I recently had a short visit to Dundee, and once again was impressed by the transformation of the city which was home to me for seven years in the mid to late 70s.
I arrived in the city at the tender age of 17 – just a month shy of my 18th birthday – to study at the University of Dundee.
After a sheltered upbringing in a quiet Renfrewshire village, the lure of the “big city” was strong and I certainly made the most of my introduction to student life.
At the end of my first year I decided my chosen course was not for me, and I opted for a two year full-time HND in Secretarial Studies with Languages at Dundee College of Commerce.
This is where my recent visit comes in!
I was slightly taken aback to discover that this is the current state of my former academic institution! It was only 5 years old when I attended in 1975, but it closed in 2011 and the 2.26 acre site is now up for sale with a guide price of £1.25m.
It certainly felt modern and “state of the art” at the time, and was very well-equipped with office equipment and the latest IBM “golf ball” typewriters, so I guess its demise is more attributable to the changing patterns of work and needs and demands for specific qualifications.
Dundee has always been famous for “jute jam and journalism” and to that is now added the “j” of joysticks, recognising its place in the global games industry. The former technical college is now Abertay University…
University of the Year for Teaching Quality 2021
“Abertay has been instrumental in building the city of Dundee’s place as a global hub for computing and gaming, a perfect example of a university and business working together for the common good. Students recognise the excellence of teaching more widely across the university, placing it close to the top of the tree among universities across the UK for the second successive year. It achieves all this while at the same time being the most socially inclusive university in Scotland. Truly, a modern university.”
- Alastair McCall, editor of The Sunday Times Good University Guide
I was staying at the Staybridge Suites in the east of the city, which ironically tells the opposite story compared to that of my former college. Staybridge is the result of a sympathetic and high quality renovation and conversion of the North Mill and Bell Mill buildings which formed part of the Category A listed former Lower Dens Works. Built in 1866 and 1935, the facility was at one time the largest linen factory in the world.
In addition to providing accommodation to meet 21st century guest demands and regulatory standards, the hotel did an excellent job of preserving the industrial heritage and historical significance of the buildings. They had worked hard to provide attractive ways to educate and inform guests, through a mix of genuine heirlooms, artefacts and memorabilia.
In one of the open areas an extract from Mary Brooksbank’s Jute Mill Song was displayed. I discovered that Mary Brooksbank was a mother of seven, mill-worker and life-long socialist and communist, several times imprisoned for her campaigning activities.
She was born in Aberdeen, and came to Dundee when she was eight or nine and began working illegally in the mills aged 12. At 14 she was involved in a girls’ march and won a 15% pay rise. She was also a musician and poet, and her songs are still sung today.
Historically Dundee was known as ‘She Town’ - with women the backbone of industry in the city for nearly a century.
The quest for nimble fingers and smaller hands stemmed from the need for cheaper labour as Dundee moved from flax to jute production in the mid 1800s. Due to huge expansion, the women outnumbered men in the mills three to one.
The first jute mill opened in 1838, and for the next 50 years or more, over half of the town’s population was employed by the mills, or a jute-related industry.
As women and children were sought after to operate the machinery, lack of opportunities for men saw them staying at home. They were quickly dubbed ‘kettle bilers’, a term which can still be heard today.
The women of She Town experienced an empowerment from their husbands that was rare for the time, breeding a culture of self-assured, loud and fiercely independent women. It’s also believed that the strong Dundee accent and dialect originated in the noisy mill environment and became a strong indicator of class.
Other artefacts in the hotel included photographs of Dundee’s industrial and manufacturing history. So, I was again swept back in time to the sprawling industrial estates on the edge of the city which housed global firms like Timex and NCR.
When the market for Timex mechanical watches all but disappeared, attempts were made to try to keep the plant going, and one of these involved the Sinclair ZX Spectrum which was produced at the Timex plant by an army of female workers in the 1980s.
This was one of the key elements in the birth of Dundee’s video games sector. The ZX81 was a very early introduction to home computing and in 1981 sold for the princely sum of £69.95.
The ZX82 sold well over a million, and its successor the ZX Spectrum which was released in 1982 sold 5 million during its lifetime.
The transformation of technology in around 40 years is staggering, and watching my not-yet-four-year-old grandson zooming, scrolling and clicking on a phone or tablet still leaves me bemused.
Proof indeed that the "College of Commerce" has outlived its useful life.
"Architecture is the very mirror of life. You only have to cast your eyes on buildings to feel the presence of the past, the spirit of a place; they are the reflection of society.”
I M Pei
Take care. Lead well