The Overgate

If you’ve seen our map print of Dundee in 16th Century, you’ll notice that there’s no mention of the Overgate as we know it, or indeed, the Nethergate.  Known back then as Argyllsgait (Argyllgait) and Flukergait respectively, it wasn’t until the latter part of the 1500’s that the new names came into play, not long after the time period set on our map.  Originally no more than a few wooden houses, Argyllgait slowly grew over the centuries, slowly spreading towards the lower Flukergait and beyond.

Such was the attraction of Argyllgait, that the Mercat Cross was uprooted from its position in the Seagate and moved in the mid 1400’s to a new position where High Street met Argyllgait.  Trade and commerce swiftly followed, making it a hive of activity.  Many rich and wealthy people began moving to Argyllgait, making it a very desirable place to live.  The Seagate ceased to be the main centre of trade whilst still retaining its unique character and vantage point near the river.  The Mercat Cross remained there until the late 1700’s.

The naming of Argyllgait is claimed to be either down to the occupants of the area at that time, who came to stay in Dundee from the Highlands, or from a wealthy family – the Campbell’s of Argyll – who were alleged to have resided in the area.  By the turn of the 16th century, Argyllgait was almost beyond what we can imagine by looking at the area today.  A very good place to live, it boasted not only the majestic City Churches, but an array of well-built, stone houses, in which dwelled the rich and the noble.

However, as its popularity rose, those who sought to steer clear of the ‘common’ folk soon began to move to larger estates on the outskirts of the town.  The houses at Argyllgait had lovely gardens, so it wasn’t like people were living on top of one another at that point, but the allure of the outskirts of town, with even larger expanses of land were too appealing to the rich, and they soon abandoned their homes in the heart of the town.  Losing the nobility didn’t do anything to dent the character of the Overgate, as it soon became known.  In fact, if anything, the heart of the town only beat harder.

As more and more working class people moved into the Overgate, they set up shops, stalls and workshops in the free space around the buildings.  Some even built their own housing on the land, and by the 17th century, the era of Argyllgait was well and truly over; nothing more than a passing memory making way for the ever-expanding Overgate.  Many notable people from Dundee’s history, both famous and infamous have lived in the Overgate, such as Grissell Jaffray, David Balfour, the Duke of Monmouth and Mary Brooksbank, to name but only a few.  It’s also fair safe to assume that, considering its longevity, anyone notable throughout Dundee’s entire history will have stood on these grounds somewhere, from royalty and robbers to warriors and murderers.

When the Earl of Huntingdon landed upon Dundee’s shores following a storm in 1190, he had the Church of St Mary built over a period of many years as thanks for his safe landing. Throughout the ages, endless attacks by English armies forced us to fortify our walls and solidify our defences, to the point where we held the majority of the wealth of the Earls and nobility of Scotland within our confines.  Unfortunately, this ended tragically for us during the siege of 1st September 1651, when Monck’s troops stormed the town after Governor Robert Lumsden repeatedly refused the city’s surrender.

The word “gait” means to walk, or, more specifically, the pattern of movement of the limbs during locomotion.  We learned on Lost Dundee that the word “gate” is derivative from the Norse word ‘gata’ meaning road or street.  As Overgate was the higher of the two thoroughfares running alongside Dundee’s City Churches, thus it was named.  Flukergait, being the lower of the two, was renamed Nethergate.  Our Lady Warkstairs was a timber-fronted building, reported to have been built sometime in the 15th century and connected to the Church of St Mary, perhaps as an almshouse.  It was situated where Primark sits now, looking down Crichton Street. At the time of the building’s construction, however, this street would not have been there.

On the other side of Primark, which faces towards the corner of Reform Street sat the Duke of Monmouth’s house – a substantial building, constructed around the same time as Our Lady Warkstairs.  This property was famous for a few reasons.  This was the house in which General Monck set up his Headquarters whilst in Dundee during the siege of 1651 which we touched upon earlier.  During this period, the Duke’s daughter was born in the home; Anna, Duchess of Buccleuch and Monmouth.  It was also used as the Town House for a while, earning it the nickname “The New Tolbooth”.  Its stature, position in the centre, and a handy wee turret made it a very attractive property indeed – and it certainly saw more than its fair share of action.

Whereas nowadays, the Overgate area is fairly open and easy to navigate, it was not always this way.  Streets and pends ran all up and down this area, like a warren of narrow paths, crammed with overpopulated housing.  With the boom of the textile industry in the 19th century, the population of Dundee also grew considerable, with many of them living in and around this area.  So dense was the population, that it was reported there were around 400 people per acre in the Overgate, compared to a city average of 36.  Thorter Row, Tally Street, Barrack Street, Lindsay Street, Tay Street, Long Wynd, Church Lane, Mid Kirk Style are only a few of the myriad pends and streets which formed part of the Overgate’s impressive portfolio, including closes such as St Salvador’s Close, Argyll Close, Mint Close, Methodist Close and the legendary Beefcan Close (not it’s official name).

Whilst this added a whole lot of hustle and bustle to the area, it also meant that they were never short of a drama in the Overgate.  Described as a bit of a circus, the area was literally heaving with people, shops, pubs, flea-markets, entertainers and religious preachers.  Fights would often break out – and not just between the men – and alcohol, gambling and women of ill repute were never far out of reach.  Despite its reputation swiftly gaining notoriety, the Overgate was the only place to go to be guaranteed a good time; so much so that the area has been coined in many a local phrase and song.

With some of what was claimed to be the worst housing in Dundee, the Overgate also had five properties which were used as common sleeping places for the homeless, where (mostly drunk) people slept in hospital-style beds in a dormitory fashion, sleeping on their possessions to avoid robbery.  Outside toilets were used by dozens of people, and conditions were far from sanitary.  Having so many people crammed into such a small space made it very easy for diseases to spread.  In 1832 and in 1849, Cholera struck Dundee.  Cholera is spread mainly by water and food products that have been contaminated with human faeces containing the disease.  In 1845, piped water first became available in Dundee.  Shortly after, the 1848 Public Health Act was the first step in the right direction to improving what was said to be squalid conditions.

 

In 1910, plans were developed to completely change the way the Overgate looked, in an attempt to reinvigorate it and clean up its image both in terms of image and reputation.  Unfortunately, both World Wars put a halt to regeneration attempts and funding until the 1960’s, when a concrete monolith was erected in place of the dilapidated housing.  It wasn’t the nicest looking thing in the world, but it was beginning to change the way people looked at the Overgate and the surrounding area.  During the demolition, everything was destroyed with exception of St Mary’s Tower and the City Churches.

Overgate2

Despite its best intentions, and boasting a hotel as well as a decent range of shops, the Overgate began to lose favour to the new Wellgate Centre, which was constructed in the late 1970’s.  Fortunes turned for the Overgate as shopkeepers could not afford the rents and moved out, damaging its reputation once again.  As the years progressed, the Overgate became a ghost of its former lively self until the question of redevelopment became a talking point.  By the late 1990’s, work was underway to change the face and the reputation of the Overgate.  A multi-level shopping mall was built, housing many well-known retailers, and brought positive attention (and, more importantly, revenue) back into the area.

Whilst many things have changed over the centuries with regards to what we now know as the Overgate, what has never changed is the resilience of the city – no matter what happens, we always bounce back fighting.  Whilst we don’t profess to know what will happen to the Overgate of the future, we’re pretty certain that she won’t be going anywhere any time soon!  The next time you’re wandering about the Overgate, just have a wee think of all the things that have happened there over the history of the town…and all the dead bodies that lie right under your feet!

Images courtesy of City Archives, Wikimedia and Lost Dundee.

19 thoughts on “The Overgate

  • January 29, 2016 at 2:12 am
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    really good to see and read the history of Dundee my birthplace but why is there dead bodies buried in the Overgate ?and where can i find out more of its history

    • March 20, 2016 at 9:56 am
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      When they were building it there was quite a few bodies brought up, they know in this is only the ones they got without fully excavating it more they are still down there. Number of reasons cholera pit being the main, it was also off of a number of prominent churches so natural burials and occasionally they find fighters or victims from Dundee’s darkest days when troops pretty much massacred Dundee in this area.

  • January 29, 2016 at 9:17 am
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    I personally think that the present Overgate centre is a tragedy. Most local retailers couldn’t afford a space in there and we have handed over the control of a huge area of our town centre to a private company who have closed off rights of way to the public. We now have the same high st shops as every other town, except a useful one like WH Smith, and a whole lot of revenue disappearing into the bank accounts of big companies rather than staying in Dundee to be spent here.
    I’ll bet the Old Overgate didn’t have security guards strolling up and down and it may have been poor but there was a POETRY shop and a Scouts Den for young lads to hang out at. We have more phone shops than you can shake a stick at (and wouldn’t I like to!) and endless shops selling what is effectively disposable clothing.Sad.

  • January 29, 2016 at 9:18 am
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    I did forget to say thanks for the article! It was lovely to hear about some of the places that were there before and I read about with great interest as a kid. Thanks

    • January 29, 2016 at 10:00 am
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      Glad you enjoyed it! Although we agree the current Overgate centre isn’t a patch on the old streets, we all have to admit it’s better than the 60s concrete block that was there before it.

  • August 3, 2016 at 6:54 pm
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    My grandparents Isaac and Rachel Jacob (originally from Russia) and their existing 6 children settled in Dundee c1913, and 4 more children were born there between 1914 and 1921 including my father in 1915. They had various addresses in Overgate including 201 and 167 and they also had a shoe making business at 205 and a fruit and veg shop at 203. Their eldest son David went on to become Dr David Jacob who spent his life in practice in Dundee, first from William Street and then from Wellington Street until he retired in 1966, and in turn his son Albert followed in his footsteps and became Dr Albert Jacob who also spent his career in Dundee until he retired in the 1990’s. The family later moved to 13 and 15 William Street and also built and ran a boxing booth and dance hall in William lane where in 1936 my father was fined £1 for allowing unlicensed dancing (!). Very colourful history in Dundee and just recently I have come across a hand written 1450 pages Dr David’s life, much of which relates to his life in Dundee, from his life in a poor family in Overgate, Overgate itself, his school days, university days and eventually his medical practice in the City. Of the 10 children 2 became Doctors, 3 state registered nurses, 2 engineers, 1 teacher (the others, one married young and left, one died at the age of 20). Absolutely fascinating City for both its good and not so good history. I only regret my first visit was 1990 and so I never saw the ‘old’ City.

    • February 10, 2017 at 8:21 pm
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      Dr albert Jacobs father, had a practice in Victoria road opposite nelson street , my mother and me were patients in that practice . My mother went to see Dr Jacob in Victoria road as she thought see had a tumour, however she was pregnant WITH ME, and that was the end of 1937 early 1938. I was born august 1938 .

    • June 19, 2017 at 9:47 pm
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      Can I ask you how did your grandparent get to Scotland. My grandfather also came over from Russia.
      Thanks

      • June 19, 2017 at 10:50 pm
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        They came via London, Liverpool, Glasgow, Cardiff, South Shields, Aberdeen, Dundee, Coupler Angus then back to Dundee

    • July 4, 2017 at 6:40 pm
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      David then Albert Jacob were my family doctors i am now 74 their practice was in victoria road where we lived after David retired Alert became our GP for many years he was held with a lot of affection by my family,i remember once my son who was about 3 had a chesty cold i phoned him from the phone box at the bottom of cotton road i stopped to speak to someone for a few minutes and buy the time i returned home he was there as he lived round the corner in william street.
      He was very much for the working class,you could speak to him freely and he was an excellent doctor who we liked very much,can you tell him we often speak about him and miss him very much.

      • July 5, 2017 at 11:25 am
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        I shall pass on your comments, thank you

  • August 31, 2016 at 9:14 pm
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    This is all really interesting stuff. My dad attended Dr Jacob in William Street I think, I remember going with him when I was just 4 or 5 (1964/5). I remember walking up a street on a wee hill, which I believe had a metal handrail on part of it. I also remember Dr Jacob as having dark hair and a pointy beard, and lots of smoking going on during consultation.!

  • August 31, 2016 at 9:48 pm
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    Probably my cousin Dr Albert and at either 8a Nelson Street or Wellington Road as the medical practice ceased in William Street in c1930

    • January 20, 2017 at 7:01 am
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      My mum went to Dr Jacob she was born in Dundee in 1923 – I remember the name but can’t think where his practice was.

      • January 20, 2017 at 7:04 am
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        Thank you for all the history –fascinating!!

  • January 20, 2017 at 8:20 am
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    Dr David practices at 13 William Street from around 1925 until 1935 when he moved to 8a Nelson street. David retired in 1966 but his son Dr Albert continued to practice from the 1950s until he retired in the 1990s. I think Wellington Street was one of his residences. Many thanks for your response, I just need now to find out about my Grandfather’s dance hall and boxing booth in William Lane

    • February 12, 2017 at 8:38 am
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      Nice to learn about your family’s history, my Dad and Mum were Drs FB & EM Proudfoot who are now deceased. David my brother is a GP in Dundee.

      • February 13, 2017 at 3:42 pm
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        Thank you for your comment.

      • March 8, 2017 at 7:42 pm
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        I’m sure Dr Proudfoot was my grans doctor? She lived in Gardner street, was that near their practice? I was brought up there in the 50’s.
        Les

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