A quarter of a century ago, I was invited to visit Dundee by one of the fiction editors at the People’s Friend. I had written a few short stories for the magazine, but this time I was taken out to lunch to discuss a possible serial. I was thrilled! Writing has been a remunerative hobby for me, but my own professional career has been in librarianship and music: I’ve never before or since been wined and dined by a magazine editor! Not exactly journalism, I’ll grant you, but one of the three things I love about Dundee is the warmth and generosity of the advice and encouragement I was given in my brief short-story and serial-writing ‘career’. A big thanks goes to D. C. Thomson for that! I’ve continued writing in a more serious, professional capacity, but they gave me a great start.
Dundee Central Library, Wellgate
For the three years before I came to Scotland, I worked in South Shields public library, but since then I’ve worked in a conservatoire library for musicians and actors, dancers and production artists. Nonetheless, my own research interests have repeatedly taken me to the public library in Dundee, and it’s nice to enjoy the atmosphere of a public library not so different from the one I left. One of the things I happen to like about Dundee Central Library it is its location in Wellgate shopping centre, right in the heart of the city, and very handy for Dundonians out and about doing a bit of shopping or meeting friends. It has its own cafe – how civilized is that? But best of all, the Central Library holds the most amazing collection of old Scottish music books: the Wighton Collection. Andrew Wighton assembled his collection in the nineteenth century, aspiring to gather every old edition of Scottish music that he could lay his hands on. It was an all-consuming hobby, as his remaining correspondence bears witness. When he died, he left his treasure-trove to the City of Dundee. They’ve been in the public library ever since. Bound in the early twentieth century, microfilmed in the later twentieth century, and then indexed in the computer age, the books live in a fabulous purpose-built space called the Wighton Centre. David Kett, the former reference librarian, was the mastermind who coordinated the building of this special room in space on the top floor. There’s a harpsichord, and a table carved in the shape of a fiddle – appropriate, considering how much fiddle music is there. It’s big enough for small concerts and masterclasses, and cherished by the Friends of the Wighton Collection, who support and promote it with special events, and have recently got the online index working again. And did I mention the staff? David has retired now, but the local history staff are knowledgeable, kind and helpful. They represent all that’s good in a public library. I’ve looked at a number of Wighton’s books, but I’ve also researched local history there, and have been very grateful for their advice on many an occasion.
Dundee’s History and Heritage
I love the fact that the centre of Dundee still has some of the old buildings from its nineteenth century heyday, and that it has such a sense of history, both industrial and social. Some years before I started visiting the Wighton Collection for a research project, I had the opportunity to pursue a smaller personal project in connection with three old books of flute music which had originally belonged to a Dundonian years before Andrew Wighton came on the scene. James Simpson had been a lodging-house keeper, but he must have played the flute and sang in a church choir, to judge by the three old manuscripts that now belong to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Indeed, his son became a partner in the once-famous music shop, Methven-Simpson.
When I was researching James Simpson’s flute manuscripts, I visited not only the local history library, but also the city registrar and the city archives, eventually even seeing inside Myrekirk – the house where Simpson once lived, on the outskirts of Dundee. (His widow moved back to live in a tiny cottage at the back of the house – it was later used as a hen-house!) I walked the streets where Simpson would’ve walked; looked at the churches and wondered which one he attended; and stood at the entrance to another shopping mall, trying to call to mind the narrow lane where he kept the lodging house for Dundee’s poorer citizens. I’ve seen an old photograph of the neighbourhood before it was redeveloped, but there’s nothing left to show what it was originally like!
When I walk around Dundee, I feel as though the ghosts of Andrew Wighton and James Simpson are following me a few paces behind me. I can still stand in the high street and look down toward the river – the topography is the same even if the town planners have made substantial changes to many of the buildings and street layouts. There are still places I’d like to visit, old churchyards to explore and new art galleries to capture my attention, not to mention the maritime museum at Discovery Point, which really demands that I bring my three grown sons to explore it with me!
And I still haven’t mentioned the jute and the jam, the two industries Dundee was famous for. One day I must find time to learn more about those, too!
(I wrote this blogpost as my entry for an AccorHotels.com competition: A Tale of Three Cities. Entrants are challenged to write around the theme, ‘Three things I love about my favourite city’.)