Dundee isn't an obvious destination in a country with so much to offer, but Scotland's fourth largest city has big plans to transform its gritty, post-industrial landscape into a thriving hub of culture and design excellence, and one project is spearheading those changes: the new V&A. Opening in September 2018, Kengo Kuma’s awesome, space-age museum is the crown jewel in an urban redevelopment that’s turning heads both at home and abroad.

Dundee's new V&A is a spectacular addition to the city skyline ©  Ross Fraser McLean
Dundee's new V&A is a spectacular addition to the city skyline © Ross Fraser McLean

A city in transition

I arrive on a frosty Sunday evening and make my way to Malmaison and a front row view of the new V&A Dundee. The setting sun burnishes the River Tay to a brassy sheen and turns the museum’s concrete strata a glowing shade of gold. It takes its inspiration from the Arbroath cliffs and looks both ancient and modern; somewhere mid-way between a pyramid and a space ship, its deep-set, vaulting portico inviting you into unknown worlds, its prow jutting out over the water beside Antarctic adventurer Captain Scott’s RSS Discovery as if it’s about to cast off and accompany the tall ship on new voyages.

There’s no doubt the V&A, a sibling for the original Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the world's largest decorative arts collection, is a triumph, but it’s also a catalyst for much bigger things. It sits in the centre of a £1 billion waterfront redevelopment that kicked-off in 2001 and has swept away an ugly tangle of ill-planned roads and offices and replaced them with Slessor Park, a new train station and a rapidly emerging mix of hotels, offices and restaurants such as Waters Edge.

For half a century, the city turned its back on these dockyards but now the connection with the river has been restored, the museum tempting Dundonians back to Craig Harbour for new explorations and a celebration of Scottish design. Getting to this point has required a lot of graft, but you get the sense that everyone in Dundee has pitched in. A case in point is Dundee Rep (Scotland’s only repertory theatre), completed in 1976 thanks to a public appeal that raised £200,000 on land donated by the University of Dundee. Likewise, Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) arose from an old car park to become one of the most successful arts organisations in the UK, with an award-winning learning centre and the buzzy Jute Café Bar.

Scotland's only repetory theatre has been a cultural fixture since the 1970s © Dundee Rep
Scotland's only repetory theatre has been a cultural fixture since the 1970s, producing at least six shows a year © Dundee Rep

As well as approving the Waterfront Masterplan and the new V&A, in the last 25 years Dundee Council has facilitated the creation of The Space, a multi-purpose performance venue for the Scottish School of Contemporary Dance; a £2 million redevelopment of Dundee Science Centre; and a conservation-award-winning restoration of High Mill at the historic Verdant Works jute textile museum. Passionate about his home town, Cllr John Alexander tells me, 'we have an opportunity over the next few years to change Dundee forever and we can’t miss that.' As the youngest council leader in Scotland (he’s just 29) presiding over a city with the highest proportion of 18 to 29-year-olds in the country, he has a big stake in that future.

A cultural bridge

Until now, Dundee’s best loved museum has been the McManus, a 150-year-old Gothic Revival jewel designed by George Gilbert Scott (who built London’s St Pancras Station). A library and gallery devoted to the advancement of science, literature and art, its Gothic balustrades, stained glass windows and pyramidal roof turrets speak to the city’s self-confidence when it was riding high on 19th-century trade, shipbuilding, jute milling and whaling.

McManus Museum © McManus Galleries
The McManus is a multi-themed museum in a beautiful 19th-century building © McManus Galleries

When I visit on a misty Monday morning, the galleries are full of families absorbed in the ‘Making of Modern Dundee’ exhibit. Parents and grandparents point to hand-loom mill shuttles, ship models, pots of Keiller’s marmalade and sweets, ZX Spectrum computers and NCR cash registers that they once made, used or bought. It’s striking to see – a museum full of artefacts crafted by many of the museum-goers, a live lesson in how culture connects people not only with history, but with previous generations.

It is these broader connections that Director Philip Long is most interested in fostering at V&A Dundee. He sees the museum not as some temple to high design, but as a dynamic, living institution with important work to do reconnecting Dundonians with their manufacturing heritage while also showcasing Scotland’s globally significant design contribution to international visitors who know little or nothing about it. The museum’s first show, Ocean Liners: Speed & Style, is aptly chosen. These floating palaces were the technological marvels of their age, symbols of national pride, and much of their cutting-edge technology and beautifully crafted interiors were designed by Scottish engineers and artists.

Reflecting a new confidence in Dundee's future, the V&A sits proudly on the harbourfront © Ross Fraser McLean
Reflecting a new confidence in Dundee's future, the V&A sits proudly on the harbourfront © Ross Fraser McLean

Beyond the amazing objects, some never seen before, are two dedicated learning rooms and a Michelin Design Gallery supported by the city-based company keen to collaborate in a mentoring programme. There’s important outreach work, too, like the Scottish Design Relay and the brilliant Bonnetmakers project, which brought leading Scottish milliners from Dundee’s historic guild to schools in Hilltown (once Bonnet Hill) in order to research the local design history and produce contemporary bonnets. Dundee’s design story isn’t just a bridge to the past, but a path to the future.

Designing a city fit for the future

Dundee’s burgeoning renaissance from one of Scotland’s most deprived cities is a design story in itself – a conscious decision to craft a path to a more prosperous future based on cultural investment and the creative economy. After all, the city turns out some of the UK’s best designers, video game developers, graphic artists, animators, dancers, choreographers and biomedical pioneers creating next-generation drugs. It’s a rich well of creative capital that Unesco recognised in 2014, when it awarded Dundee City of Design status.

In May, the award is celebrated with the Dundee Design Festival. In 2017 a jam-packed programme of events, workshops and exhibits was hosted in the former print works of DC Thomson, publishers of popular children’s comics The Beano and The Dandy. The festival showcases the work of local designers – this year there is a Fashion Show and designer collaborations with factories such as Turnberry Rug Works – and acts as a springboard for projects with fellow design cities like Detroit and Shenzhen.

The Dundee Design festival highlights the best of design © Erika Stevenson
The Dundee Design Festival celebrates the city's contemporary creative credentials © Erika Stevenson

Attracted by the city’s new can-do attitude, locals like Duncan Alexander are returning home. In 2016, he opened craft brewery 71 Brewing in the defunct Blackness foundry, which you can visit for tours and tastings. It sits near Verdant Works and the WASPS Studios which provides space to young artists whose work you can buy direct. There are plans for food trucks in the foundry and a collaboration with street art collective, Open Close, whose mission is to create a mural trail that guides visitors to the city’s creative hotspots through tours and DIY mural maps.

On my last day, I drive out to the picturesque suburb of Broughty Ferry for lunch at Adam Newth’s refined beachside restaurant, The Tayberry. It’s a beautifully sunny day and the River Tay sparkles in the sunlight. Dolphins swim here in summer and across the water is Tentsmuir, a thick swathe of beachside pine forest. People are playing with their dogs on the beach and my plate of sustainably-sourced Scrabster Coley is delicious. Dundee, both for design and much more, is definitely worth a trip.

Paula Hardy travelled to Dundee with the support of VisitScotland and Dundee, One City, Many Discoveries. Lonely Planet contributors don’t accept freebies for positive coverage.

Explore related stories

Young Asian woman embracing her little girl on the street. Bonding between mother and daughter. Family lifestyle. Love and care concept.


Paris on a budget: affordable ways to experience the city

Mar 31, 2024 • 10 min read