Perhaps few people in Dundee, except those versed in local history, have ever heard of Rotten Row, but it is a fact that at one time there was such a place in the town. It is not likely it had any resemblance to the Rotten Row of Hyde Park. People, especially in Dundee, had not time then for that sort of thing. The Rotten Row of Dundee was no ornamental parade. A good many places have, or have had, their Rotten Row and much curiosity has been shown as to the origin of the rather contemptuous designation. It has been derived from “rotteran”, to muster, hence “rot”,a file of six soldiers. Another explanation is that it comes from the Norman “Ratten Row” (roundabout way), being the road that corpses were carried to avoid the public thoroughfare. Still another suggestion is “Route de Roi,” King’s Highway. Yet another derivation is from the Saxon “Rot”,pleasant, cheerful, or “rotten” referring to the soft material with which the road was covered. Much learning has been expended on the name, but as yet to very little purpose.
But if the origin of the name is lost in the mists of antiquity, much is yet remembered about the place itself. It is now known as Hilltown, a designation more expressive to the present-day intelligence, although it is quite possible that the earlier name was as full of meaning to those who invented and used it. Rotten Row, or Hilltown, at one time bid fair to become a very formidable rival to Dundee. Early in the seventeenth century the city had not yet crept up the Hill. The town wall ran along by Wellgate, and outside was open country, a road leading inland through the Dudhope territory up the Hill. On this steep road cottages were erected from time to time. These early Hill Tribes soon developed a character of their own. They lived under the patronage of the lords of Dudhope, and, as that family were often at feud with Dundee, the Hillmen took up the cause of their superior. This community outside the city wall seems to have grown to considerable dimensions, and it gave great trouble to Dundee. It could hardly hope to rival the city, as the latter had control of the port, but it could at least be “the thorn in the flesh”, and, as matter of fact, it was. The Rotten Rowers developed the length of carrying on their own industries, independent of the jurisdiction of the crafts in the city, and assumed the rights of self-government. The Wellgate Port had, in these circumstances, to be jealously guarded, even in the ordinary times of peace. In fact, there was no peace between Dundee and Rotten Row – it was merely an armed truce when there was not actual quarrelling. An unfaithful watchman was convicted of having opened the “Wellgait Port under silence of nicht, and also in the time of preaching”, and for this heinous offence was ordained to be “wardit in the Steeple twenty days on bread and water, and thereafter to be banished the burth perpetually”. Thus was the “traitor” disposed of. The punishment was heavy, but the trust was great, and the douce citizens of Dundee could not afford any slackness at this important post.
Trade matters became the main bone of contention between the rival places. Dundee was at that time fully equipped with all the paraphernalia of trade corporations with their privileges and responsibilities. But the landward men began to take up the same crafts – they were chiefly weavers and bonnetmakers – and adopted the principles practically of Free Trade – which at that time were tantamount to piracy. The town burgesses were heavily taxed for watching and warding, while their unauthorised competitors were free from the local rates, and consequently in time they became formidable competitors. The deacons of the trades, of course, complained of “them that dwell in the Hill and Rotten Raw, without all order, as if they were freemen, handle with staple guids, in great defraud of the freemen of the burgh, that do their duty to the King’s Majesty for their freedom”. Some of the bonnetmakers made submission, but the weavers continued in their evil ways, and, what was worst of all, “even with the connivance of some of the townsmen”. The deacons of the webster and walker crafts came before the Council, and “heavily lamentit” that the “maist part of the inhabitants daily put their work in the hands of unfreemen”, who, “being free from only burden of laws, have greatly increased in number and substances”, doing “all things and mair than to freemen is lesum, quha are decavit in their number and depauperit in substance, and na mair able to bear buden within the town”. To such a pass was Dundee brought, by this enterprising little place. Of course, the Council passed stringent laws against the Hill Tribes, but they also warned the deacons to take heed that the burgh weavers made good cloth, “to the effect that the neighbours may be the better movit to put wark”, into their hands. Was this a case of protection resulting in deterioration of the quality? Were the Hillmen giving better value for money? But the enforcement of the ordinance does not seem to have been very strict, for the number of unfreemen websters “daily increases, be their repairing fra all quarters of the realm to the Rotten Raw”, where they were “eating , as it war, the bread out of the mouths of freemen”. The boys of the Rotten Row also proved a source of trouble. They seem to have been as “lawless”, from the point of view of the freemen, as their fathers. A stringent ordinance was passed against these “insolent puir youth, who were to be skurgit through the burgh and banished for ever”.
The lord of Dudhope claimed certain rights of jurisdiction over Dundee which were disputed. He thought to avenge himself by forming the place into a burgh of barony, and secured the necessary charter “the magic influence of which instantly converted the scattered hovels of the Rotten Row into the Baronial Burgh of Hilltown of Dudhope”. Some improvement in the relations of the two places later, although there continued to be differences, and at times the old animosity reasserted itself. By the Royal grant erecting Dudhope into a barony the lords of Dudhope were confirmed in the patronage of the Church of Dundee, and many were the insults sustained by Dundee in trying to compel the patron to pay the minister’s stipend.
The town, however, did not take all this from his Lordship in silence. They carried the war into the enemy–s camp – Rotten Row. They tried to prevent a merchant who was rebuilding his shop carrying the front wall further forward than it was before, and they objected to his Lordship exacting customs in the burgh during the annual fair. The fight waxed hot. Both parties set all the legal machinery of the day at work against each other. The Viscount raised a charge of law-burrows against the town, and the town raised a similar charge against him. The Viscount won a modified legal victory. The town, however, though often defeated, was not cowed, and finally both parties, exhausted with the dispute, agreed to submit the matter to arbitration. In the final settlement the honours were pretty much divided. Before the agreement was signed Lord Dudhope was killed at the Battle of Long Marston Moor, but his son completed the agreement. He gave up the scheme for erecting Rotten Row into a burgh, together with the liberty to hold fairs and exercise trade, and allowed the inhabitants of the town to “dry their clothes and stent their cloth” upon the “slainting hill”, as they had been in use to do, and agreed that only four tailors should be allowed to remain in the Hill. The town, on their side, acknowledged the Viscount’s right to levy customs at the fair, and granted him other privileges. Since then Hilltown and Dundee have dwelt together with a fair amount of amity. But it was rather a sad ending to the high aspirations of Rotten Row. It aimed at humbling proud Dundee, but itself was finally reduced to four tailors! The subsequent history of Rotten Row has been more peaceful, and perhaps on that account less interesting. Towards the end of the 17th century the city came into actual possession of its rival. The lands had reverted to the Crown, which sold them to the town for “fourtie thousand nyne hundred and nynty pounds Scots”. Not a mere mess of pottage certainly, but Rotten Row was sold all the same. And to Dundee!
About the beginning of the 18th century the town got heavily into debt, and the Council were urged to sell the Hilltown and barony. However, the place was saved this second indignity, for, considering that it had been bought for “weightie reasons”, such as the preventing of trouble and expense “by want of the patronage of the Kirk of Dundie, and for hindering persones to sett up in the Baronie of Hilltowne to the prejudice of merchants residing and trading in the burgh”, and as inhabitants of Hilltown were burgesses of the burgh, it was agreed that the Hilltown be not sold, but that other lands be disposed of. Hilltown had a semblance of local autonomy for a considerable time after that, and it still has a Baron Bailie. The Town Council at first appointed Magistrates, and the Town Clerks for nearly two centuries by their commissions, were also appointed Clerks of the Barony of Hilltown. It had even a Tolbooth. Burgh extensions and new powers granted by Parliament to Corporations swept away most of these remnants of old times. The Hilltown feuars still elect a Baron Bailie but his offices is largely of an honorary character. He is unknown to fame, and few Rotten Rowers, if suddenly asked to name their Baron Bailie would be able to comply.
Source: Dundee Year Book, 1909