meetings there.

In 1651 the English general, Monck, took Dundee and his troops spent 2 weeks sacking the town. In 1657 he ordered the demolition of the town walls.

Dundee suffered another setback in 1658 when a storm damaged the harbour. In the late 17th century Dundee declined. The old wool industry declined and the population may have fallen.

Dundee in the 18th century

However, in the 18th century, Dundee began to revive. This was partly due to a new industry of making linen. Flax was imported into Dundee and the finished product was exported. There was also an important thread-making industry in Dundee in the 18th century and a leather industry. Whaling was another important industry in the 18th century. From the end of the 18th century, Dundee was also known for making marmalade.

Several new buildings were erected in Dundee in the 18th century. City Hall was built in 1731. St Andrews Church was built in 1772. An infirmary opened in Dundee in 1798.

One famous 18th century Dundonian was Admiral Adam Duncan 1731-1804 who smashed the Dutch fleet at the Battle of Camperdown in 1797.

Dundee in the 19th century

In 1801 the population of Dundee was 26,000. By the standards of the time, it was a large and important town. By 1861 the population had risen to over 90,000. Part of the rise was due to Irish immigration. Many Irish people arrived in Dundee in the mid-19th century fleeing the potato famine.

The rise in population occurred despite several epidemics. Cholera struck Dundee in 1832, 1849, 1853, and 1866. There were also outbreaks of typhus in 1837 and 1847. Like all 19th century towns, Dundee was dirty, unsanitary, and overcrowded. Those who could afford to move to new houses in the suburbs.

However, conditions in Victorian Dundee gradually improved. Gaslight was introduced into Dundee in 1826. In 1845 a water company was formed to provide Dundee with piped water. However, you had to pay to be connected and it was not until the late 19th century that piped water became common.

In the 1870s a network of sewers was created in Dundee. The council also created public parks. The Law opened in 1878. It was followed by Dudhope Park in 1893 and Lochee Park in 1899. The first public baths in Dundee opened in 1891. Furthermore from 1876 horse-drawn trams ran in the streets of Dundee.

For most of the 19th century, the whaling industry in Dundee prospered but it went into a steep decline at the end of the century. In the 19th century, shipbuilding became a major industry in Dundee. The linen industry gave way to jute. This fibre was imported from India and was used to make sacks. By the mid-19th century, the jute industry in Dundee was booming and employed many people.

Until the 19th century, ships were tied up on the banks of the Tay but in 1825 the first wet dock in Dundee, King William IV dock was built. It was followed by Earl Grey Dock in 1834, Camperdown Dock in 1865, and Victoria Dock in 1875.

One famous person born in Dundee was William McGonagall (1830-1902) who has a claim to be Scotland’s worst poet!

Dundee in the 20th century

Between 1899 and 1902 horse-drawn trams were replaced by electric ones. Amenities in Dundee continued to improve and Victoria Park opened in 1906.

Furthermore in the 1920s and 1930s Dundee council built the first council houses. After 1945 the council built many more council houses north of the Kingsway ring road.

Unfortunately, like all of Scotland, Dundee suffered severely in the Depression of the 1930s. Jute and shipbuilding both suffered. However, the marmalade industry was still prosperous and in 1920 DC Thompson began printing comics in Dundee. Prosperity returned to Dundee during World War II when the shipyards worked incessantly. However, after 1945 they declined. Shipbuilding in Dundee ended altogether in 1982.

After 1945 Dundee Council tried to diversify industry. New industrial estates were built in Dundee. New industries in Dundee in the later 20th century included light engineering. Timex watches came to Dundee in the late 1940s but they closed in 1993. In the 1980s a new Technology Park was built at Dundee. The first units were occupied in 1985. Today tourism is an important industry.

Dundee docks declined in the 20th century. Earl Grey dock closed in 1963 and then was filled in. Meanwhile, in the 1960s and 1970s, much of the city centre was rebuilt. Overgate was rebuilt in the 1960s. Kingsway Technical College opened in 1964 and the Tay Road Bridge opened in 1966.

Dundee University became independent in 1967 and Barnhill Shopping Centre opened in 1971. A new leisure centre opened in 1974. Also in 1974, Ninewells Hospital opened.

Wellgate Shopping Centre opened in 1978. A new Central Library also opened in 1978. Furthermore, The Discovery returned to Dundee in 1986. Discovery Point Visitor Centre opened in 1993. Verdant Works Museum of Jute Working opened in 1996 and Dundee Contemporary Arts opened in 1999.

Dundee in the 21st century

In 2000 the new Overgate Shopping Centre opened. Dundee Ice Arena also opened in 2000. Then in 2014, UNESCO designated Dundee a City of Design.

A view of the River Tay
The River Tay

Meanwhile, in the last years of the 20th century, the population of Dundee fell slightly. In 2024 the population of Dundee was 147,000.

A Timeline of Dundee

c. 1100 A small port grows up at Dundee

1191 King William gives Dundee a charter (a document granting the people certain rights)

1349 Dundee is a thriving town with a population of about 4,000. Wine is imported. So is grain. Wool and hides are exported.

1520 The population of Dundee has risen to about 7,000 and it is growing rapidly. The wool industry in Dundee is flourishing and big amounts are exported. Timber, pitch and hemp from the Baltic and Scandinavia are imported.

1548 Dundee is partly burned by the English

1591 Street cleaning begins in Dundee

1592 A wall is built around Dundee

1607-08 Plague strikes Dundee

1650 The population of Dundee is about 11,000

1651 The English capture Dundee

1657 The English demolish the walls around Dundee

1658 Dundee Harbour is badly damaged by a storm

1731 City Hall is built

1750 Dundee is known for its linen industry and whaling

1798 An infirmary opens in Dundee

1801 The population of Dundee is 26,000

1825 King William IV Dock is built

1826 Dundee gains gaslight

1832 Cholera strikes Dundee

1845 A water company is founded in Dundee to provide piped water

1849 Cholera strikes Dundee again

1861 The population of Dundee is over 90,000. Shipbuilding is a major industry in Dundee. So is jute.

1876 Horse-drawn trams run in Dundee

1878 The Law opens

1893 Dudhope Park opens

1899 Lochee Park opens

1899-1902 Dundee trams are electrified

1906 Victoria Park opens

1920 D C Thompson begins making comics in Dundee

1963 Earl Grey Dock closes

1964 Kingsway Technical College opens

1966 Tay Road Bridge opens

1971 Barnhill Shopping Centre opens

1974 Ninewells Hospital opens

1978 Wellgate Shopping Centre opens. A new Central Library opens in Dundee.

1986 The Discovery returns to Dundee

1996 Verdant Works Museum of Jute Working opens

1999 Dundee Contemporary Arts opens

2000 The new Overgate Shopping Centre opens. Dundee Ice Arena opens.