A Town is Born

How old is Dundee? Seems like a simple question. But is there a simple answer? I can tell you how old I am – I have a birth certificate. But cities, towns and villages don’t have such a document, or do they?

Perhaps the age of place is down to when the first building was put there. Or do you go by the first mention of the place name in the records? That could be tricky. Being on a hill and beside a river, the area around Dundee was probably first populated thousands of years ago. When it became a village or town is harder to trace. Detailed maps don’t exist and records are usually a bit vague. But one thing we are pretty sure of is when Dundee became a Royal Burgh.

‘Royal Burgh’ was a status, as the name suggests, granted by the crown. The first burghs were usually either places of religious importance, usually those which had grown up around cathedrals, or important places of trade. It is the latter group which Dundee falls into. Power over the burgh was granted to David, Earl of Huntingdon the brother of King William I, otherwise known as William the Lion, sometime in the 1190s.

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An artist’s impression of David Earl Huntingdon from Sir Walter Scott’s Talisman.

For a hundred years Dundee prospered under the freedoms of the Charter. Control of the city reverted back to the crown when David’s son John died in 1237. But then the problems began when Alexander III rode of a cliff in Fife in 1286. His lack of an heir created havoc. If you remember your school history lessons, you may recall that the Maid of Norway (his granddaughter) died en route to being crowned Queen. Then John Bailliol (a great grandson of Earl David) was crowned in 1292. King Edward of England overthrows the weak John and invades. Many weren’t happy about this, including a chap called William Wallace (an alleged alumnus of the Dundee Grammar School – one of the forerunners of Dundee High School), start rebelling  and so begins the Wars of Scottish Independence. I’m sure you know how the rest goes. Wallace is executed, then Robert the Bruce steps forward and is crowned in 1306.

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Robert the Bruce Statue at the Bannockburn battlefield site.

After the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and the declaration of Arbroath was signed in 1320, things started to settle down. People began to take stock. For Dundee one thing was missing – the 12th century charter was gone. We don’t know how or when. The English had controlled Dundee during the wars and William Wallace had lain siege to the Castle. The charter was presumed lost, destroyed or stolen. Problem was, how could the burgesses of Dundee prove what rights they had without a charter.

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The order by King Robert to investigate the liberties (or rights) of the Burgesses of Dundee, 22 June 1325

To sort the matter out, in 1325 King Robert started an enquiry into the original rights of the burgesses of Dundee. Two years later, after finding that the rights were much the same as the other burghs, a new charter was drawn up. This included the right to a free harbour, market and fairs and the right to have merchant guilds. Dundonians were also the only people in Forfarshire that were allowed to buy wool or sheepskins. Foreign merchants had to offer their goods for sale in Dundee before they went elsewhere in the county. Anyone caught evading or opposing the terms of the charter could be fined £10 or thrown in jail. The charter refers back to the freedoms known during the reigns of Alexander and William – this is how we know that there was an earlier charter.

In the 1980s Dundee decided to prepare to celebrate its 800th anniversary. But as there was no original charter, discussions were had and date of 1191 was decided. This was done by analysing other records which refer to the burgh or Earl David’s rights in the area. Dundee’s Octocentenary was celebrated in 1991.

So Dundee was born in 1191….ish! Still, not bad for 827 years old.

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The Charter by Robert I King of Scotland to the Burgesses of Dundee, 14 March 1327

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