Walk the streets of Dundee today, and you could, at first glance, be in any town or city in the United Kingdom. The same banks, the same building societies. The same opticians, the same coffee shops. The same steel-and-glass shopping mall, though thankfully replacing its brutal concrete predecessor. Yet, as you walk round, a few things strike you – the alley that dives past the hairdressers with its fashionably black-clad blonde assistants has a name – Couttie’s Wynd – as if it once had more significance than it says now. Then the bronze dragon greets you, snout rubbed shiny by well-wishers. Opposite the dragon, best of all, Desperate Dan, reminds us that DC Thomson & Co and their comics were part of Dundee’s “jam, jute and journalism”. So, turn left past Desperate Dan, and go down Reform Street with its elegant Regency style shops; perhaps the only street in Dundee with the space to give that architecture room to breath and so to stand comparison with the New Town streets of Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Turn left into Bank Street, with its solidly imposing newspaper offices. Alas, on the left a multi-storey car park has replaced the Kinnaird Hall where a suffragette was lowered through the roof to embarrass Winston Churchill during his vain campaign to win election to Westminster from Dundee West.
At the end of this row sits 31 Bank Street, a military recruiting office now, but behind whose upstairs windows my great-grandfather, George Bruce, was born in 1873. Turn right into cobbled Barrack Street. On the right, a solemn, high wall curves silently away. Just before, between the wall and number 31, lies a gate into the past.
Beyond the gate, the trees shade a forest of gravestones, battered by time and weather. This is the Howff, once of the Greyfriars Monastery but granted by Mary Queen of Scots to the town of Dundee as a graveyard in 1564. Howff means “meeting-place”, for the Dundee Guilds used the area for that purpose. Today, blackbirds rustle through the leaves, historians and the curious wander, while the hustle of modern Dundee lies outside this well of quiet.
Time, rain and frost have not been kind to many of these memorials, for Dundee’s stone is softer than most and many lie broken, their macabre designs rendered more so by the decay that has come to them as well as those whose lives are commemorated.
You will find the stone I sought near the middle –
Erected BY JOHN BRUCE MANUFACTURER, DUNDEE
to the memory of his SISTER HELEN BRUCE
Who died on the 2d of August 1810 Aged 19 Years
And of his FATHER JAMES BRUCE
Who died on the 2d of February 1819 Aged 64 Years
James was my great-great-great-great grandfather, and my Bruce story begins with him.