Dundee: “A Small Pot Along The A92, Gold At The End Of The White Line

I was just “a wee scrap”, as my father would say, when we left the north east coast of Scotland for the south coast of England. Dad is from London, but after six years living in Dundee he was pretty much bilingual.

Then he joined the army and for the next decade my brother and I were shunted around various military bases, clocking up schools and fighting over bedrooms, but the one thing that grounded us was the fact that we came from Dundee.

I learned how to be Dundonian by listening to my mother (Dundee born and bred), and from highly anticipated trips back. And I pored over The Broons and Oor Wullie: iconic cartoon strips written in broad Scots that first appeared in The Sunday Post in 1936 and still come out as annuals every Christmas. My language is, I’m told, peppered with words and phrases from mid-century Dundee. “It’s like talking to my granny,” said a friend when I was last up.

Public art: the author’s Oor Wullie sculpture, which ‘snows’ when someone approaches.
Public art: the author’s Oor Wullie sculpture, which ‘snows’ when someone approaches.

So whenever I get the chance to go back, I do so in a spirit of great excitement. To my mind, Scotland’s fourth largest city has always been a little pot of gold at the end of the A92: the place where I first tasted tablet, a proper fish supper, and Scotch pies – from Doig’s, naturally. It was where my older cousin bought me my first record (“Jan-u-arry” by Pilot, second-hand from Groucho’s), where I spotted my first red squirrel but never quite caught sight of the haggis that roamed the hills.

I realise now that this impression of Dundee is not everyone’s. Often the disclosure of my birthplace is met with snorts of derision. The worst critics seem to be Dundonians themselves. Poet and musician Don Paterson describes the recent regeneration efforts as “post-apocalyptic”. Chef Jeremy Lee, who admits to having a soft spot for the city, talks about “a black cloud of negativity hovering above and in many cases in it”.

But on a sunny day, with the wind behind it (so often the case), Dundee does a great long weekend – and its position just below the Cairngorms makes it a good stop-off for Highland trips. I was commissioned to make a public artwork there this summer, as part of the popular Oor Wullie Bucket Trail, and was glad of the chance to reacquaint myself with this handsome, misunderstood city.

How things have changed. Arriving by train means walking past the magnificent RRS Discovery, the tall ship in which Captain Scott travelled to the Antarctic, currently dwarfed by the adjacent building site that will, in two years’ time, become the V&A Museum of Design.

Last time I was here I built a replica of The Broons’ but ’n’ ben (their highland cottage) at the McManus, the fantastically gothic museum and art gallery. This time, continuing what has become something of a theme, I made an interactive sculpture, Oor Wullie in a 7ft snowglobe, which was duly wheeled into its temporary home at Ninewells Hospital on a surgical trolley by a consultant anaesthetist.

‘Fantastically gothic’: the McManus museum and art gallery, in the middle of Dundee.
‘Fantastically gothic’: the McManus museum and art gallery, in the middle of Dundee. Photograph: Alamy

Ninewells arrived after I first left, and the hospital I was born in, the historic Dundee Royal Infirmary, has since become “yuppie flats”, a taxi driver told me. Doig’s, our family pie purveyor of choice, is gone. If you want a decent hit of grey meat in water-crust pastry you must go to Goodfellow & Steven on the Perth Road.

The Oor Wullie Bucket Trail has been very popular among Dundonians and tourists, with more than 50 painted sculptures of the comic-strip laddie installed all over the city, from the top of the Law to the banks of the Tay. Among them are Oor Bowie, a homage to the Starman himself, and Woodland Wullie, by the first female cartoonist at DC Thomson, who worked on The Dandy. All will be auctioned on 13 September.

Wild at heart: the famous statue of Desperate Dan.
Wild at heart: the famous statue of Desperate Dan. Photograph: Alamy

I often wonder if my decision to study art was somehow mixed up with Dundee. The city has long been a hub of creativity – albeit a quietly seething one. Some of the derelict jute mills are now occupied by artists and designers. It’s a little-known fact that the computer game Grand Theft Auto was created here. There’s Dundee Contemporary Arts, renowned for its exhibitions (and restaurant). And you can’t miss the statue of Desperate Dan near the Caird Hall, testament to the enduring legacy of DC Thomson’s comic heroes.

Down at the Overgate, I nipped out to the shops, dodging the giant seagulls that divebomb passers-by for their sandwiches. Inside is the biggest branch of Greggs I’ve ever seen. Maybe that explains the size of the birds. Weirdly, right next door to the shopping centre is the Howff, an atmospheric and ancient cemetery, which makes for a slightly jarring transition when stepping from one to the other: like a very dark episode of Mr Benn.

My uncle Jim once told me that a one-eyed gangster named “Och Aye’’ stalked Dundee’s badlands, but I’ve yet to spot him. He’d make a great comic strip character though.


The Apex Hotel has double rooms from £80 per night (apexhotels.co.uk).
All the Oor Wullies will be displayed at the Farewell Gathering in Slessor Gardens from 9­-11 September, and will be auctioned on 13 September (ticket/auction information from oorwulliebucket trail.com) in aid of The Archie Foundation’s Appeal for Tayside Children’s Hospital. To see more of Debbie Lawson’s work, visit debbielawson.com