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  • Writer's pictureAlastair Derrick

A City of Missing Spires!

Updated: Dec 6, 2019

Illustration of St Mary’s Tower with a Crown Steeple
Depiction of St Mary’s Tower with a Crown Steeple

If you look at a photograph of old Dundee, you will see countless factory chimneys, but there are at least three fewer spires than were intended to be. The first to be lost was that of Dundee’s very own Medieval St Mary`s Tower, built around the end of the 15th Century, in the reign of Scottish King James IV. Such buildings of importance, were frequently finished off with “Crown Steeples.” This was basically a power statement signifying that the Scottish King was in control and beholden to no one. During one of the various brutal attacks on the city, in 1548 - which we will cover when you join our walk - English forces destroyed the upper part of the tower, and the spire with it. Despite good intentions and planning, the spire was never rebuilt. Depicted here is how it is thought that the tower looked, but you can see a good example to this day, at King’s College, Aberdeen University.

The geology and topography of the city come into our story as regards two other important Dundee Buildings - The Royal Exchange and the McManus Museum and Gallery (originally the Albert Institute.)

The Royal Exchange
The Royal Exchange

By the mid 1800`s Dundee’s dynamic merchants, shipowners and financiers had brought prosperity to the city for some. Many felt that there was a need for a new, dedicated Royal Exchange which befitted their status.

After a design competition, the Architect David Bryce won the right to proceed - based on a Flanders Cloth Hall. Today it is impressive but lacks the Crown Spire that was always intended. All was well until work commenced on the tower in 1855, when the foundations slipped severely and clearly would not take the weight of a spire - Dundee’s loss, to be sure.

Perhaps a little surprisingly, given these problems, around 10 years later the city decided to honour the Queen’s late husband Prince Albert with the building of the ornate Albert Institute. Such was the scale and importance of this project that they chose a most celebrated of Architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott.

The Albert Institute
The Albert Institute

The surprising part of this story is that the Albert institute was to be built only about 100 metres from Royal Exchange, on land that had similar problems for construction purposes. These buildings were both planned to be built on marshy meadow areas, just outside what was once the City Wall. It is even said that the Scourin’ Burn, which was a main source of water- power for industry at the time, flowed down to the meadows where it was dammed to increase the head of water available. The problem manifested when Gilbert Scott arrived in Dundee to present his design. It was realised that the ground quite simply would not take the weight of the tower which the Architect had intended and new designs had to be adopted, resulting in the present build. Rather than the very small spire, which is in the current roof, there would have been a far more dramatic and lofty one. This was the architect’s signature at the time. If you look at the projects shortly before (his unexecuted design for the proposed Rathaus in Hamburg of 1856) and afterwards (the completed Glasgow University of around 1870) you will see what might have been done.

A final interesting fact is that to enable the alternative design to be built, one of the wealthy Baxter family contributed £10,000 to allow the underpinning of the building with large wooden beams. Nonetheless, it was found, in the 1970`s that there were significant problems of partial subsidence requiring further strengthening. When the whole building (now the McManus Museum and Art Gallery) had its recent massive renovation to create the building that we now enjoy so much, one of the most urgent issues was yet again the underpinning of the building to provide stable foundations!

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