Hello and welcome to our Creative Learning blog. We are Sharron and Kim and we work at The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum in the Creative Learning Team. We are passionate about Arts & Heritage, learning, history and creativity. We create and shape arts and heritage workshops and projects, tailored around exploring and interpreting the museum’s […]
In mid-Victorian Scotland, Christmas was not a major holiday. The Reformation-era ban on celebrating Christmas was no longer enforced, but Hogmanay – which had replaced Christmas in seasonal significance – was still by far the more important date for celebration. Christmas Day would not become a public holiday in Scotland until the mid-twentieth century. However, by the 1860s, the idea of Christmas (if not its practice) was certainly gaining popularity.
Dundee’s People’s Journal newspaper may have had a considerable hand in this. The People’s Journal was founded in 1858, from the same stable as the left-leaning Dundee Advertiser newspaper, and from its first issue it aimed to “write up to the good sense of the working classes.” The editor William Duncan Latto began running Christmas and New Year story and poetry competitions in the early 1860s. These competitions opened in autumn, and successful entries were published in a special supplement in late December. While the glory of publication was often thought to be reward enough, small cash prizes for the best entries also drew in writers.
Christmas literature was, at the time, incredibly popular in London publishing circles, with Charles Dickens the undisputed star. The material submitted to the People’s Journal competitions could be on any topic – it did not have to be festive. Tara Moore, in Victorian Christmas in Print, has observed a tendency for early entrants in the People’s Journal competition who did use a Christmas theme to use London settings and language, rather than Scottish ones. This was at odds with most of the Journal’s creative contributions: the editors encouraged the use of Scots and centred local perspectives. However, these competitions were undoubtedly important in shaping popular Scottish writing in the 19th century. A. C. Lamb, in his Bibliography of Dundee Periodical Literature, 1775-1891, remarks:
On an occasion marking his twenty-fifth year as editor of the People’s Journal, Mr. W.D. Latto said that he regarded one of the most noteworthy achievements of the Journal to be “the annual Christmas competitions, by which the sons and daughters of toil have been encouraged to devote their leisure hours to mental culture and literary composition…. [These] have brought to light several poets, novelists, and essayists, who might otherwise have ‘blushed unseen, and wasted their sweetness on the desert air’. Of these, let it suffice to mention the names of Mr. Alexander Anderson (‘Surfaceman’), and of Miss Annie S. Swan, both of whom have earned for themselves very high distinction in literature, the former as a poet, the latter as a novelist’. (Scottish Notes & Queries, Vol. III, Dec 1889 – May 1890)
The People’s Journal Christmas competitions and the volume of contributions they drew ultimately led to the foundation of a new publication entirely dedicated to fiction and poetry, the People’s Friend.
Poems by the People, published in March 1869, contained the one hundred and thirty best poems and songs (as judged by Latto and Reverend George Gilfillan) from the four hundred and twenty submitted to the previous year’s Christmas competition. Some of the Christmas-themed poems do indeed suggest Dickens’ “fatal presence,” (to borrow William Donaldson’s phrase): carols, orphans and stingy landlords feature heavily, often set in ambiguous locations. However, many of the poems use their seasonal setting to celebrate community or comment on social injustice with great success.
Among the twelve ‘first prize’ poems, only one is explicitly set at Christmas. “Lost Lilias – A Christmas Legend,” by Glaswegian Alex G. Murdoch, is set in Blantyre and apparently based on a real legend. Lilias, a young nun in Blantyre convent, goes out to deliver Christmas gifts to the poor in stormy weather. The poem concludes with her unfortunate fate:
Night followed, bringing clouds and storms,
But brought not sainted Lilias back;
And lamps are lit, and friends have gone
Her steps along the snows to track.
By dawn they found her cold and dead –
A groove of drifted snows between;
And on the spot where she had lain,
The image of a Cross was seen!
Others use a more general winter setting, onto which readers could project the festivities of their choice. G.W. Donald, Abbey Keeper at Arbroath and a popular poet in Dundee and Angus, won second prize with “‘Mang Our Ain Fouk at Hame”, a Scots poem which is definitely seasonal, and while it mentions neither Christmas nor Hogmanay by name, it reinforces the season as one to focus on home and family connections, and remember those gone before.
‘Tis winter, the reaver, he’s goulin’ amain,
Wi’ a cauld eerie sough an’ a sowf o’ his ain.
Nae birdie sings now ‘mang the broom on the brae,
Where robin sits chirpin’, the semblance o’ wae.
Blythe summer has gane, wi’ the saft mellow hum
That rose frae the loaning when gloamin’ had come;
E’en the crune o’ the burnie that danced ‘mang the faem
Is mute – yet there’s joy ‘mang our ain fouk at hame. […]
While the idea of Christmas as a time for charity had been established in readers’ minds, again primarily by Dickens, the most emotionally resonant ‘Poems by the People’ against social injustice are those which overlook specifically ‘Christmas’ settings to portray more familiar situations. A dark image of the season is given in James Winthrope’s “Woe,” the story of man and his young family made homeless in winter because of bad trade. Winthrope was a mill worker from Hawick, and this poem may well speak of personal experience:
Tramp, ever tramp,
In the snow, the sleet, and the rain,
In the stinging frost and the chilling damp,
In poverty and pain,
O’er the hill, the morass, and the moor,
With hunger to drive us on,
With his knotted scourge, to the poor man’s door,
And the gates of the lofty one –
To be wetted and chill’d to the bone,
Exposed to the pitiless blast,
Till even the light of hope is gone –
Oh, God, how long can it last? […]
These early Christmas competition poems suggest that, despite its popularity in a literary sense, Christmas was not yet meaningful enough in Scotland to have a large part in people’s emotional response to events. But the success of these competitions are a marker of the gradual re-adoption of Christmas in Scotland. During the 19th century, other Dundee periodicals began to run special Christmas issues, and by the 1890s, there was both a “Dundee Christmas Album” and a “Dundee Christmas Annual,” featuring seasonal stories and pictures.
I will give the last word to William S. Lindsay of Edinburgh, who in his poem “The Contest,” devotes a tongue-in-cheek ode to the People’s Journal Christmas competition as the spirit of the season:
All hail to the season – the season of song –
Mirth, feeling and pleasure come dancing along;
Care falls from the breast, as the leaf from the tree,
And withers away in the blast of our glee.
Then sing with enjoyment the rhymes of the year,
The breathings of many in contest sincere;
The intellect warring a beauty displays
In the quirks of its tales, in the flow of its lays.
Here’s a summary of some lessons from Can You Handle It – a libraries and special collections training event I helped to organise in May. Do not fear the libraries!
This guest blog comes from Jill Dye and Erin Farley, who co-organised a SGSAH-funded workshop on using Special Collections material for research.
Held in Dundee in May, this SGSAH-funded event was organised out of a discussion with fellow PhD researchers about “library anxiety”. Usually a term used in undergraduate, FE and public library provisions, it describes the fear of entering a library space. While PhD students are by now well acquainted with their own libraries, the PhD process takes many of us into various rare book and archival depositories, sometimes for the first time. This event intended to equip attendees with the skills and knowledge to defeat any such “library anxiety” by confronting the alien world of the reading room as well as talking, literally, about how to handle those documents. Not only would this lead to happier researchers, approaching material in a variety of repositories confidently and efficiently, but…
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This weekend, the fantastic Architecture Fringe festival ran a series of events in Abriachan, exploring the histories and possible futures of huts and bothies in Scotland. Among an array of stories, songs and discussions (and treehouses and ceilidh dancing!), we heard from writer, broadcaster and PhD researcher Lesley Riddoch about the comparative histories of huts and land use in Scotland and Norway. In Norway, it’s normal for families to have a small wooden hut somewhere near trees, water and/or mountains for weekend and holiday accommodation – in Scotland, despite comparable population size and no shortage of trees, water and mountains, it is almost unheard of. Reading about the Broons’ but-and-ben is the closest most of us get to the hut life (though we also heard about many big plans to change this… watch this space.)
One of the historical reasons Lesley cited for this was the change in how most people in Scotland lived and worked in the late 18th and early 19th centuries – lowland Scotland underwent an unusually quick and intense process of industrialisation, with people shifting to new urban landscapes and ways of life. And because the vast majority of people were tenants, rather than homeowners, Scottish families lacked the tangible link back to rural land that many people in Scandinavian countries maintained. This, of course, came on top of the forcible and often violent shifting of people which cleared the Highlands into huge swathes of vacant land.
But people held onto the idea of connecting to the world through walking. Over the weekend, my thoughts kept coming back to the many ways in which the people who lived in Victorian Dundee – a city famous for its closely packed mills, thick cloud of smoke and air dusted with jute fibre – made little escapes from the city in body and mind.
As well as being fiercely protective of green spaces in the city, (the 1860 Right of Way campaign to prevent Lord Dudhope turning the Law into a quarry is a great story for another time…) many Dundonian workers looked forward to escaping the mills and factories for hills and glens during holidays or weekends. Like most Scottish cities, 19th century Dundee had a Trades Fortnight when factories would close for a holiday, in late July and early August. This was a welcome and necessary break from long, hard manual labour, and for many, escaping the city was their first priority if at all possible.
Adam Wilson, who wrote as The Factory Muse, became a popular voice in Dundee in the 1870s and 1880s. His poetry, which was often directly addressed to his fellow workers, celebrates time spent in nature as a remedy for industrial life. For example, his song “Fareweel tae the Factory,” (published in his 1906 collection Flowers of Fancy), set to the tune of Lochaber No More:
Fareweel tae the factory, fareweel tae the mill;
I’m off for a spell to the glen and the hill,
Whaur the rough thistle waves, and the eagle aye free
Enjoys his love haunts ‘mang the mountains sae hie.
Fareweel tae the mill wi’ its bustle and din,
When spinnin’ life oot we maun spin the life in;
Yet the health-giving breeze ‘mang the heather and broon
Will bring back again to my pale face its bloom.
Fareweel tae the mill while the simmer’s bricht beam
Lichts up the mild beauties of mountain and stream;
My heart will enjoy a sweet lichtsome thrill
That ne’er can be felt in the factory or mill.
Alang wi’ the blackie methinks now I hear
The siskin and mavis in melody clear,
Wi’ yorlin and lintie a’ singin’ their fill,
Awa’ frae the whir o’ the factory and mill.
Laigh doon in yon glen I can dimly descry
A cot wi’ its reek curlin’ up to the sky,
‘Tis there I would dwell until I was laid still
In a quiet place awa’ frae the factory and mill.
Oh, heart healin’ nature, wi’ lavish hand gi’e
The sweets o’ your grand’ur to bodies like me,
Wha seek you when weary, wha bend to your will,
An sair need relief frae the factory and mill.
Regular readers may recall that the tunes poets picked were rarely random. “Lochaber No More,” originally a bagpipe lament with Jacobite connotations, had words put to it by Allan Ramsay in 1724. His song was told by a Highlander, forced to leave his home and his love to go to war:
These tears that I shed they are a’ for my dear,
And no for the dangers attending on wear,
Though borne on rough seas to a far bloody shore,
Maybe to return to Lochaber no more.
In 1883, when the Factory Muse was working and writing in Dundee, the title Lochaber No More was also given to a painting by John Watson Nicol. It depicts a couple whose clothes and few possessions mark them as poor Highlanders, despondent, on a boat sailing into the grey unknown. They have been driven away by the Highland Clearances. (Alistair Davidson here tells us more about Lochaber No More, and its modern life in Letter to America.)
I don’t know if Adam Wilson ever saw, or heard of, Nicol’s painting (he may have composed his song before it was painted – his book was published in 1906, but contains poems written up to thirty years previously.) But a tune which already carried the meaning of leaving and laments is an interesting choice for a song which is a celebration of leaving the mill. Adam’s father Alexander, a handloom weaver from Alyth, was also a poet. Like his son, he wrote under a pseudonym – Alexander Wilson was known as the Mountain Muse. Perhaps Adam felt his own sense of displacement, as the first generation of the family to have to turn to the industrial city for a living.
Of course, there is a centuries-old tradition of poetry describing the beauty of wild mountains or pastoral landscapes, and it may seem an obvious topic for any aspiring poet. But the meaning of poetry changes hugely depending on who is writing or singing it, and the context it is heard in. When we think about Scottish landscapes in the 19th century, we often think of the Monarch of the Glen – by then a place (artificially) empty of people, to be looked at rather than lived in and walked through; where animals exist for sport rather than as their own entities. Poets like Wilson and his peers, now mostly forgotten by literary history, repopulated the mountains and glens in their imaginations, and in person when they got the chance. Their writing and singing reasserted the right of the working people of Scotland to be in places other than their workplace – often subtly, quietly spreading the idea that access to land and time away from work are vital human rights.
Next Monday, 24 July, is the first day of the 2017 Dundee Fortnight (the Monday is still a public holiday in Dundee). This seems like a good day to go to a hill, a mountain, a green space, a river, and begin to feel at home there. A good day to take back our places.
I wrote this for the Scottish Graduate School of Arts & Humanties’ blog this week about my preoccupations with local history, poetry as a performed thing and … Dundee. Turns out I am quite interested in Dundee.
This post was written by Erin Farley, a second year PhD candidate at the University of Strathclyde on the Collaborative Doctoral Award project “Poetry, Song and Community in the Industrial City: Victorian Dundee,” in partnership with Dundee Central Library. Her research focuses on how the composition, performance and reception of poetry and song reflected and […]
On Monday, as part of Stobswell’s community festival, I’ll be doing an event with local folk singer Lynne Campbell celebrating Dundee’s songs, stories and characters (real and mythical) – it’s at Arthurstone Community Library at 7pm on Monday. I’ve heard there may be tea and biscuits. There will definitely be ghosts.
Later in the month, (24 May) Literary Dundee hosts Dr Juliet Shields at the Verdant Works for When Scotswomen Ran The Press – a talk exploring the 19th century women who wrote hugely popular stories for papers like the People’s Journal and People’s Friend. Their influence is often forgotten, but they shaped both fiction and the press in Scotland.
As it’s Council Elections week (have you voted yet?!) I’ve also got a blog on political poetry about Dundee City Council on The People’s Voice’s website – this is a project looking at political poetry, song and the franchise in Scotland between 1832 and 1918, based at the University of Glasgow. The word on the pavey is that they have some very exciting things coming up including (as the Poet’s Box would say) SONGS, SONGS, SONGS! So get them followed if you like that sort of thing.
Elections in 19th century Scotland inspired many poems and songs – some celebratory, and some satirical. These were part of a wider popular political verse tradition which dealt with the extension of the voting franchise, land reform, and workers’ rights, and often engaged with inter/national political issues from a local standpoint. They could be printed in magazines and newspapers, handed out on the streets, and recited at meetings and demonstrations.
My next few blogs – as we approach the Scottish Council Elections on May 4 and the UK General Election on June 8 – will look at a selection of Dundee’s political poems and songs from the 19th century. Today’s song, “Guthrie’s Wooin'”, mocks an unpopular politician to a folk tune. It is one of several political songs from the late 1860s cut and pasted in a little scrapbook. (Dundee Central Library: Lamb Collection 433/12)
The song was written shortly after the General Election of 1868 – the first in which Dundee elected two M.P.s instead of one, and in which the electorate had been greatly expanded following the 1867 Reform Act. In Dundee, these changes had been agitated for by a range of organisations, including the Dundee branch of the Scottish National Reform League (SNRL), who advocated extending the vote to all men of fixed address (the most radical position of all Dundee’s political groups at the time.)
Air- Duncan Grey
Guthrie he cam here to woo
Ha, ha, the wooin’ o’t!
Blythe we were, although nae fu’
Ha, ha, the wooin’ o’t!
Guthrie cam’, and Guthrie saw,
Mony a speech he threw awa’!
Dundee was as deaf’s the Law!
Ha, ha, the wooin’ o’t!
Guthrie said it was a sin –
Ha, ha, the wooin’ o’t!
He’d ne’er tak the Ballot in,
Ha, ha, the wooin’ o’t!
But he saw his chances fade
And a Ballot-Pill he made,
An’ wi’ a wry face ower it gae’d;
Ha, ha, the wooin’ o’t!
Time an’ chance against him side,
Ha, ha, the wooin’ o’t!
Guthrie can nae longer bide,
Ha, ha, the wooin’ o’t!
“I hae been a gowk, quoth he,
“I maun leave that jaud Dundee,
“Wha I thocht wad MP me:”
Ha, ha, the wooin’ o’t!
Guthrie was a lad o’ “brass,”
Ha, ha, the wooin’ o’t!
Dundee was a spunky lass,
Ha, ha, the wooin’ o’t!
Guthrie shouldna’ be her man,
So he changed his wooin’ plan
And awa to London ran,
Ha, ha, the wooin’ o’t!
J.A. Guthrie, the unfortunate candidate immortalised in this song, stood as one of four Liberal candidates contesting the 1868 election. (At this time, UK elections were very much an either/or choice, and the Tories seem not to have thought it worth their time and money standing a candidate in Dundee that year…) He proved himself unpopular when a question-and-answer session revealed him to have much less liberal views on voting extension, and some other matters, than many hoped for. This revelation also led to embarrassment for the Dundee SNRL when their branch secretary endorsed him anyway – politics, t’was ever thus. He was rejected at the ballot box (and the SNRL branch secretary resigned.)
The song has Guthrie as a rejected suitor of Dundee (and without the happy ending the suitor in the song eventually gets.) The city portrayed as a woman approached by various wooers is a recurring theme in election poetry in Victorian Dundee, and likely further afield – a smaller version, perhaps, of the popular depictions of countries as women (think Britannia, or France’s Marianne.) There is an irony to this, given that the actual female population of Dundee were still many years away from being able to have their say in rejecting or accepting political candidates.
The song this is based on, “Duncan Grey”, was originally an explicit bawdy folk song written and/or collected by Robert Burns. He also wrote a version more suitable for polite company, but safe to say, the use of a tune with such rude connotations did not imply respect for its subject. Using existing tunes and song structures, which readers and listeners could immediately recognise, also allowed a writer to communicate their position on a topic immediately. Songs best known for sexual connotations – like this, or “The Miller O Don” – are used to strip the dignity from a political subject, while “A Man’s A Man For A’ That” would be used to celebrate and inspire. Burns’ work, to Victorian Scotland, was the ideal not only of working class poetry, but also of political poetry and poetry in Scots, and his influence is strong and widespread. The third line –“Blythe we were, although nae fu’” – is an interesting contrast to Burns’ “Ae blythe Yule-nicht when we were fu’.” The temperance movement was a strong political force in Dundee throughout the 19th, and well into the 20th century, and the songwriter is keen to emphasise that Dundee makes its political decisions while fully sober and sensible.
These songs about specific local events – while often requiring a bit of work to contextualise – are a fascinating window onto how traditional tunes were used to signal meaning and tone while dealing with contemporary events, and how important local political events were to the history of wider movements such as franchise reform. Stay tuned for more Dundonian political history over the coming weeks…
Reblog from Sandra Ireland’s Barry Mill Blog – featuring my Dundee Women’s Festival tour! Share the mill love.
Last week I took a little field trip to another mill, the Verdant Works. There, I met with Erin Farley, who is working on an AHRC-funded project about poetry, song and community in Victorian Dundee. As part of Dundee Women’s Festival,Erin took a small group of us on a fascinating ‘Women’s Words Walk’ around the mill museum. This gave us an excellent opportunity to experience life in the city through the words of the women who lived, loved and worked there.
Both my mother and my grandmother were weavers, so I have first- hand experience of the strength and independent spirit of Dundee women, but I had no idea that so many of them put their thoughts into the written word. Many of the poems Erin referenced tackle injustice and poor working conditions; some are very poignant, others express a sense of joie de vive.
If you would like…
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Last week Dundee Women’s Festival took the theme of “Herstory and Heritage,” using the stories of women past to inspire people onto new creations and activism. Dundee is not short of local heroic women to remember – Mary Brooksbank and Bella Keyzer, among others, were honoured at festival events.
Dundee in the 19th and 20th centuries was known as a women’s town, because of the high proportion of women employed in the textile mills, meaning that in many families the women were the main or only breadwinners. The jute and cotton mills were the largest, but not the only employers of women – among an array of other jobs, many women were employed as domestic servants. When you think of political activism in the workplace in Victorian Dundee you probably think of millworkers on strike, but in 1872 the maidservants of the city caused a considerable stooshie when, having had enough of poor working conditions and very limited time off, they organised the Dundee and District Domestic Servants’ Association to demand certain standards from employers. This “insurrection of maids” attracted a good deal of press attention – several people wrote into Dundee papers in support, but there was, as always, a significant number of sarcastic words aimed at these women – with a dismissal of the value of their work and the group’s radical potential that one strongly suspects would not have been aimed at the inaugural meeting of a men’s trade union. The history of the DDDSA is explored in Jan Merchant’s chapter on the event in Victorian Dundee: Image and Realities, and its poetic fall-out is covered by Kirstie Blair in Poetry of the People’s Journal – both of which are freely available for your perusal in the Local History room in Dundee Central Library (hint, hint – we’ve even had a bit of a rearrange recently so there’s more desk space and plug sockets for visitors!)
While I was researching poems for my Women’s Festival event – a tour of the Verdant Works through the words of Dundee’s 19th century women poets – I came across the story of another maidservant who intrigued me. Jane Allardice Farquhar was born in the Angus village of Tannadice in 1845 (coincidentally also the birthplace of “Lochee Poetess” Elizabeth Campbell, and where my maternal grandparents lived, so I feel a small connection here.) Jane worked as a maidservant until she married, and later became a frequent contributor to the People’s Journal under her married name, Jane Allardice Duthie. Some of her work was included in Alan Reid’s 1897 collection Bards of Angus and the Mearns, including the song “When I was a lassie langsyne”:
When I was a lassie lang syne
I whyles used to bide wi my grannie,
And O! but I likit her fine,
She aye spak sae gentle an’ cannie.
Chorus: Then sing hey for the bonnie bricht days
How cheerily by did they canter,
When my grannie sat hummin’ her lays,
And my grandfather croon’d Tam O’ Shanter.
The hoose was a wee theekit cot,
But a’thing inside was aye sheenin’ –
Nae tea like my grannie’s I got
At the cosy fireside i’the e’enin’.
The chimla was roomy an’ wide
And fine fun it was for us bairnies
To draw oor bit stoolies inside,
And glowre up the lum to the starnies.
My grandfather sat i’ the neuk
And keepit the ingle aye bleezin’.
As he pored ower an auld-farrant beuk
While my grannie her oo was a-teasin’.
In his hand he aye gruppit his mull,
That horn, wi its brass lid sae bonnie.
And haundit it roon wi guidwill
When he met wi an auld, faithful crony.
The cruizie, wi’ queer double snoot
Gied a licht widna frichtened a doolie,
And aft as I jinket aboot,
I toomed on my heid a the ullie!
On the wa’s hung a picture or twa,
And, troth, there was ane I did prize, man;
It was Auld Clootie dancin’ awa
Wi puir Robbie Burns the Exciseman!
Ilka nicht we got tawties an’ fat,
Rare rivies a’ splittin their jackets,
An roon’ the wee table we sat
Some on three-legged stools, some on “backets”.
We kent no the meanin’ o’ care
As for sorrow, we’d never heard tell o’t
But noo we’ve o’ baith haen a share
While o’ trouble we’ve aft haen a spell o’t.
But we’ll never forget the bricht days,
How cheerily by they did canter,
When my grannie sat hummin’ her lays,
And my grandfather croon’d Tam O’ Shanter.
Her description of childhood nights spent looking up the chimla to the stars reflects an early interest in what was to become a lifelong passion for astronomy – which itself inspired some of her other poetry, Reid noting in his brief biography of her that she sent Sir Robert Ball a copy of a poem she had written inspired by his book “The Story of the Heavens,” and that she prized the letter he sent in response. Poetry and song – and in particular those of Robert Burns – are a small everyday joy in the picture of mid-19th century Angus life she paints in the poem. Poetry was not something ‘kept for best’, it was recited and composed on small occasions as well as large – just a slightly different way of talking about the world and of inhabiting language, that brought imagination and the physical world together daily. I would like to have been able to talk about Jane Duthie, and so much of the rest of my research, with my great aunt Florrie McCann – a Dundonian weaver who wrote poetry and who felt strongly that everyone should know at least one song or poem to recite by heart.
Here’s to the women who not only kept the bairns o Dundee fed, but who kept folk singing as well.
If I say ‘Dundee river poetry’ to you, what do you think of? The silvery death-bridge o the Tay and its legion of storm fiends? But without the smaller burns and rivers which run through Dundee itself, there would have been none of the small mills and bleachfields which then became the huge industrial operations of the 19th century – textile mills that were fed by the ships of empire coming into the mouth of the Tay. The names of these rivers are often now more familiar to us as streets or buildings. In 1866, the magazine The Piper O Dundee printed this rhyme:
The Scouring Burn and Dens Burn
How many a wheel do they turn?
Now I do believe that they
Turn twice the number of the Tay.
Rivers don’t just disappear – a tiny glass panel in the floor of the Verdant Works reveals the Scouring Burn still running on below, despite it all. There are certainly poems and songs which describe Dundee’s ‘other’ waters, but they are particularly rich in the short folk rhymes which have been a staple of conversations in Dundee and environs long before they could all be erroneously attributed to McGonagall (there will be a post on this phenomenon too at some point.) For example:
O a’ the springs around Dundee
There’s none like Logie Spout for tea.
This celebrates a spring near what is now Pole Park Road, which was in the early decades of the 19th century considered the best in Dundee, and was much missed even when a much more plentiful supply of water was brought to the city.
The Dighty Burn – which now quietly runs east by residential streets in Strathmartine, Fintry, Douglas, Monifieth – was essential to Dundee’s development as a textile centre, with bleachfields and mills dotting its banks. There were as many as fifty-six industrial sites along the river in the 19th century. At Linlathen, the river is spanned by what may be Scotland’s oldest surviving iron bridge, built around 1800 when horses were its main traffic. (Ironic in a different sense, given Dundee’s bridge-related fame, that this historic structure is so frequently forgotten.)
There was once a dragon at Strathmartine, who guarded a well and killed nine local girls who were sent there to fetch water on a Sunday. The oldest had a boyfriend named Martin who was not happy, and took on the dragon. Their battle is recalled in this rhyme (from the dragon’s perspective), and it is said to explain the origin of place names in the area:
I was temptit at Pittempton
Draigelt at Baldragon
Stricken at Strike-martin
And killed at Martin’s Stane
But he (I always feel that monsters who refuse to eat anyone but women are male – there are plenty of female monsters in folklore, but they’ll eat anyone) is not the only poetical creature said to have lived near the Dighty’s banks. James Myles, a well-known writer in Victorian Dundee, combined observations of modern life with antiquarian diversions in his Rambles in Forfarshire (1850). In his section on Claypotts Castle, a medieval building which by that time had long been abandoned by the aristocracy and was used by the farmers of Balunie, he recounts the story of a local brownie. In Myles’ words “an un-definable and semi-spiritualised being,” brownies (or broonies) are common in Scottish folklore as creatures which will lend you a magical hand if they like you and if you are reciprocally nice to them. This one had very high standards of tidiness, and one of the farm servants was not living up to them. One evening, she was pulling up some kale in the garden when the broonie became so enraged it followed her into the house, leapt on her back and thrashed her so thoroughly with the vegetables that they completely disintegrated. It then uttered a curse in rhyme, and disappeared:
The Ferry and the Ferry-well;
The Camp and the Camp-hill;
Balmossie and Balmossie-mill;
Burnside and Burn-hill;
The thin sowans o Drumgeith;
The fair May o Monifieth;
There’s Gutherston and Wallaceton!
Claypotts I’ll gie my malison;
Come I late or come I ear,
Balunie’s boards are aye bare.
Myles concludes his tale by saying:
“The interpretation of the above contribution to our poetical literature, by a “Brownie,” I leave to those more deeply versed in hobgoblin lore than I am, for myself I confess I do not understand it.”
Well, Myles, as a folklorist-turned-student of Dundee poetry, this may be the one thing in the world I am fully qualified to have an opinion about. These rhymes, which rarely tell the full story themselves but are said in reference to events, as a reminder or a post-script, are centred on the places named in their lines. Repeating these groups of place names in poems and sayings draws them together as an area, drawing spirals outward from where we stand to encompass “home.” They also link places in journeys, strengthening mental maps. They link the places we now live in and see with these ancient, sometimes mythical events which explain the presence of stones, hills, buildings or settlements. Not being “real poetry,” nor quite so glamorously mysterious as many wish “real folklore” to be, these small rhymes of place are often overlooked by chroniclers of both.
Myles often wrote of them with eyebrows raised to the roof, but he did write of them. A Mr Peebles, schoolmaster at Mains, was known as a prolific rhymer, and the following is attributed to him:
John Duncan, Master Smith
By Dighty Water side,
Who works the iron wi’ a’ his pith
And maks the Coals to glide,
The lock o my room door is wrang,
The nails they maun be drawn,
And I maun hae it on again,
Before the Evening dawn.
Of this, Myles said:
“It sufficiently explains itself, which is more than can be said of many compositions of loftier pretensions.”
These days, the Dighty needs no grumpy brownies, for it is well looked after by the excellent community group Dighty Connect, who can teach you everything from art to gardening to identifying tiny little river beasties. Rhyme is still part of this landscape too – the Mosaic Group have made a series of six tiled waymarkers along the river, with words and images inspired by the river. It continues:
Breengin’ alang the straight and narrow
Singin’ and growlin’ like Michael Marra.