Is Dundee the most literary city in Scotland?
- Charlotte Runcie
- 19 September 2013
A look at the city's literary heritage as the campaign to be named City of Culture 2017 gains momentum
As part of Dundee's bid to be named City of Culture 2017, the city has been making the most of its cultural credentials, not least by appointing its first makar last week. WN Herbert has pledged to focus on mixing literature and technology, with the hope of bringing a new audience to writing – and particularly poetry – in the city.
But his appointment is also an opportunity to bring more attention to the literary heritage of Dundee itself ahead of the final bid submission on 30 Sep. On Scotland's literary map, Dundee is often overlooked in favour of Glasgow (Liz Lochhead, Edwin Morgan), Edinburgh (Robert Louis Stevenson), the isles (George Mackay Brown, Sorley MacLean) and Robert Burns' Ayrshire. But, as Herbert himself has pointed out in an interview with the Dundee Courier, Dundee's literary pedigree is also strongly blue of blood.
'I’ve long been obsessed with Dundee’s history, its language, its cityscape, its poetry and its people, both living and dead,' says the local lad. 'Dundee is particularly a city of poets, from the Wedderburns in the Reformation to renowned contemporary writers like Don Paterson, John Glenday and Tracy Herd.'
The large and confident English Literature department at the University of Dundee (described by honourary graduate Seamus Heaney as 'having its head in the clouds and its feet firmly on the ground') is just one local institution responsible for literary fertility. Ever since DC Thomson set up a home here for the Dandy, the Beano, The Broons and Oor Wullie, the comic book heritage of the area has been - fittingly - illustrious, joining a respected regional history of newspaper and magazine publishing. The annual Literary Dundee festival (24–27 Oct 2013), meanwhile, awards the lucrative Dundee International Book Prize, and this year includes on its programme a variety of starry names from Duncan Bannatyne and Katherine Grainger to crime writers William McIlvanney and Denise Mina.
But when beginning to outline the literature of a city that's not just famously about jute, jam and journalism, you sort of have to begin with another J: John Burnside. The former writer in residence at the University of Dundee may have hopped over the Tay to become a professor at St Andrews, but his relationship with the city lingers. His 2013 collection of short stories, Something Like Happy (Jonathan Cape), contains 'Slut's Hair', a piece of prose that draws you inside a Dundee tenement, playing out a bleak domestic scene shot through with dusty, everyday magic.
Dundee University is responsible for many of the city's literary connections: master's graduate Kate Atkinson, for instance, is the author of this summer's bestselling Life After Life as well as the Jackson Brodie series of novels. Atkinson's 2001 novel, Emotionally Weird, features life at the University of Dundee and its (fictionalised) staff heavily, with the city described as 'the land of cakes and William Wallace'.
The high quality of education on the banks of the Tay may be at least partly responsible for Dundee's rich literary success. Neil Forsyth, the man behind the eccentric Bob Servant books, radio dramas, TV series and, ahem, agony aunt column, is a former pupil of the High School of Dundee, while the romance author Rosamunde Pilcher (though born in Cornwall) has lived much of her life in the area. With 28 novels and worldwide sales in excess of 60 million under her belt, she received an honourary degree from the university in 2010.
But perhaps most prominent among contemporary writers who were raised in the city is AL Kennedy. The winner of the Costa Prize, Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year award, Scottish Arts Council Book Award and countless others, she is the author of novels, short stories and non-fiction including What Becomes, Everything You Need and Day. Now a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, she no longer lives in Dundee, but the city can proudly claim her as its daughter.
The poet Don Paterson, also born in the city, still lives nearby, and among a long list of his literary achievements there nestles a period as creative writing fellow at the University of Dundee. The winner of the Forward and Whitbread Poetry Prizes, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Award, the T S Eliot Prize (twice), an OBE and the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, he has also written plays including The Land of Cakes for Dundee Rep, a collaboration with the Scottish composer Gordon McPherson (another son of the city).
Despite such a recent purple patch of writers with links to the area, there are historical associations too. When she was a child, Mary Shelley (then Godwin) was sent to stay with family friends on Ferry Road in 1812, ostensibly for the sake of her health. She acknowledged the influence of her time there on her writing, but seems to have had mixed feelings about her stay: 'I lived principally in the country as a girl, and passed considerable time in Scotland,' she wrote in her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein. 'I made occasional visits to more picturesque parts; but my habitual residence was on the blank and dreary northern shores of the Tay, near Dundee. Blank and dreary on retrospection I call them; they were not so to me then. They were the eyry of freedom, and the pleasant region where unheeded I could commune with the creatures of my fancy.'
While many of Dundee's writers have attained fame, only one has attained notoriety. William Topaz McGonagall is widely accepted to have been the worst poet in British history and, despite his birth and death in Edinburgh, he seems to have been struck by the muse while in Dundee. Most well-known is his epic 'The Tay Bridge Disaster', which begins, 'Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay! / Alas! I am very sorry to say / That ninety lives have been taken away / On the last Sabbath day of 1879, / Which will be remember’d for a very long time' and does not improve from there. For all his detractors, others see him as far more shrewd in reality, and view his recitals as an early form of performance art.
With so many characters - fictional or otherwise - hailing from the city, Dundee's place on the literary map of the world is significant and indisputable.