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.