The season of song: Christmas competitions in the People’s Journal

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.

tammas bodkin

W.D. Latto (as the character Tammas Bodkin, also very popular in the People’s Journal.)

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.


An early cover of the People’s Friend (1869), featuring “a sad story for the happy Christmas time.”

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.


Fareweel tae the Factory: escaping through landscapes

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.)


Huts in a nutshell – spotted at Abriachan Forest School

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.

cortachy bridge

Cortachy Bridge in Angus, photographed by jute mill supervisor Alexander Wilson (no relation!) on a trip out of the city c.1900. ©Dundee Central Libraries: Photopolis Collection.


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.

Reekie Linn, Glenisla – one of the glens Dundee factory workers would have enjoyed an escape to.

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.

Poetry, performance and place

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 […]

via Poetry, performance and place: a postcard from Dundee — SGSAH Blog

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.


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.

Other rivers, other bridges: folk rhymes from the Dighty

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.


Industrial Heritage! Remnants of a mill on the Dighty

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.)


Here be dragons! The Dighty at Strathmartine, just outside today’s city boundary

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.


New poetry growing out of the snow…

Reblogged from Bill Herbert: Omnisatire and the Ragged Sleeve

Reading The Poets of The People’s Journal, edited by Kirstie Blair, I am so far maist impressed by by the mock-rustic ‘Poute’ (Alexander Burgess), wha conducts a sort of omnisatire, in that he critiques mid-19th century assumptions about poetry, the lower class poet, poetry in Scots, and the means of its reproduction, using unorthography as […]

via Omnisatire and the Ragged Sleeve — gairnet provides: press of blll

The NLS Research Slam

Yesterday, I went to Edinburgh to take part in the NLS’ first research slam. The format was similar to a poetry slam: twelve participants gave a (strictly enforced) two minute overview of their research. A panel of three expert judges scored us on content, performance and audience reaction. The top eight went through to the second round, in which we had two minutes to describe how we worked with NLS collections. From these eight, a final three would be given three minutes each to describe the planned impact of their research.


Accurate description of me (but sadly not my jumper) pre-slam

I’m used to public speaking, but I was nervous. This was down to a combination of the competitive element – I’ve never been someone who seeks out a competition – and doubt that my attempts at humorous verse would go down well with the crowd, or, indeed, the judges. The first round was alphabetical, and I was roughly in the middle of the list, among a fantastic array of subjects, including canal navvies, Scottish gymnastics, and the ethics of child labour. This was what I came out with:

1 – An overview of your research; 2 minutes

Come one, come all, and gather round,
If you listen unto me
I will tell you a tale of Victorian times
And all the Poets o Dundee.

With help from Dundee Central Library
nd Strathclyde University
I map the meanings of song and verse
To Dundee’s past community.

There’s mony who the sands of time
ave buried deep in history
But folk have always wrote and sung
pon the streets of Bonny Dundee

Blind Hughie stood out in his kilt
sang old songs and ballads well
In City Square folk gathered round
o hear how the hoose o Airlie fell

The wild side o auld Dundee
Met at the Poet’s Box in Overgate
If you’d a penny you could get a song
To sing of humour, love or fate

The place where poets’ fame began
as on the pages of the daily press
Many sheaves of verse were sent
To Mr Leng at his bank street address.

Many a factory shift was helped
By song to speed the hours by
In summer the mill’s bards would write
Of trips to glens and mountains high.

Dundee was called a radical toon
And verse on banners oft was seen
As people clamoured for the vote
Alang the streets and Madlin Green.

You see how folk in days gone by
Told the stories of the toon
The people, politics and place
never written doon.

We mind their verse now in Dundee
And write new words to say
The spirit in this town of ours
Is just as strong today.

This is an adapted version of a poem I’ve used before in events. Victorian Dundonians make poetry look like fun, so joining in to spread their fame seemed appropriate. I don’t think I would have got very far in the People’s Journal back in the day with this standard, but I might have made a few pennies shouting at people in pubs. While we waited for the judges to calibrate the scores, host Graeme Hawley (who is no stranger to a poetry slam himself) entertained us with quick-fire volleys through the collections, covering violent imagery on crisp packets and casual sexism in DIY magazines. Having heard my name on the list of those going on, I began doing more deep breathing, and prepared to share more educational doggerel:

2: How your research uses NLS’ collections; 2 minutes


Me reading this very verse (photo by Jennifer Thoms)

Trains aren’t cheap, stipends small, archive boxes heavy
Get your broadsides on a website already…

For the NLS created the Word on the Street
Though in Dundee we’d creh it the word on the pavey
An array of fine broadsides compiled so neat
From Scotland across, scanned and annotated

These lyrical gems from the library’s archive
Which tell of murder and love and of political shade
Sold by hawkers and shops and sung on the streets live
Can be searched by their topic or the time they were made.

One hero of our tale’s bold Harvey of Stirling
Who wrote about broadsides and chapbooks of Scotland
On his death his collections left libraries birling
To preserve and to shelter his Victorian songsheets

Now many lie safe here ‘neath Edinburgh’s streets
Though you can view them from Glasgow or Greenwich or Guam
As long as you can log in on a computer or tablet
So I can work with these broadsides wherever I am

Data’s very important in this modern era
So a spreadsheet I’ve made, tis long and tis wide
With titles from Dundee, NLS and the Mitchell
For to quantify functions of the humble broadside.

I will sort them by date by the address they’ve printed
For the Poet’s Box moved up and down Overgate
And see which songs stayed popular over the decades
And which ones were left to a forgotten fate.

Considering the quality of the other slammers – who included artists, family history researchers and historical tour guides as well as a few other PhD students and academics – I was very surprised to be chosen as one of the final three who got to talk about their plans for impact. The other two were Leonie Dunlop, a toponymist who conjured up the joy of uncovering layers of expanding meaning from a place name; and Maggie Symonds, whose story of tracing a mysterious limpet-eating ancestor lit up hidden histories of social change.

By this point in the composition process, my inner McGonagall was struggling. So (not really expecting to get this far) I’d drafted a freeform meditation on the meaning of impact and why we do it, featuring nods to my two favourite Geddeses (Geddi?), Patrick and James Young. I have never felt that ‘impact’ style activities were an add-on to my research, rather, they are an integral part of what I do as a PhD student (and as a person). So I got up and did this:

3. The impact you hope your research will have; 3 minutes.

I could now cite big plans to fit government metrics,
increasing the value of heritage tourism,
working with stakeholders, I am well versed in buzzwords.
But impact is in the eyes of the impacted,
and to paraphrase a former Dundee botanist:

Our task as academics is not to coerce people
into an approved type of culture
against their associations, wishes and interests
as we often find bad schemes trying to do.

I will run tours of the city through poetry,
proclaiming others’ words to anyone who’ll listen,
hold stalls in shopping centres for craft events, write
new broadsides, sweet-talk local poets
into running workshops, propose
courses for adult education programmes
and all of these are vitally important
and keep me up at night and make me glad to be alive
but they are all only tiny bits of a whole.

What these archives of song and story and place are,
they are the words and the work of centuries of ordinary people.

I am here to remind you not that that it is there
but that it is yours,
to read, rewrite, be inspired by,
rip up and start again, ignore it if you see fit.

The only meaningful impact cannot be measured
By counting boxes ticked at the end of an event.
Diagnosis before treatment: one plan will not fit all
The parish is the cosmos, so start small,
and listen.

People sang Dundee into being when it was cotton and jute
Which wove old streets into strange landscapes
Reinvention is nothing new to this city
And neither, dear old town, is revolution.

I can’t save the world alone with history
But we could together if you’re all with me.

Dramatic, moi? As the judges discussed the final scores, Graeme performed a piece he often does for poetry slams, dedicated to the non-successful participants. “Our fireworks went off in daylight.”

He was clearly used to building suspense – calling for another round of applause for judges or audience when we thought we were going to hear the winner’s name. When I heard mine, followed by applause, I nearly fell off my chair, but managed to get up again to say some very incoherent thank yous to the room.

The prize is a slot in the NLS events programme -likely to be in the autumn at some point. I’m not sure what we are allowed to do with this slot, but I have several ideas – have you ever wondered how the National Library would be as a music hall? Watch this space – I promise not to write any more poetry…