A Day of Discovery

I think that no matter where I am, or what I’m doing, September 11th is forever etched in my mind as a day we witnessed unthinkable horror.  Perhaps it is my generation’s Pearl Harbor. I just know that at some point on this day, every year since 2001, I have remembered how stunned and speechless Mary and I were as we watched a plane fly into a tower in New York, and within the hour, saw two office towers collapse into themselves.  Once again, I paused in silent reflection this morning.

IMG_1850On this particular September 11th, we were in Dundee, Scotland on day 14 of our month-long adventure, and over a delicious breakfast served up by our hosts at the Alberta Guest House (Ira and Margaret), we talked about our plans for the day, and got some valuable insights from them.  It wasn’t raining as our day began, but the wind was gusting and I knew that might mean an extra challenge for Mary as far as driving was concerned.

Our first stop was Dundee Law, a 400 million-year-old extinct volcano which can be easily accessed on foot, by bus or car. “The Law” actually means “the hill” in Scots, so calling it “The Law Hill” as many apparently do is incorrect. It is surmounted by a war memorial, and has an excellent viewing platform with a viewpoint indicator. Given how windy it was, we chose to drive to the top (572 feet), but on a nicer day, the climb up would make for a great walk. Our host Margaret had told us that we would have an unrivalled view over the city and across the River Tay to Fife, and she wasn’t exaggerating.


Mary once again took the opportunity to get out her binoculars and check out the avian activity in the area. We paused to read the inscriptions on a war memorial that sits atop Dundee Law, and also checked out an interesting looking viewpoint indicator that let us know in which direction we were looking.

Apparently this is not only a spot for keen photographers and hillwalkers who get excited by stunning views, it also is a spot where locals go and leave a permanent symbol of their love and affection for each other.

We probably would have stayed up even longer than we did, but it was one of those “tears in the eyes” kind of windy days, and that soon had us back in our car, plotting our next destination – RRS Discovery.

As the 19th century drew to a close, the scientific community was turning its attention to the last unexplored continent on earth, the Antarctic, and the British were right in the thick of the race to be the first to get to the South Pole.  Dundee was a well-known whaling port with a ship-building industry renowned for constructing vessels strong enough to withstand the ice of the Arctic whaling grounds.  When it came time to build a research ship for Antarctic exploration, Dundee was the obvious place to come.

IMG_1892In August of 1901, the British National Antarctic Expedition set off on board Discovery under the command of Robert Scott with a pioneering crew that included Ernest Shackleton, and Edward Wilson. Shackleton’s first visit to the Antarctic on this expedition left him obsessed with what he described as a “bleak desert of ice”, and he would return three more times earning him a place in polar exploration history.  Wilson, the ship’s Zoologist, artist and  junior surgeon, observed the Antarctic birds and seals, writing and sketching these for publication in the Discovery reports. These collections of water colours were widely acclaimed and remain today as a legacy to Wilson’s skill.


Discovery had a strengthened hull, steel plated bow, and other special design features intended to help its crew endure two years locked in the Antarctic ice.

The voyage from Dundee until the first sighting of the Antarctic took more than five months, and  it was another 11 months (November 2nd, 1902), before Scott, Shackleton and Wilson set off to cross the Great Ice Barrier and explore the frozen desert that lay before them. With them were nineteen dogs pulling close to 2,000 pounds of suppliers and equipment.  They made their way south through temperatures as low as minus 45, risking frostbite and snow blindness to take measurements and collect specimens.  Against near impossible odds, they arrived back at Discovery on February 3rd, 1903, having traveled over 950 miles in 93 days, travelling further south than any man before them.

Their work was considered truly groundbreaking.  Over five hundred new kinds of marine animals, spiders, shrimps, star and shellfish were discovered. The expedition was the first to sight an Emperor Penguin rookery and obtain an egg of the species. Hundreds of miles of unknown mountain coast, towering mountain ranges, and glaciers were mapped.  Their body of work was massive (ten large “weighty” volumes when published) and it gave the world the first significant research insights into a previously unexplored land.

The fact that the ship is still standing today is a testament to the skill and ingenuity of the men that built Discovery.IMG_1883

In what may be one of those “circle of life moments”, our visit to Discovery in Dundee came slightly more than 50 years after I first boarded her. In 1968, during my first ever visit to England, my dad took me to see Discovery when it was moored on the Thames in London.  It was in a state of advancing deterioration at that time, so I was delighted to see how much restoration work had been undertaken since she was brought back home to Dundee in 1996.

Another aspect of Dundee’s history is it’s relationship with the Jute textile industry.  Between 1841 and 1901, the population tripled from 45,000 to 161,000 as the city became overrun with Jute Mills.  At the turn of the century, the jute textile industry employed more than 50,000 people in over 100 mills.  The city was undoubtedly the jute capital of the world. This industry was the city’s lifeblood and an important part of the social fabric which forged a strong sense of community.

The Verdant Works Factory has been transformed into a museum that transported Mary and I back 100 years and gave us a keen insight into the industry that shaped Dundee.

First things first.  I had no idea what Jute was, and had to ask Mary to explain it to me.  I was surprised to learn that it is one of the most versatile natural fibres known to man.  Raw jute fibre comes from two plants native to Bengal (modern-day Bangladesh), and during the 19th and early 20th centuries, jute was indispensable.  It was used for sacking, ropes, boot linings, aprons, carpets, tents, cattle bedding and way too many more items than can be listed here.  Its mass appeal laid in its low cost, versatility, strength, and durability.

In 1864, Verdant Works ran three steam engines driving 70 power looms and 2,800 spindles.  500 people were employed here making it one of the largest jute industry employers of the day.

While there, we were taken on a tour by a man who at the age of 21, had gone to Bangladesh (in 1967), and built some of the jute industry machines that are on display at Verdant Works.  They are all still in perfect working order, and he showed us how the raw jute is worked through a series of stages to the finished product (the large spindles pictured above).

We also had a chance to touch some of the fabric that had just come off a loom that is operated by a local woman three days a week, and later I caught Mary in the gift shop checking out a jute bag that caught her eye (yes, she bought it).

One other aspect of the jute industry that the museum pays tribute to, is the role that women  played in the workforce.  Women outnumbered men in the mills by a three to one ratio, and this created the original “house husband”, as many men stayed home toIMG_1994 take care of the children.  It was a fascinating story, but we also learned of the harrowing and dangerous work conditions that they operated in:  dust that clogged ears, mouths and noses, and an ear-splitting din that left many workers deaf.  The heat, dust, grease and old fumes caused a condition known as “mill fever”, which led to chronic bronchial diseases., and of course, there were accidents with the machines.

Before moving on to the featured attraction at Verdant Works, Mary and I stopped in the cafe, and along with our soup, we each ordered a slice of Dundee cake.  I had read about this treat before we embarked on a trip, and Dundee Cake is a famous tradional Scottish fruit cake with a rich flavor.


The cake is usually made with currants, sultanas, and almonds, and often has fruit peel added to it, as was the case with the pieces we had.  The cake originated in nineteenth-century Scotland, and was originally made as a mass-produced cake by the  Keiller’s marmalade company.  While Keiller’s may have been the first to mass market it, it is said that Mary Queen of Scots did not like glace cherries  in her cakes, so the cake was first made for her, as a fruit cake that used blanched almonds and not cherries.  One other interesting note; Queen Elizabeth is reported to favor Dundee cake at tea-time.  Mary and I love fruit cake, and this was a delicious alternative to it, but we found it to be very dense, and had to have half of it wrapped up as a “take-away”.  I can happily report that the rest of our slices were gone by the end of the evening.

Oh yes, I guess I mentioned a featured exhibition didn’t I?  I swear that we did not plan this, or had any idea about it in advance, but we just happened to arrive three days after the opening of Brick City –  a celebration of some of the world’s most famous and iconic buildings, all recreated in LEGO bricks!!!!!


The exhibit featured urban highlights from major cities around the world, including the Lincoln Memorial, Rome’s Trevi Fountain, and the balcony at Buckingham Palace.

To my mind, the most spectacular exhibit was the recreation of St. Pancras station in London.  Unreal!

Before leaving Dundee, we headed back down to the docks to visit one last notable historic treasure, HMS Unicorn.


This strange looking vessel, at almost 200 years old, is one of the world’s most remarkable historic ships and the last surviving wooden warship left in Scotland. It was built for the Royal Navy and launched in 1824, and is now one of the world’s six oldest surviving ships.  She was built to be battle-ready in the post Napolean era, but by the time she was completed, she was no longer needed, and never saw action.  The bizarre roof was put on her to protect her until she was needed (a common practice at the time), and it was never removed, making it truly unique and rare.


I loved the Unicorn that adorned the fore of the ship, and it reminded me of some of the tall ships that visited Vancouver a number of years ago.  The Unicorn is also significant as it is Scotland’s national animal.  I wanted to know why a mythical beast would be chosen to represent Scotland, and the first statement I found said ” the Unicorn is the perfect fit as the national animal for Scotland, because like this proud beast, Scots would fight to remain unconquered”

The unicorn was first used on the Scottish royal coat of arms by William I in the 12th century. In the 15th century, when King James III was in power, gold coins even appeared with the unicorn on them. When Scotland and England unified under the reign of James VI of Scotland in 1603, the Scottish Royal Arms had two unicorns supporting a shield. When James VI became James I of England and Ireland, he replaced the unicorn on the left of the shield with the national animal of England, the lion, to show that the countries were indeed united.

The HMS Unicorn has four decks, and we entered the top deck to find that there is only 5’6″ inches of clearance between the floor and the roof in the center of the ship, and it gets gradually lower as you move to the fore or the aft.  I’ve never been happier to be 5’6″ in my life!   Walking onto the ship was also like being injected into the middle of a Pirates of the Caribbean movie.  Check out the cannons in the picture below.

Mary and I had a lot of fun wandering all four decks and we had the ship entirely to ourselves.  This isn’t as glamorous an attraction as RRS Discovery or Verdant Works, but to us, it was every bit as enjoyable.

Leaving from dockside in Dundee, we set out on a circuitous route that would take us through a number of quaint fishing towns along the coast of East Fife.  While the map indicates that the route took an hour and eleven minutes of driving to cover, for us, it was closer to two and a half hours with stops along the way to check out the views.  One of the towns we passed through was Anstruther (at the lowest point at the bottom of the map), and it was founded as a fishing village.  Today it is home to the Scottish Fisheries Museum, but it was closed for the day when we arrived.  The Anstruther Fish Bar, has won numerous “Fish and Chip of the Year” awards, and seems to have a well-known reputation among the locals.  Even though it was 3:30 in the afternoon as we passed through, we could see that the place was packed.

But Anstruther is now famous for another reason, for it seems it was home to one of the Cold War’s best kept secrets – an underground nuclear bunker built in 1951 and operational until 1993.  During its operational life, it looked like an ordinary domestic dwelling, but it has been renovated and is now open to the public as a museum.

Hidden 100 feet beneath what locals thought was an innocent looking farmhouse, Scotland’s Secret Bunker is a 24,000 square ft. command centre for a nuclear attack.  It is spread over two levels with operational rooms, dormitories, broadcasting capabilities, security control, and even a chapel.  It was quite eerie to listen to military personnel (via the audio tour) discussing just how real a nuclear threat was thought to be, and, how ready Scotland’s armed forces were to run the country, and the war from deep underground.

The Tour begins with a walk down 150 metres of yellow tunnel to three-foot wide blast doors that would be hermetically sealed in the event of a nuclear attack.

For Mary and I, the most disturbing aspect of this tour was to learn that  from 1968 onward, the Secret Bunker took on the rather sinister and frightening role as the Regional Government Headquarters.   From here, in the event of a nuclear war, decisions would be made on how to care (or not care) for the civilian population….AFTER THE BOMB HAD DROPPED.   From the room pictured below, the Minister of State would have the power to tell military police to “put people out of their misery”, if he deemed there would not be enough supplies to care for the wounded.  Bloody terrifying if you ask me.

The random selection of pictures below gives you an idea of what some of the underground rooms looked like, and they remain exactly as they were at the time of decommissioning between 1992 and 1994.

By the time we emerged above ground from a visit that frankly left us feeling more than a little uncomfortable, the wind was so strong, I could barely hold my camera upright.  However, the wind was doing us a favour as it was blowing a nasty black sky out over the North Sea, and leaving behind a beautiful end-of-day view for us to marvel at.

As we set off for our B&B, booked about 6 miles outside of St. Andrews (which is crazy expensive for accommodations), we missed a turn and found ourselves at a spectacular land’s end near Crail, just 4 miles east of  the Secret Bunker site that we’d found so unsettling.

Our B&B accommodations for the night were at Knockhill Farm, and we were blown away, both literally (by the wind), and figuratively (by the property and room we had), by what we found when we arrived.  We had a marvelous two-story room called the Hayloft (each of the rooms had farm-related names), and the facility was modern and first-class.

The host, Linda Jones was a delight, and after giving us a brief tour, gave us directions for the “back way” into St. Andrews, where we were able to grab some fish and chips and bring them back to “our place”.

We had a great day today, and I guess it was somehow appropriate that we started the day remembering and reflecting on the horror of 9-11, and ending it with a visit to the Secret Bunker and the “horror that didn’t take place” (and we hope it never will). Quite the full spectrum of emotions for one day.

And the best part is, we still have 15 more days of adventure to experience!


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