Dundee’s culture bid begins and ends with nature

Looking out over Dundee to the Tay estuary.

So 2023, eh? Dundee, European City of Culture? I have a question. When was Dundee not a European city of culture? Culture and Dundee are two sides of the same coin. Europe, culture and Dundee are three branches of the same tree.

When did Dundee not produce artists, writers, musicians, actors and architects or embrace all of the above who came to stay or visit from furth of Dundee? When did Dundee not weave into its own domestic culture the fruits of its seafaring and its industry gathered and gleaned, absorbed and refurbished from half the known world and all of seafaring Europe?

The V&A will inevitably be the centrepiece of the 2023 bid, as it should be for it is of our own time, but its Japanese architect drew his inspiration from its 116-year-old world-travelling bedfellow, Discovery, and its sea-facing suggestion of a ship’s bow is the result.

But more importantly, he also said that the building is about nature, about connecting the city with nature, and that nature is more beautiful than the city. And as connecting the city with nature is more or less the story of my life, I pricked up my ears and then I started thinking.

To demonstrate what it was I started thinking, I need to take you to Tentsmuir Forest. Here is a long, straight forest track. It bisects the wood from south to north. Tentsmuir Point, where river meets sea and seals and eiders cavort is three straight forest miles away. The forest is an introverting place, and the sheer straightness of the track lets you concentrate on the forest and its wildlife on both sides without having to watch where you’re going.

Eventually, the track kinks slightly at a junction with an east-west track and now the trees are taller and big pines gather round. Finally, there are tall, thin, ragged windows of blue among the trees in the north and the track has grown green and sinuous and the northern edge of the forest is in sight. One last rank of pines, then you burst on to a short bank of rocks and down to a mile-wide, puddled plain of low-tide sand. You have just changed worlds.

The Tay estuary is two miles wide here, and there on its far shore is Dundee, where I come from. That long, introverting walk through the trees had erased even its possibility from my mind, so the last thing I was thinking of as I reached the forest edge was the proximity of a city. But there it lies on its accustomed shore, swathed in sunlight, its twin hills towered over by piles and piles of bright-white cumulus.

Once again, for what could easily be the thousandth time in my life, I renew my acknowledgment of what a fair situation it occupies, and once again, for perhaps only the 10th time, I think, “eagles, here!” and shake my head at the wonder of it all – the city where I belong, the wide-open glory of the Tay where it tends towards the sea, the quietly cloistered forest miles at my back with their nesting sea eagles for an emblem.

And now I am thinking that Kengo Kuma was right when he said (on Front Row on BBC 2 on Saturday night), that “the nature is beautifuler than the city”, smiling to himself at his uncertainty at his choice of adjective, but I smiled with him and it works for me.

So here’s the thing: when the great minds of the city assemble their bid to make Dundee European City of Culture, 2023, it should begin and end with nature, because the nature is beautifuler than the city, because the city is at its most persuasively beautiful when you evaluate it in its landscape setting.

As a teenager with a paper round in Dundee, the best of being up and about on a bike before breakfast was watching the sun rise out of the sea. And because the first 18 years of my life were lived on the slopes of the Balgay Hill, the best of coming home from school on winter afternoon was watching the sun set far up the Tay over the hills behind Newburgh.

And from the top of the Law, the roof of our portion of the world, you see it all, from the Bell Rock to Tentsmuir, and from the neighbourly Sidlaws to increasingly rarefied heights all the way to far Schiehallion.

Every city has is famous sons and daughters, and Dundee is as well endowed as any, but very few cities are so beautifully enthroned on nature as Dundee. The defining masterstroke in all Dundee’s cultural story was when its founding fathers chose the site.

Dundee, European City of Culture, 2023, eh? It’s nature that can win this thing.