As a storyteller, I sometimes sing a song to accompany my story. I especially love when the chorus soars and the audience at our local folk club joins in. When I was asked to sing a ‘Celebration’ song at the club last year, I went searching and found a Scottish one I liked.
The Spinner’s Wedding by Mary Brooksbank from Dundee, hooked me in. It tells of a spontaneous celebration in a jute mill, when all the women in a section stop work to dance, sing and give gifts. Knowing very little of the Scottish Jute industry (I’d never seen raw jute or even been to Dundee.) I added ‘Jute mill’ to my up-coming travel plans and began learning more about the songwriter.
(Dundee’s Jute Trade Routes in its heyday)
Two months later, one cold Monday morning, I read aloud a green sign, ‘ Verdant Works Open Wed – Sat.’ My companion protested, “Oh no! When you wanted so much to come here. This place is the main reason we came to Dundee! Why did no-one tell us it doesn’t open on a Monday?”
Stepping away from the solid wooden gate onto the cobbles in that narrow lane, I looked up at the stone wall and sighed. I couldn’t see over it. What were we going to do now?
Suddenly, the big gates rattled and opened as a large industrial bin came trundling towards us. “Good Morning!” shouted the head behind it. The look on our faces stopped the man in his tracks. We lamented and pointed to the board. His eyebrows went up at this.
“Och! We’re open in 2 minutes! We’ve changed the times on the website but not that sign there yet! Just go in! The café’s already open.”
The Verdant Works, once a noisy jute mill built in 1853 in the Blackness area of Dundee, opened as a museum in 1996. The High Mill was revamped in 2015 and the whole site is now an award-winning, tourist attraction. When asked what had brought us to the mill site, I told our guide, “A folk song got me here!” and added that I wanted to know more about women working in mills.
They smiled and carried on with their spiel about the history of this place. The High Mill built in 1833 employed 500 workers by 1864. Their 3 steam engines ran 70 powered looms with total of 2800 spindles. At that time, there were 61 such steam-powered mills in Dundee, mostly built round the Scouring Burn as it flowed down to the sea.
By 1901, there were over 100 jute mills in Dundee and two-thirds of their 39,752 workers were women. With 3 times as many women as men working in the mills, Dundee was often referred to as ‘She-Town.’ By 1950 there were only 39 mills left.
(Breadwinners of all ages)
We were invited to wander through the museum at our leisure and ask questions of any of the volunteers. I became totally engrossed in the history of mill work, the complex machinery and the noise! Some of the exhibits featured sound recordings retelling the worker’s tasks and experiences. I found out where the jute came from.
Up in the rafters of the High Mill, I heard Mary’s voice, as she sang one of her well-known songs.
Oh, dear me, I wish the day was done.
Running up and doon the Pass is no nae fun;
Shiftin’, piecin’, spinnin’ warp weft and twine,
Tae feed and cled my bairnie affen ten and nine.
( Renovated High Mill with raw jute and end products)
Imagine a 12 year old starting a twelve-hour shift at six am. In 1909 Mary did just that. Her family’s poverty made her lie about her age. She was taken on as a bobbin ‘Shifter’ but was soon found out. It took another two years, staying home to look after her four younger brothers, before she got an official job. Mary later said that her ‘wishes, desires, hopes, ambitions (were) dutifully suppressed in the interests of those I loved, my father, mother and (four) brothers.’
Five had already died in infancy and Mary had been born blind. At the time, the doctor gave her mother eye-drops, a torch and not much hope. Rose Soutar checked and attended to her baby’s eyes daily. She was so overjoyed that her 14 month-old girl was finally able to see that she ran down to the docks to tell her husband the news!
Mary’s father, Sandy Soutar had been a docker and Unionist, who was black-listed because he founded the Dock Workers Union in the port of Aberdeen. In search of work in 1905, he’d brought his family down to Dundee on a coal boat. Sandy was rarely employed even after that. He continued to be an active Unionist, attending meetings. In the main room of their home, Mary likely witnessed visits, talks, plans, songs and stories from many of the leading Scottish union activists of the day.
(9 mill-workers pose – from bobbins to bales of sacking)
Alongside her mother, Mary was officially taken on at Kydd’s Mill aged 14. Her (male) gaffer (boss) saw her as quick to learn – ‘ a richt wee smerter.’ Their jobs were sporadic and they both worked in any mill they could. If not, they might be lucky to get piece work and sew sacks – five pence for 25. Her four brothers might have been employed in a mill from the age of 8, cleaning up under the looms as they clattered. In 1900 there were 5000 children still working in this industry. Only 2800 of them had been granted an exemption from full-time schooling. Even if her brothers had unskilled work, they’d be sacked at 18. Women workers were cheaper in the mills – paid half men’s wages.
For many years, houses for mill workers in Dundee were said to be some of the worst slums in Europe. Most workers wanted to live close to the mill and rented in tall tenements – usually two rooms with an average of 7 occupants. There were middens in the streets. One privy served the tenants in a four level block. Outbreaks of Cholera, Typhus and Scarlet Fever were not uncommon. Many children didn’t live past infancy. Despite many reports about that rundown, insanitary housing, the mainly private investors took no action because ‘improving working class housing just did not pay.’ When Mary married Ernest Brooksbank in 1924 and saw their first home near the mill, she wept, saying it was ‘no better than a large dog kennel.’ Decisive slum clearing didn’t start till the late 1920’s. Yet some families were loath to leave their close, tenement community.
When the Soutars moved to Dundee, Mary had quickly learned to play the violin. Across the landing on their stair lived a family of Scots Travellers who would often sing and play music at night and invite everyone in. She liked to say that even at the hardest times “There’s naething that can daunt me long, Gin I have the power tae sing a sang.”
Some months after Mary began work in 1911, the carters went on strike for better pay. They refused to bring the bales of raw Indian jute up from the docks. Fourteen year old Mary joined the other women in her section to successfully demand fairer pay. They got a rise of 15%. This was the beginning of more than a hundred protests by Dundee workers between 1889 -1914.
As she grew more politically active, Mary also became anti-war. As a 21 year old at the 1918 Armistice Day celebration, she led a protest against the shoddy treatment of returned veterans . She was arrested with 20 others, charged with Breach of the Peace and sentenced to 3 weeks in Perth Prison. This was the same year she gave up Roman Catholicism, became an atheist and joined the Communist Party (C.P.) to fight for women’s rights, equality and the demise of capitalism.
Once out of prison, Mary was unable to get mill-work and so went into domestic service at her mother’s insistence. However, working in an opulent ‘Jute Baron’s’ mansion made her all the more determined to follow her strong feelings against inequality. On her days off, during a third domestic post, she attended lectures at The Scottish Labour College given by a famous socialist organiser and orator, John McLean.
At the age of 23 in 1920 (when The Great Depression began), she was involved in more protests and represented jobless, rental defaulters at Rent Tribunals. She lobbied for Unemployment Benefits for those out of work. Her next arrest was for heckling at a meeting about the unreasonable amount of money workers had to contribute as part of the new Unemployment Insurance Act. Authorities at the time tried to question her sanity – a charge later ‘not proven’ by a judge who found her ‘utterly sound’ in health and judgment.
Within the C.P. Mary established the Working Women’s Guild of Dundee in 1930 which focused on improving public health and social housing. They lobbied successfully for significant improvements to the city’s poorhouse, as well as other housing. A lasting legacy was this group’s commitment to help their 300+ members develop public speaking skills, as well as how to chair and organize, productive meetings.
When she was 34 in 1931, following another demonstration, Mary was arrested for sedition and sentenced this time to 3 months. Crowds gathered outside the Perth Prison gates to sing in protest. The petition for her release had 10,000 signatures. Members of the Railway Women’s Guild in Perth brought her food daily. She wrote poems.
On her release, Mary found out the success of the Women’s Guild in the local branch of the C.P. had caused dissent She publicly expressed doubts about Stalin’s leadership and questioned the allocation of the money they’d raised. In 1932 she was thrown out of the C.P. From then on, she called herself an Independent Socialist.
By this time, Mary could only find occasional work – picking berries, working in canning factories or sewing sacks. When her younger brother died, she took in his son. When her husband of 20 years fell ill in 1943, Mary felt her only option was to catch the ferry across to Tayport, in Fife and play her violin in the streets to get money. Ernest died later that year. She took her parents in to live with her.
By 1948 Mary was no longer employed. While nursing her dying mother, she wrote more poems and songs like The Spinner’s Wedding, full of the ordinary details of her working life, and shared them with her.
Oh, ye’ll no make muckle siller
Nae maitter hoo ye try
But hoard your love an loyalty,
That’s what money canna buy.
IIn the 1960’s and 7o’s Mary began singing in Old Folks Homes. She was Chairperson of the Old Age Pensioners Association for some these years. After a chance meeting at a concert, the popular folk-singer Ewan McColl sang some of her songs and championed her song writing. She sang then at the Dundee Folk Club, at the Blairgowrie Music Festivals and on TV & Radio. Her poems and songs were published in Sidlaw Breezes as well as in her autobiography, Nae Sae Lang Syne; a tale of this city.
She was always willing to speak out, step up and help wherever it was needed. In 1970 during the war in Vietnam she went to Hanoi to help the wounded and to rebuild the ruined city. She was 73.
Mary never gave up her Dundee/Scots dialect. She was 5 foot tall, ordinary on the outside and a powerhouse inside. She poured her energy into making life better for others – actively making her city a fairer, more just community. She died in a Dundee hospital in 1978 aged 82.
Hamish Henderson, founding member of the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, called Mary
a heroine of the working class movement in Dundee, and a free – spoken, free – thinking, old rebel who got thrown out of the C.P. for denouncing Stalin in the early Thirties!
In 2009, four lines from her song about jute work ‘Oh Dear Me’ were carved into granite in the new Scottish Parliament’s Wall of Quotations in Edinburgh – the only woman quoted in the 26 selected quotes thus far.
“Oh, dear me, the warld’s ill-divided
Them that works the hardest are aye wi’ least provided.
But I maun bide contented, dark, deep or fine
But there’s no much pleasure livin’ affen ten and nine.”
Mary’s actions show her life-long commitment to social justice and caring for others in need. Just an ordinary woman to look up to … and not forget.
Some of the many Sources I used. (There’s lots more)
INNES, Ewan. et al. (ed) Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women. Edinburgh. E.U.P. 2006: 46-7.
HENDERSON, Mary. Dundee Women’s Trail: Twenty-five footsteps over four centuries. Dundee. Dundee Women’s Trail. 2008: 46-48. http://www.dundeewomenstrail.org.uk/
POLWART, Karine. “The Other Mary” in A. J. TAUDEVIN. Mrs Balfour’s Daughters. Oberon Press. 2015. (This post took a while. Finding this essay really helped me pull my writing together. I commend Karine’s work to you – a well-known Scots folksinger, she sings and talks about Mary on YouTube ‘The Jute Song’ with The Shee.)
All text and photos by Meg
Story Twigs the Imagination! by Meg Philp. Copyright © under Australian Law.