Dundee – Scotland’s First City?

We have previously told you how Dundee became a Royal Burgh, but do you know how it became a city? What makes a city? Is it size? Is it density of the population – how urban it is? Or is it something else? Some often say that a city is a place with a Cathedral in it. This certainly seems to have been true in England and Wales. St David’s in Wales is often cited as the smallest city in the UK. But this not so in Scotland

Cities in Scotland never really took off. There were plenty of Royal Burghs but no official cities. The first Royal Burghs were created in the 12th century by King David. The first places referred to as burghs appear to have been Berwick and Roxburgh in a charter for Kelso Abbey, c. 1119-1124. Followed by Dunfermline, Edinburgh, Perth, Stirling and Aberdeen. As discussed in our previous post, the exact date of Dundee’s accession to the burgh-hood is unknown but it is thought to be between 1191 and 1195. According to George Smith Pryde’s book on ‘The Burghs of Scotland” (1965), Dundee may have been the 29th burgh in Scotland.

Over the years as the larger of the burghs grew, in size, influence and power, some of them became known as cities – mainly Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, but Perth got in on the action too. When they first adopted the name is unknown – perhaps someone from one of these places can enlighten us. There appears to be no act or charter officially naming them as cities. So were they really cities? Edinburgh for example had a town council, but they met in the City Chambers. Very confusing. But it seems that they were never officially given the title of city.

Well there is no such confusion in Dundee. I can tell you exactly which day Dundee became a city. On 26th January 1889 Queen Victoria issued a charter constituting the Burgh of Dundee as the City of Dundee. The charter was formally accepted by the Town Council on 4th February. So technically Dundee became the first city in Scotland. So why did this matter? Why did the Town Council get this extra charter?

The test of the City Charter. Can you read it?

Well, looking at the minutes of the Town Council the main reason seems to have been the right to change the Provost into a Lord Provost and general status boost. Dundee had grown dramatically in the last few decades. It went from a population of 60,553 in 1841 to 158,066 50 years later in 1891, overtaking Aberdeen as the third largest burgh in Scotland, which had a population of 112,923. Dundee wanted to make sure it was taken seriously as a major hub in the UK and the wider British Empire. The City Charter did also act as a precursor for the Dundee Corporation Act 1894, which merged the Town Council with various other local authorities such as the Police Commissioners, the Burial Board and the Gas and Water Commissions. But more about that another time.

A close up of the Great Seal of Scotland that is attached to the Charter.


Incidentally in 1891, Aberdeen was confirmed as a city. This article on Undiscovered Scotland claims that Inverness was turned down for city status in 1897 because it might have highlighted the fact that Glasgow and Edinburgh technically weren’t cities yet themselves. But everything was sorted out in 1929 when Glasgow and Edinburgh, along with Aberdeen and Dundee were created City Counties, meaning that the town councils had the same powers as the rural County Councils. But Dundee was the first City in Scotland – technically!

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