There are two reasons why I wanted to travel to Dundee from Edinburgh Waverley Station rather than Glasgow Queen Street. The first is that I was keen to stop off for a couple of beers in one of my favourite bars, Brass Monkey, seeing that it had been nigh upon twenty months since I was last able to venture in. It didn’t matter that at two o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon I was the only person in the pub for much of my time there. I was just glad to be back, sitting in blissful solitude with a pint and my Bill Bryson book. Notes From a Big Country and peace from an empty bar. On my way back to Waverley to catch my train north, I stopped into The Piemaker on South Bridge for a quick steak pie – not that there is ever any other kind. As I sat devouring my meat and gravy encased in pastry, I listened as an American woman entered the store to enquire about the ingredients of a cottage pie. She left immediately upon learning that it contains mince and potatoes, and I couldn’t stop thinking for the rest of the day that this American woman had most likely been disappointed not to find a pie with a traditional sweet filling, such as apple, cherry or pecan.
My main objective for making the journey to Dundee through Edinburgh instead of Glasgow was the anticipation of seeing the Forth Bridge, which was completed in 1890 and was once voted Scotland’s greatest man-made wonder. The bridge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the subject of one of the country’s most popular colloquialisms for describing a never-ending task – that it is “like painting the Forth Bridge”; a saying that comes from the famously mistaken belief that the bridge is so vast that it requires a fresh coat of paint as soon as the previous one has been applied completely. My nose was pressed against the glass windowpane as the train began the crossing between the villages of South Queensferry and North Queensferry, eyes eager to catch sight of the iconic landmark. Across the glistening Firth of Forth, I could see the new Queensferry Crossing sitting behind the Forth Road Bridge, which was around the same point that I realised that of course I wouldn’t be able to see the rail bridge when I was travelling on the rail bridge. I could hardly mask my disappointment. It was the first time in hours that I wasn’t thinking about the cottage pie.
Scotland’s fourth-largest city had never appealed to me in the same way that it did now that we have been through a pandemic. Dundee has always had a hard-earned reputation, both at home, where the 19th Century judge Lord Cockburn once described the city as “a sink of atrocity which no moral flushing seems capable of cleansing” and abroad, such as when the American travel writer Paul Theroux wrote of it as being “an interesting monstrosity”. People in every part of Scotland will often use the unflattering moniker of Scumdee in reference to the city, which was historically the most industrialised in the country. A problematic relationship with alcohol pervaded the place, something which particularly irked the infamous poet William McGonagall – often referred to as the world’s worst.
Despite regularly denouncing publicans for the perceived sin of pedalling alcohol, McGonagall would frequently recite his terrible poetry in pubs, knowing that he could make money from the drunks. During his performances he was often pelted with bags of suit, tins, rotten eggs, and old boots, until he was finally forced into retiring from the stage when he received a brick in the stomach, making my own spoken word performances seem like a resounding success. Back in those days, it is said that Dundee had 389 pubs – one for every 43 people in the city. Today it has 115 such establishments, approximately one for every 1,278 people. I just had to find the right one for me.
Directly outside the entrance to my hostel stood the statue of one of Dundee’s many comic book legends, Desperate Dan. How funny that there should be two of us in the same place, I thought, with no one to make the joke to. There are statues to be found all over the city centre, from Minnie the Minx to Oor Wullie, and from an enormous green dragon that stalks the main shopping precinct to the titular Lemmings from the popular computer game that was created here in the early nineties, whose bronze beings can be found climbing a wall on Perth Road if you follow the right route.
Having dropped my luggage off in my modest private twin room, I ventured over to Trades House bar & restaurant for something to eat and to watch the football. It was there that I was reminded of the absurdity of dining on a solo trip, when you usually end up feeling like an exhibit in a wildlife park. It’s similar to the sense of utter dread and shame I have if I am ever sitting on a public bench eating a bacon roll I have bought from Greggs, when I can’t help but think that every passer-by is viewing this strange and unbecoming scene in judgment as I try to catch the brown sauce before it trickles down my chin. It never seems to matter that I am perfectly aware that everyone has much more important things to be doing than watching a stranger eat, such as checking their messages, pushing a pram in a straight line or keeping their eyes on the road.
Upon walking into the bar, the waitress began to wipe down a table for four, and already the scene was playing over in my mind. Groups of people staring at the three enormous empty chairs surrounding me, talking amongst themselves, speculating on the reasons why I wasn’t with company. It was only when the waitress had concluded her duties in line with current Covid protocol that I suggested I might feel more comfortable if I could sit at the table for two by the television, something I could never have done without the security of a mask stopping my lack of confidence from spraying all over her.
My order of beer-battered halloumi with sweet potato fries was simultaneously the best and worst decision I have ever made. Everything on the plate was perfectly palatable, but the three chunks of halloumi were as thick as a child’s fist, and after eating them I worried that I might never be able to sleep again. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that at the table facing me sat a couple who, on all available evidence, appeared to have tattoos on every part of their bodies. Arms, ankles, faces, scalps. Virtually every inch of visible flesh on the pair of them was inked. I could hardly concentrate on finishing my food or watching whichever game of football was being screened for wondering whether the couple had as many tattoos before they met one another or if they just became hyper-competitive during the course of their relationship.
It was with a belly full of barely digested Cypriot cheese that I waddled forth, onwards to The Pillars Bar a street away. Any lingering discomfort soon dissipated once I walked in and found a pub that looked just like any of my other favourites. The bar seemed busy for a Wednesday night, though something told me that you would find most of these same people here regardless of which night you happened to drop in. There was a crackle in the air, and it wasn’t just from the sound of voices. You could tell that something was going to happen; it could have been anything.
One guy ordered a pint of Peroni and sat it on the bar next to where I was standing. He was around my height, needed glasses like I do, had hair that was maybe a little shorter than mine is, and wore a thin layer of stubble on his face. Everything about him was like watching a bad sci-fi doppelgänger version of myself, with the exception of the multiple piercings he had in each ear and the Dundonian accent he spoke with. The Dundee Doppelgänger abandoned his lager and wandered around the bar, trying unsuccessfully to engage in conversation with various people. It was uncanny. He managed to convince one guy to show him how to operate the jukebox, which was free, but he couldn’t get the hang of it. I could tell that he was becoming exacerbated, so I nudged him in the ribs and reminded him that he still had a pint to drink, knowing that lager usually helps soothe me in such situations. Whether he could see the same similarities in me that I was seeing in him I’ll never know, but he started talking to me all the same. That is when I should have known there was something odd about this guy.
The Dundee Doppelgänger was incandescent with curiosity about why someone would want to visit a city that he regarded as “a shithole.” It was difficult to find a complimentary way of phrasing the words “it seemed easier than organising a series of PCR tests to travel somewhere I really want to go”, so in an effort to evade the question I instead asked him to focus on one positive element of his hometown and suggest the best place a tourist should visit. He recommended the Verdant Works, a restored 19th Century jute mill, but since it is ranked a lowly #2 of 120 things to do in Dundee on TripAdvisor, I decided that I didn’t have time to fit it into my strict schedule.
As the minutes passed, it was becoming ever clearer to me why others in the bar were giving this character short shrift. He had suddenly grown insistent that Pillars is the biggest gay bar in Dundee, which didn’t seem plausible when I glanced around the place and observed groups of poorly-dressed middle-aged men, elderly heterosexual couples and your traditional bleak bar decor. Yet he repeated the claim often, before adding that although he isn’t gay he doesn’t mind drinking in a gay bar, sort of like the old Seinfeld joke; “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” It turned out that the Dundee Doppelgänger had been going around the pub asking people if they are gay. I heard him ask the middle-aged barmaid the question twice. He asked the only single woman in the bar about her sexual orientation, and when she informed him that she isn’t gay he inquired, “are you sure? Not even bi?” In ordinary circumstances, I might have been able to somehow spark conversation with this young woman, but even my doppelgänger is ruining my prospects with the opposite sex. Of all the 1,277 other people I could have found myself in a pub in Dundee with, it had to be this guy.
Whilst he was outside smoking a cigarette, the barmaid confided that she was finding the inebriated interrogator deeply uncomfortable and intended on cutting him off if he ordered another drink. Upon his return, he asked me my name and where I was staying while in the city. Realising that he had clearly forgotten that I had made the mistake of telling him my real name earlier in our conversation, I decided to take the opportunity to improvise a new backstory.
“My name is Mikey and I’m staying at the Holiday Inn for a few nights.” I couldn’t be sure that Dundee definitely has a Holiday Inn, but I figured it was a pretty safe bet that they do.
“Mikey? Are you sure that’s your birth name?”
“Aye, that’s the name my parents gave me.”
Smelling a rat the way I could smell the stench of tobacco from his breath, the doppelgänger challenged me. “What’s your full name?”
I stumbled. “Michael Alan Ross.”
“Ah-ha! So Mikey isn’t your name!”
I had long suspected that I didn’t have the skillset to make a successful secret agent, but all the same, to have it confirmed in such a shameful manner was a bitter blow, and it left me resenting my doppelgänger so much more.
Fortunately, my ability to improvise false information on the spot wasn’t going to be needed for much longer, since when the doppelgänger moved to order another drink the barmaid was true to her threat and refused him service. You could tell he knew it was coming. This was just as another man, who looked like he had been teleported in from the 1990s, was kicking up a fuss for being asked to leave by another barman. He was dressed in a dusty nylon tracksuit and looked about as drunk as I felt. His main gripe, apart from the fact he was being thrown out, was that the bar doesn’t serve Buckfast. The guy was adamant that he was going to have a tonic wine, and challenged the barmaid to phone the police if she wasn’t going to let him have one. She picked up her mobile phone and did a better job of a fake dial than I could ever have managed, at which point the man staggered away, ranting and raving to himself, a couple of locals standing by the door to make sure that he didn’t think about coming back.
As soon as both men were gone, I pulled my notebook from my pocket and immediately scribbled down as much as I could remember. The barman from the adjoining lounge bar reappeared, and on seeing my prolific penmanship asked what I was writing. I told him about how I occasionally produce a blog detailing the everyday things I witness, and that I need to make note of my thoughts as soon as they occur to me, otherwise I tend to forget them. He smiled warmly, in a manner that suggested he was interested, and proceeded to tell me about the night he was closing up the bar when he hadn’t realised that there was still a customer in the toilet. “He was locked in the pub all night, and of course, he helped himself to all the drink he could manage. When I opened up in the morning there was money on the bar for every drink he’d taken. That’s what people are like here.” This long-haired barman promised that he had hundreds of stories he could tell me, and I believed him. It wasn’t until later that I learned he is the proprietor of the pub, and that Pillars has been there since 1864, making it the oldest location for libation in Dundee city centre.
After my experience in Pillars, the very first thing I would do when visiting a new joint was to reach for my notebook and either hold it in my hand or sit it in front of me. I liked to think that folk take me more seriously when they see a notebook before me on the bar or table. I imagined that they probably believe I am writing things of great significance, when the truth is that it’s usually something along the lines of: “Thursday 16 September – Henry’s Coffee House: I saw a bald guy who literally has a face tattooed on the back of his head. An entire face. It was possibly even his own face.”
The notebook was as much a social crutch as anything else since I didn’t have anyone to talk to and I couldn’t carry my Bill Bryson book with me after the strap on my leather satchel broke in Edinburgh. It was when I was traversing the Discovery Walk in Slessor Gardens that I learned that I am not the only person to have ever used a notebook in such a way. The walk has around a dozen plaques celebrating the achievements of people who have lived and worked in Dundee. One such plaque was commemorating the physicist Sir James Alfred Ewing, who it is said kept a notebook on a table by the front door of his home. In this notebook, he would ask visitors to draw a pig with their eyes closed and then sign it. Down in the bottom-right corner of Ewing’s plaque is a sketch of a pig.
Many of the historical sites of interest in Dundee are within easy walking distance, which seemed fortunate when the bright blue sky and blazing September sun were making a mockery of my casual jacket. In City Square, there is a public arts display by way of the carvings in the four fountains, each representing one of the elements, either that or a popular seventies soul band, Earth, Wind & Fire (and air). Each one has a quote from a local poet or author, such as Mary Brooksbank, who was the first woman as well as the first Communist to have her words inscribed into the wall of the Scottish Parliament. From City Square, you can see Caird Hall, the concert auditorium that is named after its benefactor, the jute baron Sir James Caird, and which like many other places today serves as a Covid vaccination centre. The statues of the five marching penguins on the wall of Steeple Church are nearby, as is the plaque commemorating former local MP Sir Winston Churchill and, further on, the birthplace of the feminist abolitionist Fanny Wright; a building which is now a solicitors and estate agents.
Eager to enter some more notes into my book, I returned to The Pillars on my second night, only to find that none of the characters I had been introduced to the previous evening were there, yet the bar was just as busy as it had been. To nurse my disappointment I went straight to the Jack Daniel’s. I expect that I was cutting a fairly forlorn figure standing at the bar with my notebook in hand and nothing to write about. After a while, an elderly gentleman over my left shoulder asked me if I knew where he could get a German Shepherd. I informed the guy, who had a graveyard tan and a white moustache that trembled like a pigeon on a telephone line as he spoke, that I’m not local and wouldn’t know where he could find a German Shepherd. We returned to our respective drinks. The silence was excruciating, and eventually, I had to ask why he was looking for a dog.
“I killed my last one. The vet wanted to put him to sleep, but I don’t believe in that shit.”
I could tell that this guy is an animal lover. He spoke fondly of the loyal companionship he has been afforded by his three German Shepherds, each of whom he has had to kill for one reason or another. But killing his dogs out of mercy was always more difficult than taking the lives of men in combat during his military career, which seemingly came to an end after he suffered a head fracture in the Falklands.
Soon the conversation had transcended into his time in Spain, where he claimed that he had befriended a wolf. Said wolf would often follow him on his daily walks, into coffee shops and bars; they had formed a bond beyond words. Apparently the key was respect, each knew their place within the pack. People would approach him and ask if they could clap his dog, and he would firmly tell them that it wasn’t a dog but a wolf, he didn’t own it, it was merely with him, and that they could pet it at their own risk. It sounded like the terms and conditions when you click on the ‘cookie consent’ button.
The Falklands veteran’s fondness for animals extends beyond canines to donkeys, which are seemingly a popular mode of transport in the area of Spain he was living. He told me of an occasion where he witnessed a local who was using his whip much too vigorously on his donkey for an animal lover’s liking, so he approached the man, snatched the whip from his hands and proceeded to beat him with it. Evidently, this attack was witnessed by a crowd, because the vengeful veteran was arrested later that evening and subsequently spent ten days in a Spanish prison. “They fed me bread, cheese, tomatoes, and wine. I was quite happy. And the best thing is, the guards searched me and they never knew I had a knife in my sock.”
I noticed him reach into his backpack for a flask, which he unscrewed the lid from and discreetly poured his entire glass of whisky into. He unhooked his cane from the lip of the bar, clearly making to leave. Unlike the previous night, this wasn’t a departure from Pillars I was ready for. As he pulled the straps of his bag over his shoulders, I bid my farewells and chanced to ask the man’s name. “They call me Hawkeye.” There wasn’t much more that could be said.
My stubble trimmer had inexplicably run out of charge by the time I could use it on Friday morning, leaving me with no choice but to further explore Dundee with more than the 0.5mm of stubble I usually like on my cheeks. Like my face, the sky was noticeably more grey on Friday, though the look definitely suited the city better than it did me. Despite the rough-around-the-edges reputation Dundee has, the 30-year £1billion regeneration of its waterfront is a true triumph. From the Discovery Walk through Slessor Gardens, past the bright new railway station, down to the splendid V&A Design Museum, the whole area is impressive. Beyond the car park of the Premier Inn and Beefeater restaurant, there is a spectacular view of the Tay Rail Bridge.
The V&A is the first built outside London and the only design museum in Scotland. Sitting next to the RRS Discovery, which was part of the successful 1901 British National Antarctic Expedition, the pair make for an aesthetically pleasing coupling. I gorged on the sight from a nearby bench as I enjoyed an Italian bagel and coffee from the nearby Heather Street Food pop-up van. Even with little pieces of mozzarella dropping from the bread like they were lemmings and balsamic vinegar threatening the integrity of my shirt with every mouthful as museum-goers walked by, it couldn’t spoil my enjoyment of the view.
As far as buildings with an ampersand in the title go, the V&A would rank high in my list of most beautiful. It is a piece of art in itself. Reasoning that it would be foolish to travel all the way to Dundee to eat a bagel outside the V&A without stepping foot inside, I wiped myself down and entered the museum. The thing I noticed most about the place was how much empty space there was. In a way, it reminded me of my living room, where parts of the walls are decorated with prints or photographs, and there is a collection of barely living plants on the mantelpiece, but there is a gaping emptiness amongst it all. The V&A has a mighty stairway from the ground floor to the exhibitions, and the room on rave culture was fairly interesting for what it was, which was basically a series of photographs of a young woman taking drugs in different places over a couple of decades. One room, titled “What if…?”, asked communities from across Scotland to share their hopes and dreams for the future of their hometowns. A host of cards dangled from the ceiling, each one containing a written wish. Things like, “I wish more homes were homes, “I wish the train would come to my town (St. Andrews)”, “I wish we had paths at the side of the road for cyclists and pushchairs,” and “I wish my neighbours could club together for a government grant to put solar panels on the roof of our flats.” It was a nice idea, but for me, it wasn’t any different to what you might hear said in any pub. “I wish I could find the company of a German Shepherd,” or “I wish gay pubs were gay pubs.”
I left the V&A feeling very underwhelmed. For such a beautiful building on the outside, there is a disappointing lack of substance inside. I imagine it is a lot like the way anybody views me after seeing me in a tweed suit and then spending a few moments talking to me. A much better introduction to Dundee was found at the McManus Gallery not but ten minutes away by foot. There you can not only learn the story of Dundee’s heroic homing pigeon Winkie, who earned a Dickin medal for saving several stricken RAF bombers during the Second World War, but you are also afforded the opportunity to view her taxidermied torso, which is on display in the museum. There are exhibits dedicated to the city’s pioneering role in Scottish journalism, comic books, and video games, as well as other aspects of everyday life on Tayside. Ideally, I would have spent much longer than I did in the McManus Gallery, but I still had some drinking to do during my time in Dundee.
Though I have long since grown out of being the sort of Catholic who insists on eating fish on a Friday, I was very much looking forward to a meal of beer-battered fish and chips in the St Andrews Brewing Company. The place was vast, like an aircraft hangar for craft beer. It struck me that they probably needed such a large location to store all the fish they are serving, since when mine arrived it was the biggest piece of fish I have ever seen. If the haddock was still alive it could surely have swum in the puddles of beer-batter grease on the plate, which probably went some way to explaining why it was so delicious.
The travails of dining solo fortunately prevented me from asking for my second beer, the Yippie IPA, as “Yippie IPA, motherfucker,” though I believe that if I had thought to put on my mask I could probably have gotten away with it. At the table in my immediate eye line were two elderly couples who were toasting the beginning of a weekend getaway. Once their four drinks had been ordered, the organiser of the group pulled a sheet of paper that had been torn from a notebook out of her bag and announced that they were going to have to compile a shopping list for items they would get from Tesco in the morning. She had already taken care of the basics, things like bread, eggs and flour, but the type of milk they were going to need was the first source of debate. They were still working on this list when I paid my bill after my third and last beer. Who knew that writing a shopping list would be like painting the Forth Bridge?
My final destination in Dundee was Tickety Boo’s, which was another of those bars that looks and feels like every other pub you have loved. Before doing anything, the young lady behind the bar informed everyone who came in that the card machine was out and they were only able to accept cash. I hadn’t felt such panic since my first night in Pillars. My worry was quickly replaced by the long-forgotten joy of discovering an unexpected £25 in my wallet. It was probably around March 2020 since I had last paid for anything with cash, and just seeing and handling banknotes again wasn’t any different from one of those exhibits in the McManus Gallery that gave a glimpse into how it was to grow up in Dundee in the 60s and 70s.
Actually seeing money disappear from my wallet in a pub, as opposed to not seeing it leave my bank account with every contactless payment, was a reminder that £25 doesn’t take you very far, especially in a city centre bar. Soon I was reacquainting myself with the lost art of counting change, and when I finally encountered a shortage of coinage, I leaned across the bar and asked the barmaid to pretend that this was my first time in Dundee and provide me with foolproof directions to the nearest cashpoint. As well as furnishing me with the funds to continue drinking for the rest of the night, the remark also proved to me that I don’t necessarily need to wear a face mask to have the confidence to make stupid comments. When I returned to the bar with my first cash machine withdrawal in 18 months, I beckoned the barmaid over and told her that her cashpoint suggestion was a success. Somehow, the line wasn’t as flirtatious as I was hoping it would be.
Despite my inability to produce interesting conversation about the location of Dundee’s ATMs, the barmaid did kindly offer to take a high seat over to the bar for me to sit on. I thanked her for her generosity and wondered if she was concerned for my wellbeing. I assured her that despite my increasingly worn appearance, which doubtless wasn’t helped by the fact that my stubble was surely longer than 1mm by this time, I am deceptively good on my feet. Declining the stool was a foolish act of bravado, however, since it looked very comfortable and I would have loved to sit down. I asked the barmaid which style of chair she would like to have behind the bar if she was allowed one, and she instantly responded that it would be a rolling chair, as though she had previously given it some thought. She would be concerned about the mess caused by spillage from serving customers on wheels, but it would be a fun way of getting around the horseshoe-shaped bar.
Three nights of the kind of alcohol abuse that would make William McGonagall seethe were beginning to catch up with me, and my last hour or so in Tickety Boo’s is lost in a haze of Jameson and ginger ale. The last thing I remember is ending up in the company of two people who I believe were the last pair standing from a work night out, some department from Dundee City Council, perhaps. In a break from the norm, the woman initiated conversation with me when their group first entered the pub and she was sent to the bar with the drinks kitty while the others took a table. She must have made mention of her status as a key worker, since there would have been no other reason for me to regurgitate my joke about being unable to understand why Timpsons was closed during the various lockdowns when they are surely key workers, too. Her laughter was a tonic, like the ginger ale to my whiskey. Even more delightful was to hear her recite the line when she returned to her group, though her delivery didn’t do it justice.
When the council worker returned to the bar for another round she asked my name, which was a lot less troubling than when the question was last put to me. There was no need for improvisation this time. I did my usual act in these situations of providing the two initials of my first name and asking the inquisitor to guess the rest, but she got them both immediately and took all the fun right out of it. The tables were turned when she revealed that her first initial is also a ‘J’, which seemed fitting when there are three J’s everywhere you look in Dundee. Eventually, the two work colleagues got a taxi to Broughty Ferry and I walked the short distance back to my hostel, passing the large green dragon – which is a much more imposing sight at the end of a night than it is at the beginning of the day – and the Desperate Dan statue on my way. I had only seen a very small sample of the city in my time there, but it was enough to make me think again about Dundee’s reputation. The place has a rich history with many quirks. More than that, even in the 5% of the city’s bars I visited, I found the most interesting and bedevilling characters. Enough to fill a notebook with sketched pigs.