Join Dundee Civic Trust Today

Dundee Street Names Article

by Denis M Naulty MA (St A), FSA Scot.:

I have found that there is usually a keen interest in the origins of the older surviving street-names of our city. The basic medieval street pattern in the centre of the town remains the same although much altered. The town plan was described fancifully by the Rev Robert Edward in 1678 as follows: 'The town is divided into four principal streets, representing a human body, stretched on its back with its arms towards the West and its legs towards the East'. This was the basis for the distinctive logo used to celebrate Dundee's Octocentenary in 1991.

Here is a selection of those streets and others that we walk upon in central Dundee today. This account may serve to remind Dundonians and perhaps inform others who now live in this ancient, royal and sunny burgh.

SEAGATE....

was the first area of settlement in Dundee (at least 11th century) and is one of its oldest surviving streets. It was the market centre with Cross and Tolbooth until the town gradually developed westwards (see the plaque on the wall across the road from the rear entrance to the Mark & Spencer store). The old shore of the River Tay was once on a line with the east end of the Seagait. The 16th century Seagait Port stood about the foot of Sugarhouse Wynd which today runs from 51 Cowgate to 134 Seagate. This street led from and to the river not the sea and so it is curious that it was not named Rivergait (or perhaps Watergait!?)

MURAYGATE....

is another of the oldest streets in Dundee. The name may be derived from 'Moray Gait' after Randolph, Earl of Moray, companion-at-arms of Wallace and Bruce. It dates from at least the early 14th century but doubtless was in existence long before since it was the main entrance to the Burgh from the North. There was a Murraygait Port which was cleared probably in the mid-17th century. This street is aligned north and south although many would assume it is east and west. The street has been pedestrianised but sections of the former tramway tracks have been left as a memorial of that earlier form of street transport.

COWGATE....

In medieval times, Dundee had a Town Herd who would drive cattle along the Cowgait to the Town's Meadows. In this street is the Cowgait or East Port, the only surviving town port. It is also referred to as Wishart's Arch with the probably erroneous tale that he preached from it to those suffering from plague who were required to stay outside the Town Walls. However, Wishart was burnt as a heretic, or martyr, outside St Andrews Castle on 1st March 1546. The Cowgait Port was probably built when the town's defences were being strengthened in the 1590s. After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the Town Council issued an order to dismantle the Town Walls except the Cowgait Port, which was to be kept as a memorial of ancient days.

WELLGATE CENTRE....

is built on the site of the old Wellgait, so named because it was the way or street leading to the Lady Well dedicated to the town's patron saint, St Mary, Our Lady, the mother of Christ. There was a Wellgait Port in the 17th century, possibly erected not only to secure Wellgait but to provide a barrier to those dwelling on Rotten Row who were reputed to have been a source of annoyance to the burgesses of Dundee.

OVERGATE....

was known as Argyllsgait in earlier times when it led from the old Marketgait out into the country past a mansion called Argyll's Lodging. This was the town house of Campbell of Balruddery, a descendant of the Campbells of Argyll. The name changed to Overgate, 'the upper way' to the West Port, Hawkhill then Perth. There is nothing left of this once bustling medieval thoroughfare that was the principal western route from Dundee except that its line is roughly preserved but enveloped in the recently opened very modem shopping mall.

NETHERGATE....

was 'the lower way' leading along the river frontage to the villages of Westfield and Springfield and then to Perth. Originally the Flukergait, named after the type of flat fish found in the Tay. There was Flukergait Port that became known as the Nethergait Port in the 16th century, possibly standing about the junction with South Tay Street.

Correctly, all the above should be spelled 'gait' meaning 'way'. Today's West, North and East Marketgait have happily adopted this spelling, although they are a long way from their ancient namesake - now the High Street.

HIGH STREET....

existed by at least the 13th century. It gradually grew in importance as the original settlement spread westwards from Seagait. The Tron, Tolbooth and Market Cross were all sited here by the 15th century. It was the town's market place - its earlier names were The Cross, Highgait and Marketgait - then High Street by 1876. At its east end was the site of the town 'Shambles' or slaughterhouse and butchers' market in the 16th century. This was removed to the area of the foreshore when the Trades Hall was built in 1776, designed by Samuel Bell, the Town's architect. This gave tradesmen a meeting-place under cover in place of their former open-air 'Howff'. It had shops on the ground floor with the principal rooms on the first. Demolished in 1878 and leaving exposed the Clydesdale Bank which was originally behind it. The opportunity was taken to widen both Murraygate and Seagate. The Union Hall at its west end was originally the English Chapel (1783) and latterly housed the meeting rooms for the Dundee Literary Society and other organisations. It was removed in 1876 to widen the Nethergate. The splendid William Adam's Town House replaced the latest Tolbooth on its south side in 1731, with its legendary 'Pillars' at ground level. The crumbling but distinguished old building was demolished in 1932 to make way for the creation of a new City Hall and Square, funded by James Caird. The Mercat Cross was moved at least twice before its modern reproduction, but still featuring its 1586 carved shaft, which now stands in front of the City Churches

HILLTOWN....

then called Rotten Row, was outside 17th century Dundee and was a barony in its own right. and through which ran the main road from Dundee to Forfar. The Barony of Hilltown was purchased from a later Laird of Dudhope in 1697 and became part of the Royal Burgh. A number of thatched houses with kailyards attached were built on both sides of the Row and were chiefly occupied by bonnetmakers. This gave rise to the area being nicknamed 'the Bonnet Hill' and the reference in Scott's song to' the bonnets o' bonnie Dundee'. Dundee was the first town in Scotland to have an Incorporated Trade of Bonnetmakers.

By 1832, however, there was only one bonnetmaker in the area and the knitting of the Dundee type of bonnet, usually in black, was transferred to Stewarton, near Kilmarnock. Many took up handloom weaving in their homes instead. In the 1870s, much re-building of working class houses took place in and around the Hilltown. The upper part of Hilltown, the district of Maxwelltown, was acquired by the town about 1780 from the estate of the family of Maxwell of Tealing. When the feuing-plan was prepared setting out the new streets, Maxwell arranged that these should be named after members of the family - hence the names Ann Street, Eliza Street, George Street, Alexander Street, (Elizabeth Street) and William Street.

VICTORIA ROAD....

was formerly Bucklemaker Wynd, one of the main streets in old Dundee. It was so narrow, however, that it was difficult for two carts to pass. By the middle of the 19th century, the increasing congestion of traffic caused the street to be widened and to name it after the Queen. The making of shoe buckles was then a staple trade in Dundee. Bucklemakers were members of the Hammermen's Guild - one of Dundee's Nine Guilds or Trades. They also made buckles for saddles, sword belts and scarf pins. It is reported that the Prince of Wales appeared at a Ball in London in 1786 with no buckles on his shoes and so the trade ceased almost overnight.

EUCLID CRESCENT....

is named after the Greek mathematician who lived at Alexandria about 300 BC. He wrote the 'Elements' in 13 books of which 9 dealt with plane and solid geometry and 4 with arithmetic. The geometrical books remained as standard textbooks for over 2,000 years and were still in use in British schools in the 20th century. It is an appropriately named address for the Dundee High School, successor to the public seminaries which were an amalgam of the former Grammar School, English School and the Academy and brought together in 1844 into George Angus' splendid new building.

PANMURE STREET....

was first projected by the Improvements Bill of November 1824. The Town Council began to buy the intervening properties in the following March in order to build a new street leading from the Cowgait to the Meadows. It was opened in May 1839 and named after William Ramsay Maule, first Baron Panmure, in recognition of his recent generous donations to the funds of the Infirmary.

REFORM STREET....

commemorates the passing of the Reform Act of 1832, which extended the enfranchisement of the electorate. Other suggestions were forthcoming as a name for the new street including Kinnaird Street after George, 9th Lord Kinnaird who owned the ground on which it was built and Jobson Street after the Provost of the time. It was the first street in Dundee designed as an architectural composition and link between the Doric porticoes of the Dundee High School and the Renaissance style frontage of the Adam's Town House.

COMMERCIAL STREET....

The upper part was tackled first in the re-planning of the old central area of the town. The eastern side was designed in an approximation to the Paris of 1876 but it was not finished until 1892. William Mackison, burgh engineer, began the design, in 1871. It is City Improvement Act architecture similar to work in Edinburgh. Its name indicates the considerable commercial activity in the town, especially in Trust business. The lower part of Commercial Street was laid out and partially completed by the Town Council in 1834, chiefly to give easy access to Exchange Street.

EXCHANGE STREET....

In the 17th century, Dundee merchants met to transact business in the Green Market, now absorbed in the site of the Caird Hall. When the Trades Hall was built at the east end of High Street in 1778, the principal room was rented by the merchants. Here they established 'The Dundee Exchange Coffee-room and Reading-room'. Since the room was not their own and used by others, they determined to erect a building for themselves. In 1807 the new Exchange was opened on the south side of a rough path that led from Castle Street to the Burnhead (Commercial Street). A library was added in 1809. The building was extended further in 1828, with shops in the under portion. On the 5th August 1830, the new Exchange Coffee-Room was opened where it stands today. In 1828, the Town Council arranged to build a street, 40 feet wide, from the Burnhead to the foot of Castle Street and named it Exchange Street.