Last week I took a little field trip to another mill, the Verdant Works. There, I met with Erin Farley, who is working on an AHRC-funded project about poetry, song and community in Victorian Dundee. As part of Dundee Women’s Festival,Erin took a small group of us on a fascinating ‘Women’s Words Walk’ around the mill museum. This gave us an excellent opportunity to experience life in the city through the words of the women who lived, loved and worked there.
Both my mother and my grandmother were weavers, so I have first- hand experience of the strength and independent spirit of Dundee women, but I had no idea that so many of them put their thoughts into the written word. Many of the poems Erin referenced tackle injustice and poor working conditions; some are very poignant, others express a sense of joie de vive.
If you would like to know more, please do click HERE to visit Erin’s excellent blog, In Ma Fair Toon, which forms part of her research for a Collaborative Doctoral Award between the University of Strathclyde and Dundee Central Library’s Local History centre. Her work explores how people wrote, performed and listened to poetry and songs in 19th century Dundee, and how their creativity shaped and was shaped by a sense of place.
I got the chance to chat with Erin over a coffee after the tour, and we spent a brilliant hour comparing mills! Although the Verdant Works and Barry Mill may seem worlds apart, the humble meal mill bridges the gap between the traditional agrarian economy of Scotland and the Industrial Revolution, which brought such seismic change to Dundee.
The waterwheel was the original driver for the early textile factories in many places, such as the cotton mill of Lancashire, but in Dundee the Scouring Burn and the Dens Burn did not have enough ‘fall’ to allow for a wheel. However, the streams were used to feed the great steam engines which powered the machinery. The city’s industrial heritage can be mapped out along the banks of the rivers and burns of the area. In our digital world, it’s easy to underestimate the importance of water, but in the steam age, no water meant total shutdown.
As Erin comments in her blog, rivers don’t just disappear, and it was amazing to see the Scouring Burn still visible beneath the Verdant Works complex. A different kind of mill lade for me! Here is a wee rhyme that celebrates the power of the local burns:
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.
Next week I’ll be looking at more Mill Women. How does the Victorian poetry of the watermill reflect women’s lives and identities?