Dundee: from black sheep of Scottish cities to ‘living cultural experiment’

Chris Van Der Kuyl set up his first video game company in Dundee in the mid-1990s. “It was an industrial landscape,” he says of the city, which had been bled of heavy industry from the 1970s onwards. “Everything was closing, everyone was leaving.”

Van Der Kuyl’s 4J Studios would go on to help develop the global gaming sensation Minecraft; next year he will open a new digital headquarters on the city’s docks. “It’s not the V&A but it will cost a few million,” he laughs.

In its imperial heyday, Dundee was known as the city of “jute, jam and journalism”. Now, with the mills gone and the printing presses quieter, Scotland’s fourth city has a rather different claim to global fame: not just Minecraft but Grand Theft Auto and other classic video game titles were born or raised on the banks of the River Tay. What’s more, as Van Der Kuyl referred to, the only branch of the V&A museum outside London will open soon on the once-thriving docks.

Indeed, despite pockets of severe deprivation, Dundee’s story is that of a city increasingly defined by its culture and creativity. With a population of just 150,000, it was long seen as the black sheep of Scotland’s cities, languishing behind the architectural drama of Edinburgh and the wealth of Aberdeen, its post-industrial problems often overshadowed by those of much larger Glasgow. But this image is changing.

Some 3,000 people now work in Dundee’s creative economy, generating turnover of almost £200m. Last year, Dundee received the UK’s first Unesco City of Design award, fitting recognition for a city that gave the world everything from Aspirin and orange marmalade to ZX Spectrum. Publisher DC Thomsons are major employers here; an 8ft bronze statue of Dandy comic book hero Desperate Dan stands tall on the high street, his faithful mutt Dawg in tow.

The V&A at Dundee may be over budget – £80m and counting – and behind schedule, but it is expected to open in 2018. And actor Brian Cox is now backing a £120m project to bring a film studio to Dundee.

“What was a post-industrial city now has multiple indicators of inward investment,” says professor Paul Harris, dean of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. “There has been a massive transformation for the citizens of Dundee and their ambition.”

The Birmingham-born Harris “hated” Dundee when he arrived in 1991, to work in the local television industry. “The notion in ’91 of three cycle cafes and the V&A? You wouldn’t have believed it,” he says over coffee in an upmarket hotel by the docks. Nearby stand a phalanx of apartments with views over the Tay.

A couple of hundred metres away, along the river, a placard attached to plywood hoarding proclaims: “Your Waterfront Your Future”. Articulated lorries ferry earth from what will be the site of the V&A, located just next to where the RSS Discovery, the Dundee-built research ship used by Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to Antarctica in 1901, is moored on the Tay. There are plans for a hotel, retail units and apartments, all part of an ambitious regeneration project to connect Dundee city centre to the water.

The decision to open the V&A at Dundee stemmed in large part from long established links between Duncan Jordanstone of College of Art and Design and the pater familias in Kensington. Similar links have been forged between Dundee’s universities and creative industries is many areas, notably gaming. In 1997, Abertay University created the world’s first degree in computer games technology. Today, Dundee is the heart of Scotland’s thriving gaming industry: Rockstar North, creators of Grand Theft Auto, may have since moved to Edinburgh, but there some 40 gaming firms based in Dundee.

Not all have multimillion-pound offices or household name titles. In an alcove in the roof of the Victorian-era City Chambers, a team of designers from a start-up called Spacebudgie is building an educational platform game. “We decided to form our own company rather than just getting jobs with other companies,” says designer Ronan Quigley, whose team are all recent Abertay graduates.

Spacebudgie share their enviable workspace – stained-glass windows, bare rafters, stickers that say “Fundee” dotted on walls – with a handful a small companies. They are part of the Fleet Collective, a community of artists, designers and creative entrepreneurs who work separately or collaborate on different projects. Desks are just £100 a month.

“In Dundee you have to make your own fun. You’re forced to do it yourself,” says Ed Broughton, a 37-year-old Londoner who runs the film outfit Bonnie Brae Productions at Fleet Collective. “It never really crossed my mind to set up a company before I came to Dundee.”

Dundee has made a virtue of its size. The local council convenes a quarterly Cultural Agencies Network, which meets to discuss strategy and concerns. A short walk from Fleet Collective is the impressive curved glass and steel building of Dundee Contemporary Arts. When the DCA was opened in 1999, on the site of an old garage that was being used as an impromptu skate park, the city had no real national cultural presence. Now the DCA boasts a print studio, cinema, gallery space, and one of the best cafes in town.

DCA director Clive Gillman says he looks ahead to the coming of the V&A but, like many in Dundee, mixes optimism with concerns about what he calls “irritable Bilbao syndrome”.

“We have to make the V&A work for the city. And we have to make the V&A work for us in the city,” says Gillman, who will soon take over as director of creative industries at Creative Scotland. “How do you make a massive institution like the V&A work within the context of the local strategy? That’s the really exciting thing. But that’s not easy either.”

The DCA has been widely praised for helping to transform the city’s cultural life. “Dundee Saved My Life” says a T-shirt on sale in the gift shop. “Across Europe there are hundreds, thousands, of small, post-industrial cities trying to understand what their future is. What Dundee has done is shape its future – partly by accident, partly by design, building on what was already here. This is a living experiment of what culture-led regeneration could look like,” says Gillman.

Every year, DCA buses in thousands of kids to attend screenings at the two-week Children’s Film festival. Local communities have long been at the heart of Dundee’s cultural strategy, but Gillman admits that reaching out remains “a fundamental challenge”.

The V&A will have to work hard to connect with the people of Dundee, too, not just the well-heeled visitors who will inevitably flock to it. Despite millions in outside investments, Dundee remains one of the most deprived places in Scotland. One in four children live in poverty. For many children growing up in places such as Lochee or Kirkton, lucrative careers as game designers or visual artists remain a distant dream.

There are significant economic barriers preventing poorer citizens from accessing Dundee’s cultural offerings, says Philip Howard, chief executive of Dundee Rep, the only repertory theatre left in the UK. Howard has worked hard to make Dundee Rep a more national, and indeed international, company. “But you have to offset that with wider, deeper and – crucially – more targeted work in the city.”

That includes taking plays out into Dundee’s small, closely knit communities. Each year, the Rep tours small venues across the city. The material started off relatively light with a collection of Alan Bennett monologues, but has progressed to plays about teenage pregnancy and social problems.

Anna Day, director of Literary Dundee, is all too aware of the “danger of polarisation” that can happen if a wealthy creative sector becomes disconnected from the city it inhabits. “It is about reaching these children at a young age and showing them how design and culture can change their lives,” says Day.

One attempt to do this is Comic School, a joint initiative between DC Thomson and the city’s universities. Due to open this year, it will host resident comic book artists who, in return for reduced rent in the building, will mentor young people. “We need to show people how (culture) can change their lives,” says Day.

Day grew up in Dundee, then left for London and a job on Fleet Street. She swore she would never return, but “then I came and saw how much was happening.” That was nine years ago. A shiny new museum, or a fleet of hipster office spaces, will not solve many of Dundee’s post-industrial problems, but Day believes something profound has changed. “The city is optimistic. How people feel about themselves has changed.”

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian.