Dundee Lassie

by Mary Brooksbank

Ah’m a Dundee lassie ye can see
An ye’ll a’ways find me cheerful nae matter whaur Ah be
Tho at times ah feel doonherted, sad or ill
Ah’m a spinner intae Baxter’s mill

Ma mither died when Ah was young, ma faither fell in France
Ah’d like tae been a teacher but ah never got the chance
Ah’ll soon be getting married tae a lad they ca Tam Hill
An he is an iler intae Halley’s mill

Ah’m chumming wi a lassie, they ca her Jeannie Bain
She says she’ll never mairry, her lad got killed in Spain
Ah often hear her speak aboot a place they ca Teruel
An she is a winder intae Craigie’s mill

Chumming: going about as friends
Iler: oiler of mill machinery
Teruel: Spanish town, scene of a bloody battle in 1937-8, in the Spanish Civil War.
Winder: job on the flett or working platform of the mill.

This song was brought to Sangschule by Gordeanna McCulloch

According to Nigel Gatherer in Songs of Dundee, “it is known that the Dundee mill girls had a reputation for ‘hilarity and making light of things.’” He is quoting a writer, William Walker who said this was probably a “triumph of fortitude over adversity”, as there was little for many people in Dundee to be cheerful about, including those lucky enough to have a job.
Several reasons for being ‘doonherted’ are listed here, including the effects of war, the lassie’s father dying in the first World War and her friend’s lad being one of the young men who volunteered in the Spanish Civil War. More than 500 Scots volunteered to join the International Brigade in the Republicans’ struggle against Franco and the Fascists (1936 – 39). Many died in the attempt. Franco was ultimately successful

The mills mentioned were jute mills. Nigel Gatherer says: “From the latter half of the nineteenth century until the late 1960s, Dundee was the centre of a thriving jute industry, which employed a large segment of the town’s labour, adults and children alike. For most of the twentieth century women dominated the workforce. Men were due pay rises at the ages of sixteen, eighteen and twenty-one, and employers often preferred to lay men off rather than grant the extra wages.” He also mentions the theory that women were found “more manageable” by employers keen to avoid strikes, and says that it was quite common for wives to work in the mill while their husbands minded the house and children. This pattern led to the derogatory term “kettle bilers” for Dundee’s unemployed men.

Nigel Gatherer in Songs and Ballads of Dundee says that the Brooksbanks were a singing family, and that it was “while Mary was nursing her sick mother that she began writing poetry and songs, which she eventually published in 1966, in a collection called Sidlaw Breezes. The cost of the book was covered by Mary herself, and she lost money on it.”

Dundee journalist and writer Maurice Fleming interviewed Mary Brooksbank in 1966 for Chapbook vol 3, no.4 when she was a tiny, stocky woman in her sixties, who sang and played the fiddle at Dundee Folk Club. He recorded and collected her songs.

Fleming says that she was born in a single-end in Aberdeen where her father worked on the docks and helped to establish the Dockers’ Union. Next door lived “a happy gallus family, who travelled all summer and came back to roost in winter. One of the McPhail boys played the squeeze-box and they sang like linties.” From this traveller family Mary’s mother, herself a fine singer, picked up the tune to which Mary was later to put the words of “As I Cam Ower Strathmartine Mains.”

Mary said that she hadn’t a stitch when she was born : “My mither had nothing for me – nothing. But all the neighbours rallied roon and gave her this and that. They rigged me oot. And they bathed my eyes. Afterwards my mither blamed that for me bein nearly blind for so long. ….Maybe it was something these women did, even though they meant well.” She was nearly blind for her first year.

When Mary was eight, the family sailed on the “Princess Maud” for Dundee. A coal merchant carried their belongings to the boat, and her mother gave him a yellow canary for his trouble. Nigel Gatherer says her mother was originally a fisher lass, but worked in the jute mills in Dundee, often leaving Mary to look after the younger children. Mary was largely self-educated. Her father was often unemployed and away for weeks looking for work.

Mary started work as a shifter at thirteen in the Baltic Jute Mill and became a spinner at fifteen. She became politically active very young and “led protest marchers through the streets of Dundee in the Twenties.”

There was much more to this self-educated former mill-worker than first appeared. and Hamish Henderson was to describe her as “a heroine of the working class movement in Dundee, and a free-spoken, free-thinking old rebel who got thrown out of the CP for denouncing Stalin in the early thirties.”

Tim Neat, Hamish’s biographer, tells how “in 1970, at the age of 73, she went out to Hanoi to tend the wounded and help rebuild a city being bombed ‘round the clock’ by B52 bombers.” From Hanoi she sent Hamish a postcard saying that, in spite of the poverty of the people, their life had a quality which made it seem to her like paradise – “like the dreaming of all great revolutionaries.” According to Neat, Mary Brooksbank “gave her life to peace campaigning and the communist cause.”

She figures in the website: www.dundeewomenstrail.org.uk)