If you’ve seen any really old maps of Dundee, you might 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.


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.

Our appetite for all things licentious has not been quenched over the millennia.  From the necessity of reproduction, we have evolved our sexuality and desires to include just about every facet of life on earth.  Branched away from a purely biological need to reproduce, we constantly, as a species seek new and exciting ways to sate our appetites both in and out of the bedroom.  From designer drinks and drugs to lifelike sex toys and virtual reality porn, it’s safe to say the world has gone desire-crazy with no signs of slowing down! So, with that in mind, let’s talk just a wee bit about sex in our city, and what you’ve all been up to.

“I generally avoid temptation, unless I can’t resist it” – Mae West

“Sex appeal is fifty percent what you’ve got and fifty percent what people think you’ve got” – Sophia Loren

So, you lot, the fair folk o’ Dundee, what did you have to say for yourselves?  Katy Gordon went on a mission in early 2014 in her job as a reporter for The Evening Telegraph, and she found out a few of your dirty little secrets…  For starters, almost 50% of you who were polled said you lost your virginity when you were either 16 or 17.  Yeah, right.  We’ve lived here all our days – we know the score!  Nearly a third of you had been with 2 to 5 sexual partners in your life (yeah, we nearly choked too), but a few of you confessed to having more than 20 partners, so it kind of evened the score a bit.  Just a bit, mind.

Well over half of you said you were happy with your sex life, with popular outdoor places to have sex including the beach, under the Tay Road Bridge, Broughty Castle, and even upstairs on a bus!  [see the full article here:  http://www.eveningtelegraph.co.uk/news/local/dundee-s-naughtiest-secrets-revealed-1.172695]  Whilst a shameful quarter of pollers admitted to cheating on a partner at some point, nearly half of this group admitted to doing it more than once!  Dirty dogs; you should hang your heads in shame.

Speaking of dirty dogs, dogging has really taken off and become a “thing”.  Once reserved for only the most extreme voyeurs and exhibitionists, it has become more mainstream, with sites completely dedicated to the subject.  First brought to public attention at-large by the BBC in 2003, the dogging craze began to take off.  If you don’t know what dogging is, it’s the name given to the act of having sex in a public place whilst others watch you.  Usually, it’s done in car parks or secluded country parkland where there is generally less chance of being caught (as it is illegal to have sex in public, just in case you didn’t know).

All you literally have to do is utilise a search engine, and you are instantly connected to a world of voyeurism and public sex in our very own city.  It was not difficult to find, and we didn’t stay on the websites long (ahem), but they give very clear details on areas in and around the city where this kind of practise takes place.  We’re of the mind that it’s not a 24/7 operation, so you’d probably need to be “in the know” for any of the specifics, but, judging from the comments and interactions on these sites, it’s a pretty active community in more ways than one!  So, as you can see, for the most part, we’re all still “at it”.  All over our city, folk are doing it.  Probably right now.  What a thought, eh..?

On the plus side, Dundee, who consistently dominated the European league table for teenage pregnancies, has managed to shake off the title, with a 58% drop in teen pregnancies over the last decade.  Well done, Dundee, it’s been a long time in the coming (pardon the pun).  Not only that, but Dundee isn’t even the highest in Scotland any more, let alone Europe!  That calls for a celebration…but please, keep your clothes on!

Surprisingly little in the way of research has been undertaken into the history of sex, gambling and drunkenness in Dundee. There is a lot of information from the late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century about the lives of the mass female workforce in Jute Mills – we know they were a strong, rowdy, often drunken bunch, who worked and played as hard as the men…but what was happening in the closes, pendies and back rooms when the work was done and light turned to darkness?

By the mid-1800’s, Dundee had one pub to roughly every 20 families, and whisky had become the drink of choice. Children as well as adults were frequently seen in drunken states. Gambling became a massive form of entertainment, and in the Howff, upwards of 400 people at a time could be seen partaking of illegal betting, earning the Howff the nickname “the paddock”. In addition to illegal horse-race and dog-race betting, blood sports such as cock fighting and bare fist fighting attracted illegal gambling, as did almost anything that the men and women of Dundee could place a wager on. More often than not, these “sports” went without time limits, resulting in some horrifying skirmishes. Mixed with endless alcohol, fights inevitably broke out, leading to arrests.

In the late 1870’s, the crime of ‘shebeening’ (selling alcohol without a licence) was a crime committed by more women than men, often landing them with hefty fines or a spell in the gaol. Although Dundee had the highest living costs, people living in Dundee were the lowest paid. A large proportion of offenders were sitting in separated cells for not being able to pay their bills, or were being hauled in for drunkenness. Breaches of the peace and assault were also common crimes in these years – the majority of which had been caused by excessive alcohol consumption.

Sailors frequently visited the docks, whether departing or returning from voyages, and all sought the same recreations – alcohol, drugs and women of ill repute. Historian Judith Walkowitz writes, a British city would have on average one prostitute per 36 inhabitants. This eventually led across the United Kingdom to an outcry for something to be done to stop this “Great Social Evil”. By the middle of the 19th century, the UK government was compelled to introduce the Contagious Diseases Acts 1866–1869 to address the problem of the spread of venereal diseases. At that time, it was thought that one in three men in the British Army needed treatment for VD (venereal or sexually-transmitted diseases).

It was not just in the bigger cities that the vice held its grip. In Dundee during the 19th century the dramatic rise in VD was said to mirror the increase in street- and brothel-run prostitution. At that time, prostitution was thought to be gravitating to the housing schemes on the outskirts of the city. In the Police Superintendent’s Annual Report from 1876, we see that 123 prostitutes were arrested for “loitering and importuning”.

Prostitution, illegal gambling and illicit alcohol production and supply were rife everywhere in 19th century UK. Known as “The Great Social Evil”, the boom in prostitution was attributed to the changes in industrialisation and pressures of modern life. Money was still of grave concern for many, with publicans illegally producing their own alcohol for resale, whilst the scourge of drug and alcohol addiction threatened lives on a daily basis.

As travel between countries became easier and more frequent, so did the increase in the availability of dangerously addictive drugs. An alcohol and opiate-derived mixture known as Laudanum was readily available for sale and a permanent fixture in most homes as a cure for almost anything. What wasn’t known at the time, however, was its addictive properties, and people used it greedily.

It is a common myth that “opium dens” were rife in the UK, as there is no evidence anywhere to support this, but sailors did bring back quantities of opium, as well as a myriad of other substances which were snapped up by eager locals. Life was not pleasant, and many people were looking for a way to escape the drudgery of their lives. For some, it was mere entertainment.

Chloral hydrate was another favourite of the Victorian Era, used at the time medically as a sedative and hypnotic. Mixed with alcohol, it produced the famous “knockout drops” – a staple ingredient of the Mickey Finn type of drink typically drunk at the time. Another use for chloral hydrate was its decomposition into chloroform, an anaesthetic that depressed the nervous system.

Heroin was also frequently enjoyed as a drug of choice. Initially synthesised as a non-addictive alternative to morphine (another drug widely used by addicts at the time), heroin was glamourised with the “benefits” of making you feel heroic and strong (hence the name). By the time its addictive properties had been discovered, the drug had already travelled the world and had taken its toll. Known by its medical name of diamorphine, Heroin is only ever referred to as “heroin” when talking of the drug in the context of illegal use/supply.