Dundee Women’s Festival and Jane Allardice Duthie

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.

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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”.

At Yule we aye got a fine treat,
My grannie made “carl scones” in plenty,
An i’the pat put a bit meat,
Or a dumplin’ by way o a denty.

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.

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