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Story Trails: Reanimating Dundee through the magic of virtual reality

Story Trails heads to Dundee on July 7 and 8. Design by Gemma Day.
Story Trails heads to Dundee on July 7 and 8. Design by Gemma Day.

Fancy exploring Dundee’s untold history through the magic eye of virtual (and augmented) reality? StoryTrails has all the technical
tricks to lead you on a journey of discovery, finds Gayle Ritchie.

Think you know Dundee inside-out? The city’s stories, its people (some of them famous, some less so) and its history?

According to the creators of StoryTrails, an “immersive storytelling experience” running on July 7 and 8, there’s a “completely new way” to experience Dundee and its “untold stories” through what they describe as the “magic” of augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR).

For starters there’s an AR trail you can access via mobile phone that explores the stories of legendary boxer Dick McTaggart and Sarah ‘Cissie’ Stewart, two working-class Dundonians who defied expectations to become Olympic heroes.

Boxing legend Dick McTaggart.

There’s also an interactive cultural map of Dundee that tells the tales of a “diverse” group of Dundonians including “Scotland’s coolest optician” Richard Cook who owns Spex Pistols, folk singer Sheena Wellington who’s keeping the music sung in the jute mills alive for future generations, and skater “Shep” who waxes lyrical about the strong skateboarding and graffiti community in the city.

Visitors can also use VR headsets from the Central Library to experience “rich virtual worlds” across a variety of themes.

That’s not all – there’s a showcase of 3D scans of Dundee’s beloved buildings and iconic places from established landmarks like the jute mills to local favourites including Spex Pistols and Dudhope Skatepark.

Richard Cook of Spex Pistols.

Duncan Cowles and Neil Cullen, the Dundee-based creatives working on the project, used Local and Community History Month to shine a spotlight on “exciting developments” well underway locally.

The duo uncovered a myriad of stories and personalities across Dundee, highlighting the city’s diverse and unique community – and through the latest multimedia technologies they’re enabling people to see its past, present and future collide.

“It’s been a great experience working on this project and unearthing hidden stories,” reflects Neil, a ‘spatial storymapper’.

“Local History Month is very important but our ambition is that by using new technologies, we can inject a passion for history into people all year round. This project is about encouraging people to reassess what they know and develop new perspectives.

“It’s also about having fun and I really hope people in Dundee will love the footage, pictures and stories we’ve unearthed.”


Alongside interviews with Richard from Spex Pistols, folk singer Sheena and skater Shep, Neil and Duncan chatted to a fascinating mix of Dundonians.

These included a game developer, Stephanie, who believes her education at Abertay University was vital to her future success in the games industry; a young girl, Summer, who’s experienced “adventures” at Broughty Ferry’s Castle Green play park; a baker named Jen who works at Clark’s, a family business with a long history of keeping the city fed; a musician named Jonnie who wrote an album inspired by the McManus Galleries; curator Kirsty at V&A Dundee; two football supporters; and a librarian who is “amazed” by the lasting impact of the comics published by DC Thomson.

“While these stories were highlighted to be included in a short film about the city, we also captured some lesser-known stories and hidden gems,” says Neil.

Duncan Alexander, co-founder and managing director of 71 Brewing.

“We talked to a projectionist at Dundee Contemporary Arts who’s been working there since it opened, as well as Duncan Alexander who runs 71 Brewery, the first brewery in the city for 50 years. Then there’s Molly and Helen, part of Loadsaweeminsinging, who have a special place in their hearts for the music of the late Michael Marra.”

I really hope people in Dundee will love the footage, pictures and stories we’ve unearthed.”


Others they spoke to included Jimmy, who was a booker for the Reading Rooms, a club that was a hub for the city’s counter culture for 20 years; Alan, a third generation family member of J A Braithwaite, the oldest shop in Dundee (and which sells sensational coffee); Lisa who helped run Outfest, a celebratory festival of queer culture; Louise, who’s fascinated by the vaults underneath the city; a Latvian named Nadia who’s been welcomed to the city’s Mid Craigie; the manager of HMS Unicorn; a country ranger whose patch covers The Law; and a man who runs a community garden. The list goes on but offers a fascinating insight into the diverse and many colourful characters across the city.


Richard Cook, aka the trendiest optician in Scotland, was delighted to get involved in Story Trails and is keen to share his stories with visitors. Since opening Spex Pistols in 2012, he’s built up a hugely loyal local and international clientele.

Tucked away on cobbled Johnston’s Lane, the store is a brilliant example of an optical boutique service at the top of its game.

With more than three decades of experience in lens-making, Richard created Spex Pistols with the desire to offer a range of frames that were vastly unique – not like those you’d find in high street specs chains, and many of them vintage.

Spex Pistols founder Richard Cook.

The funky store is filled to the gunnels with cool curiosities – vintage cameras, record players and antique stone jars – and even has its own merchandise which includes branded sweatshirts, aprons, badges and tote bags.

“Over the years we’ve become known for more than just specs,” says Richard. “Having our own merch means clients can take a little more Spex Pistols home with them.

Like all businesses during Covid, Spex Pistols faced many challenges, having to adapt the business accordingly.

The staff of Spex Pistols.

“Our main focus was making sure our customers still had the best shopping experience,” says Richard.

Over the years we’ve become known for more than just specs.”


“Social distancing restrictions meant fewer customers in the shop at one time but we saw it as an opportunity to spend more time with individual customers and a chance to make an even bigger fuss of them.”


Sheena Wellington is one of Scottish traditional music’s most passionate advocates, and the singer will forever be remembered for her stirring singing of A Man’s a Man for a’ That at the Scottish Parliament’s opening in 1999.

The invitation to take part in StoryTrails was, she says, “an unexpected delight”.

Born in Dundee in 1944, Sheena grew up in a singing family. In the early 60s, she began attending local folk clubs and was encouraged to sing by Christine Stewart. In those heady days she travelled to other clubs and CND demonstrations in sometimes bizarre transport!

Sheena Wellington.

“In the days before car ownership became almost a human right, transport was often someone’s works van so it wasn’t unusual to be perched on boxes, fortunately empty, in the back of a fish van or sitting cross-legged and cramped in the back of a lorry,” says Sheena.

“I’ve gone to demos and clubs on the back of a scooter, in the sidecar of a pre-war motor bike and on one occasion on the parcel shelf of a bubble car.”

Sheena joined the WRNS and while serving at Lossiemouth met her husband, Malcolm. On leaving the service, the couple set up a guest house in St Andrews and it was here Sheena’s career really blossomed.

Sheena Wellington at HMS Unicorn in Dundee.

A resident singer at St Andrews folk club, she also appeared at festivals including Auchtermuchty and Kirriemuir and was invited to record her first album, Kerelaw, by Dougie MacLean – with some tracks done in his Butterstone bathroom.

I’ve gone to demos and clubs on the back of a scooter, in the sidecar of a pre-war motor bike and on one occasion on the parcel shelf of a bubble car.”


Kerelaw was followed by second album Clearsong, coast-to-coast tours of America, and two more albums – Strong Women, launched as Sheena was receiving treatment for breast cancer, and Hamely Fare. She has toured Canada, China and Europe and sung at Burns Suppers in London, Cairo and Singapore.

Sheena’s honours include the Heritage of Scotland Award, honorary doctorates from the universities of St Andrews, Dundee and the RCS and a plaque in Dundee’s Music Walk of Fame.

She’s still busy as secretary of the City Centre and Harbour Community Council and organises music events for Friends of Wighton.

Proud family

Sheena is, proudly, from a family whose women worked as weavers, spinners and winders in the jute industry and she remembers the sound of the mills, the distinctive smell and the hard work involved.

“Mary Brooksbank, who wrote Oh Dear Me (The Jute Mill Song) in tribute and protest, was a friend of my grandmother though I grew up knowing her by her ain name of Soutar,” says Sheena. “Having known the famous song, now recorded by more than 200 artists worldwide, since childhood I was confused about who this Mary Brooksbank was.”

The song tells of the hard life endured by social activist Mary and fellow jute mill lassies.


Against All Odds is the name of Duncan Cowles’ AR story trail which parallels the lives of Dundee’s first Olympian, swimmer ‘Cissie’ Stewart, and gold medal winning boxer Dick McTaggart.

“Their stories are told side by side at seven stops around Dundee which link to their story,” says Duncan, a mobile AR trailmaker.

“Starting at the Central Library audiences will walk a loop through the town, stopping at iconic locations including the V&A, the Dandy statue and Courier Place.

“People will use their phones and look through the camera to see 3D objects and archive footage appear, and hear testimony from contributors such as Dick, Cissie and others about their lives.

Cissie Stewart.

“Both Dick and Cissie were from working class backgrounds. Dick was thrown into the ring after fighting on the streets with his five brothers while swimmer Cissie learnt from her sister.

“When it came to training in the local public baths though, Cissie was made to pay through the roof.”

The trail is guided and narrated by Dundee athlete and Olympian Eilish McColgan.

Desperate Dan… in augmented reality.

Duncan, who comes from a documentary film-making background, says using real locations relevant to the stories being told is a “big advantage” of this new technology.

He says: “For example, being able to hear how Cissie faced huge hardships as a woman in sport during the 1920s, such as being wrongfully charged twice by the bath-master (despite having a year’s pass) at the old Dundee baths whilst actually standing at the site of the V&A where the baths used to be – all while watching archive footage of 1920s swimmers in the old pool – is really fun and a different way of telling a story, rather than just a traditional documentary on the TV.”

A unique way of viewing Dundee’s Hill Street.


Dundee is one of 15 locations across the UK hosting StoryTrails this summer.

In each city, visitors get the chance to enter digitally-created worlds by simply putting on a VR headset.

Highlights include Get Punked!, which puts users in the shoes of a rebellious teenager finding out about her mother’s punk past.

Then there’s Off the Record, in which they take part in the daytime South Asian raves of the 2000s.

And in Museum of Imagined Futures they dive into the past to find out what our ancestors thought life would be like today and beyond.

The creative companies producing the VR experiences worked with academics from Royal Holloway, University of London, to create these rich virtual worlds across a variety of themes.

David Olusoga is involved in Story Trails.

Further “time travel” will be guided by historian and television presenter David Olusoga, in an AR experience that will let visitors travel back through the decades by turning a dial on a virtual giant radio.

As they turn the dial, their virtual neighbours’ stories and fashion will change with the era, from Beatle-mania and the flares and haircuts of the swinging sixties to dancing to the end of the millennium and Y2K in crop-tops from the 1990s.

Verdant Works tells Dundee’s jute mills story.

Professor James Bennett, director of StoryFutures and StoryTrails, says: “We can’t wait to immerse the people of Dundee in the untold stories of their own communities and beyond. This about living and breathing local history and connecting with it in new ways.”

StoryTrails is one of 10 projects commissioned for Unboxed: Creativity in the UK, a ground-breaking UK-wide celebration of creativity this year that will bring people together and reach millions through free, large-scale immersive installations and globally accessible digital experiences in the UK’s most ambitious showcase of creative collaboration.


StoryTrails runs from July 1 to September 18 (in Dundee on July 7 and 8) and will culminate in a new film presented by David Olusoga which will screen in cinemas across the UK and be made available to audiences on BBC iPlayer.

Wondering what the difference between AR and VR is? In essence, when you spot someone with a giant headset attached to their face, possibly wearing special gloves or sensors, the chances are they’re indulging in a bit of VR: this is a completely immersive experience, replacing a real-life environment with a virtual one.

Those you see glued to their phones, wandering the streets in search of virtual monsters (think Pokemon) are enjoying AR: they’re augmenting their surroundings by adding digital elements to a live view, often using the camera on their smartphone to do so.

For more information see