WANDERING AMONGST THE GHOSTS OF “SHE-TOWN.”

5 Sep

The southern approach to Dundee is dramatic. Scotland’s fourth city straddles the north bank of the mighty Firth of Tay. My train from Edinburgh, after pottering through the gentle hills of Fife, was suddenly confronted with a huge expanse of water. To get to the city on the far bank we had to cross a long, slightly precarious looking metal bridge over 130 years old.
As I gazed out over the grey, choppy waters, I couldn’t help thinking of the terrifying event that overtook nearly a hundred luckless people at this very spot in the winter of 1879. The first Tay Rail bridge, the predecessor of the one I was now on, had collapsed in a fierce storm taking a whole train with it. It plunged into the deep, cold waters claiming the lives of its crew and 75 passengers. It was the night of December 28th, 1879. The bridge, initially hailed as a great engineering triumph, had only been standing for 18 months. It was a terrible accident that sent shock waves through the nation. Although I crossed the Tay on a calm late summer’s day, I couldn’t help thinking of that tragic event 134 years earlier and all the people who perished. What would it have been like to have been plunged into the depths of those freezing waters? However, as I looked around at my fellow passengers, playing with their I-phones, listening to their music or reaching for their luggage, I don’t suppose any of them gave this historical tragedy even a moment’s thought. I suppose it’s a History teacher’s thing — to be constantly tangling with ghosts from the past. It adds an extra dimension to travel, even though it leads to the occasional chill down the spine.
The long bridge started to curve to the right as we neared the far shore and the city came into close view. The estuary I had just traversed may have brought tragedy but its waters have also been the basis of Dundee’s success as a city and a port. In the 19th century the quayside was a hive of activity. Ships constantly came and went, bringing raw materials from the Empire and exporting the finished products around the world from the city’s thriving factories. Shipyards were constantly busy and Dundee’s whaling fleet was the largest and most successful in Britain.
Now all these traditional industries have declined and died, and the buzz-word in the city is “regeneration.” Like Glasgow before it, Dundee is trying to rise, phoenix-like from the ashes of its past and re-invent itself as a cultural, tourist and technological centre. So, in this, my first visit, I was too late to see much of the old Dundee. It has been demolished! Stepping out of the railway station, I was greeted with the groaning of bull-dozers and earth-movers and the sight of mountains of rubble. Bright, optimistic hoardings advertised the glittering Dundee water-front of the future, but I couldn’t help thinking of those ghosts again. Who had worked or lived in the buildings that were now reduced to piles of bricks? What would it have been like to stand on this spot a century ago — to see a ship being launched into the river, or bales of Bengal jute being carted off to the waiting mills or to witness the sad sight of a slaughtered whale being towed in like a huge, inert island of blubber? All this has now gone, disappeared into dust.
I negotiated the ring road and dragged my case up towards what survives of the old city centre, leaving the dust and din behind. Quite a lot remains of the Victorian city thank goodness. Some streets have been demolished to make way for bland shopping malls ( I counted about 3 large ones) but numerous proud, stone built churches, shops, tenements and offices remain. In a way it was like a smaller version of Glasgow, with it’s fine Victorian heritage. In these streets I would find the answers to a list of intriguing questions. Why had this place been called “She-Town”? What were the “Three J’s”? Why were many older female Dundonians deaf or hard of hearing? Why were many citizens of Dundee born in Calcutta? Why was there a statue of Desperate Dan on the edge of the city’s main square? Why are there statues of penguins in at least two prominent locations? Finally, why has this initially dour place been breathlessly dubbed “City of Discovery”?
The last two questions are the easiest to answer. As soon as you exit the railway station you see signs for “The Discovery” Just one minute away, in its own dry dock, is Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Polar research ship “SS Discovery” It’s a handsome, 3-masted, steam-assisted vessel built in Dundee in 1901 to take Scott and his men to the Antarctic. The research trip was sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society. Dundee was chosen to build the ship because of its experience in building whalers that had sailed to the far reaches of the freezing southern Atlantic Ocean. Scott and his men were later to perish in a later expedition ( in 1908 I think) in the Dundee whaler “Terra Nova”. They tragically died on the walk back from the South Pole after losing the race to the Norwegian explorer Amundson. However the earlier 2 year trip on Discovery in 1901-02 was a big success despite the ship being trapped in the crushing ice during the Antarctic winter when temperatures plummeted to -28 degrees C on board. After several later incarnations “Discovery” became a training ship on the Thames before being restored to how it was in the 1920’s and returning to the city where it was built. It is now the standard bearer of Dundee’s attempted renaissance. Alongside it, on Discovery Point is an excellent and absorbing interpretation centre, its entrance flanked by penguins and a large photo of Captain Scott. A visit, although chilling in more ways than one, is a fascinating and worthwhile experience. Models, paintings and haunting black and white photos from the expedition transport one to that far away time and far away place. It was back to the spirits of the past.
The other main reason for my visit to Dundee was to visit the Verdant Works, a museum created out of an original 19th century Jute mill. Jute is one of the aforementioned “Three J’s” that put Dundee on the map in the hey-day of the British Empire. It is a natural textile, cheap to produce, stronger and more versatile than cotton. The manufacture of Jute products such as: sacking, rope, sail-cloth, boot linings, carpets, tents, sand bags, roofing felts etc., were to bring great prosperity to Dundee in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As the main centre of Jute manufacture in the world, Dundee gained one of its nicknames : “Juteopolis”.
The city was already heavily involved in linen weaving. It had the ship yards to build the big, fast ships that brought the jute fibre from India. The final ingredient was provided by the whaling fleet. Whale oil was vital for softening the hard, dry fibres and making them workable. This combination was the basis of Jute’s success in this Scottish city. On top of this were the world markets for jute products that were opening up all the time and made reachable by Dundee’s large fleet of merchant ships. The city became the jute capital of the world. The first bales arrived at Dundee’s quay in 1820. By 1883, over 1 million bales were being unloaded. At the end of Victoria’s reign there were over 100 Jute mills employing 50,000 people. Fortunes were made by the mill owners or “Jute Barons”, whose luxury mansions now line Perth Road to the west and Broughty Ferry, the seaside resort to the east.
However, as in many industrial revolution towns, the contrast between the lives of the factory owners and their workers was stark and vast. Work in the jute mills was: noisy, dangerous and tedious. Hours were long and wages very low. Most of the mill workers were women and children because they cost less to employ. Many men stayed at home while their wives went out to work. This gave rise to Dundee’s other nickname — ” She Town.” It also explains why many older women in the city are partially deaf. It’s due to the incredible din from the machines which they had to endure day after day, year after year. Lily, a guide at the museum, who had worked in the mill for 20 years, told me that she and her fellow workers had to communicate through sign language because the clattering machine noise made it impossible to hear anyone speak. She put a machine on to demonstrate. It was deafening. Her eyes glazed over with nostalgia as she talked about her former colleagues and her diseased husband who had also worked at the mill. She seemed more comfortable talking about the past, even though it had been difficult, and admitted to feeling nervous about the modern world with its constantly changing gadgetry. As we talked about times gone by, we were back amongst the ghosts.
Dundee’s jute industry finally fell victim to competition from India itself and later Bangladesh. Costs on the Indian sub-Continent were much lower, so Dundee had the proverbial rug pulled from underneath its feet. Ironically the Indian jute industry was set up by Dundonian engineers and mill managers, lured out there by the higher standard of living that being part of the Raj offered. I listened to recordings of Dundee people who had grown up in Calcutta. It was a privileged life with servants, polo matches and Bridge clubs. Life was hierarchical with women being judged by how high up their husbands were on the management ladder. It was strange standing there in the early 21st century, listening to these distant echoes of the Empire. This is why so many Dundonians have such close connections to Calcutta. By 1900, Calcutta had overtaken Dundee as the World’s largest jute manufacturer.
I stayed room-only in a hotel converted from a wealthy Jute-Baron’s mansion. Every morning I would stroll down Perth Road and have a relaxing breakfast at the “Express-Oh!” café. I ordered porridge of course because I was in Scotland. This was followed by toasted soda bread with Dundee jam or marmalade, washed down with coffee and a free, fresh orange juice. Jam is another of the city’s famous “3 J’s”, but it’s actually marmalade that is the city’s main claim to fame. Marmalade is supposed to have been invented there in the 18th century, although some claim that earlier recipes existed in the 1500’s.
The story goes roughly like this. It all started by chance in the year 1700. A grocer and cake shop owner called James Keiller came across a Spanish ship that had taken refuge from a storm in Dundee harbour. On board was a large cargo of Seville oranges, which Keiller bought large quantities of at a knock-down price. However their bitter taste meant he was unable to sell them, so his wife Janet, came to the rescue by boiling them up with sugar in copper pots to make jars of preserve. She had previously used quinces. The result, the first marmalade, was so popular that the Keillers started putting in regular orders for Seville oranges. Several generations later, in 1797,another Janet Keiller and her son, another James, felt confident enough to build the world’s first marmalade factory. Keiller’s jam and marmalade is no longer manufactured but another local firm, Mackays, still makes the marmalade with more or less the original recipe. This is what found its way to my breakfast table.
The final J is Journalism. The publishing firm D C Thomson still produces hundreds of comics, magazines and independent Scottish newspapers from their HQ in Dundee. This is why Desperate Dan, probably the Dandy’s most famous cartoon character, still strides forth along the top of City Square, hotly pursued by a catapult- wielding Minnie the Minx. It’s a magnet for camera touting tourists and took me back to my childhood in the 1950’s and 60’s when I was an avid reader of the Dandy and the Beano. So this was yet another nostalgic trip — this time into my own personal history.
The “3 J’s” and Scott of the Antarctic make Dundee an interesting place for a city break, especially if you’re a history buff like me. Its grand Victorian architecture and picturesque waterside location add to its attractions. I also enjoyed the foreign films at the arts centre ( the DCA), the football screened in the pubs ( I didn’t have time to visit either of Dundee’s 2 major football grounds) and the haunting, atmospheric old graveyard, The Howff. It made a memorable visit, discovering the heritage of “She Town” now rebranded as the “City of Discovery.”

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2 Responses to “WANDERING AMONGST THE GHOSTS OF “SHE-TOWN.””

  1. Ian Davies September 6, 2013 at 10:06 am #

    “And the wailin’ o’ the bummer and the clackin’ o’ the looms
    Brocht the women o’ Dundee oot o’ their bed
    And they walked tae mills and factories and they wrought fae seven tae four
    And the women kept the bairns o’ Dundee fed” (Women O’ Dundee, Sheila Wellington)

    Thanks Stuart for an inviting introduction to the city. I now want to visit! Ian

    • scrapstu1949 September 6, 2013 at 1:03 pm #

      Glad you like it Ian. Thanks for reading it.

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