Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly Page

Graham Donachie's Stories
Jute Mill Mither

Isabella Duncan Donachie
Isabella Duncan Donachie. Born.... 21st  February 1908.  Died.... 12th  August 1978

Part 1

The man stood by the side of the road and looked south, toward the river. He looked and smiled and marveled at the distance he could see. There was a tyme, long ago, when his vision would be
hampered by a man-made fog. That was the tyme of his childhood. He sighed under the heat of the summer sun and sat his arse down below the street lamp.. Arkley Street ran steeply from Clepington Road in the north to Dens Road in the south and was about a mile distance from end to end. It was covered in tar now, from high top, to low bottom. In the days of his boyhood, cobblestones were the order of the day. An impossibility for male cyclists, their manhoods suffered terribly if they attempted tae ride ower the killer ‘cassies’. In Dundee, roadstones were never termed as cobbles. ‘Cassies’ was the Scots word for them. Ironstone, I’ve heard them called. They were laid to combat the heavy usage by steel shod Clydesdales and iron rimmed carts that transported the raw jute bales from the warehouses of the Dundee docks to the rat infested mills of the town. Dundee was far from ‘Bonnie’ in those days. The life of the town was it’s jute industry and the blood of that industry were the women who coursed through it’s veins.

Thousands of Dundee women started work at an early age in these mills and their whole lives evolved round the making of jute items that would be used world wide. From the sails of the mighty tea clippers to the covered wagons which opened up the far west of the American continent. In southern latitudes, across the veldt, in the land of the black peoples, the products made by these mill women endured and in doing so, made millionaires of men. It is said that, in one square mile, in the eastern boundary of the city, in the nineteenth century, there lived more millionaires, than any where else on God’s planet. They were the Jute Barons. They built their castles on the slopes of the old Forthill and Castlehill and their wealth was too awesome to comprehend. The great sprawling cattle ranches of Texas were largely funded by Dundee financiers. Here too, were fortunes to be made. Ironically, they were unaware of the real wealth, that lay far beneath the chaparral that blew in the wind of the Texas tundra..........

The man had always been a dreamer...This day was no exception...He had been playing cowboys in the badlands of this mill town all his life....His day dream dawdled on and on and the sun grew steadily hotter as noontyme approached and now his dreamtyme tacked in another direction and he was drifting back.... back to another day, when the sun was hot and the boy sat under the gas street lamp and looked south towards the river........

He owned no watch, so he could not be sure when the ‘bummer’would blaw, but he would be ready for it...Twelve noon would hear the high pitched howl of the mill hooter announcing ‘dinner tyme’ for the workers. Hot on the blasts of the bellowing bummer was the all too familiar bonging of the bells from Our Lady Of Victories. These were the bells of St Mary’s, which would peal out the ‘Angelus’ and which could be heard far across the wide river to the shores of Fife and beyond....

The man pictured the boy in his minds eye...blond of head and chubby of form, wearing a cheap cotton shirt, sleeves rolled up for the sun’s kiss and thin shorts with summertyme sandals afoot. A wee laddie no different from any other wee laddie who waited patiently on this simmer day, for the sicht o’ his ma, cam hame for the midday meal.....He loved his ma as fiercely as any boy could love their ma.. and so he waited here in the hotness, trying, in his child like way to gauge the tyme left before noon........

The man smiled in the memory of it, he allowed himself to wander through the halls of the years long gone... and relish the bittersweet remembrance.

The boy’s head grew heavier as the minutes passed...he could see the ants scurrying in the canyons between the cassies and the sun continued to burn on the back of his neck..........In this day and age, there was little traffic to break the silence of the street......So the boy leaned his back against the street lamp and dovered off... to cat-nap in the sun....

The sound shattered the noon day silence . The great wailing that signaled the end of first shift rent the day like the wartyme sirens and brought the boy from prone to stock standing. Far away bells started their Angelus and the boy now, ever attentive, turned his eyes to the bottom of the long steep street.....

Like ants they appeared... Single at first, then twos and threes and then more and then surges of bodies all making their long way to their homes on the hillside.

The boy could hear no sound at first, even though he could see them, their noise did not reach this far up the hill....He could then see the buses turning, climbing now, up the hill, growling in their efforts. The fronts of the buses always reminded him of angry bulldog faces. Steaming and slavering in the heat of day, their countenances afforded the look of extreme bad temper...

And now the hordes approached, ever nearer, and the sounds of laughing and shouting and lads whistling and lasses urging them on to daft foolishness and gales of noise and the smell of hot jute in the air....A few of the women would call to the boy and he would wave to them..Men would pass and ruffle his hair....always a word for the boy who waited for his ma...The crowd was dense and his view now obscured by the mass of bodies.....Then out of the rush, she was..... suddenly there....Laughing and joking with hair, red in the breeze and cheeks to match, her heavy mill coat over her arm, she came...The boy took off like a hare chased by the hounds...legs pounding down the pavement... shouting now for attention..and his ma seeing him approach, knelt on one knee, to swoop him up into her stoory embrace. Kidding now, from the other women and asking for wee kisses they were, but he would have none of them and he clung to the skirts of his ma... He could feel the big steel scissors in the pocket of her pinny. They were attached by jute string to a belt around her waist...She was a winder..had worked in various mills in the town from the age of thirteen..A worker and union member, tireless in her objectives, she bore eight children, lost two to illness and worked non stop to feed and clothe the remaining six, plus the father. . During the war she left the mills and worked in the ‘munitions’ factories, making the very shells that her man would help fire across the Channel to pound the German positions in France.... But that tyme of tribulations was well over and life had returned to normality.

The mid day meal had it’s own ritual. Never would it change in these days. An older sister of the boy, Isabella, although still a child herself, played the roll of mother to him and to his brother John and the youngest of all his sisters,Vicky, a wee golden cuddly bairn, with blue big eyes and sunny smile.. His ma had only a short hour break at noon, so the meal was always ready for her...She saw to her toiletries first and then sat at the big table in the front room. All four of the bairns crowded round and
harried her with the mornings events. She listened to the noise and her meal was finished amidst the complaints and quarrels and mumps and girns of her brood.

She then sat in the big armchair to relax and put her feet up on a stool for a quick nap. His siblings would be about their play now, but he remained to watch his ma fall into gentle slumber. He knew to wake her when the big hand of the clock approached the figure eight. He removed her work shoes and with small hands rubbed her calloused feet. He watched as a rivulet of sweat broke cover from her hairline and trickled down the side of her face. He caught it on his small finger point. A diamond bead from his mother’s skin, he put it to his tongue and tasted the saltiness of the wayward jewel. He was content to sit there, at her feet and listen to the poetry of her sighs.

All too soon the big hand would menace the figure of eight and the tyme for his ma to rouse herself ....but there was yet another rite to be performed. From a drawer in the old sideboard the boy took a comb. A rather large one this and well used. This was a special comb and not to be confused with the ones his sisters used or the one that smelled of hair oil. That was his Da’s comb. He coaxed her head back over the edge of the armchair and then, from her forehead ..combed, as gently as he could muster, long sweeps of backward motion. The stoor from the mill was caught in the teeth of the comb. The boy did not tug on the hair, for he had a coothiness in him that his ma alone understood, so she waited for him to extract the clogged stoor and continue his ministrations.

All too soon the bummer would announce the approach of the hour. Up out of the chair, a cold water swilling for her sleepy face, she stood ready for the afternoon shift. A kiss and a cuddle for her bairns and she was off ..out the door. The boy followed, out of the close and into the bright sunlight. The clamour of the crowded street assailed his ears. Womenfolk in droves, spilling into the street, waving their own good byes to their own folk. His ma by his side, waiting, and then spotting her chums, she stoops for a final kiss on his small face and then away from him.

The boy stood and looked south towards the river. His mother, a part of that ebbing tide, a part of the folk drifting away from him....back....back, to the mirk dark mills, amidst sunless and deafening silkies, returning to the deep black sea.

He watched for an endless tyme...the droves disappearing... He watched ..and the final trickle ceased. Then, as if to taunt his vigilance, a last lone woman ran her weary late way back, to the disapproving
glowers of the shift foreman....

Silence, once again reigned in the street..... The boy sat under his lamp and sighed... An occasional ant would crawl its busy way over the hillocks of his toes....Away across the street and far away down, he could see a man approach....Sid Hood.. Sid was his fathers drinking mate. He watched as Sid slowly made his way, with his ladder over his shoulder, from lamp to lamp.... for Sid was a leerie. He would hitch his ladder over the cross rungs of the lamp and climb up to wind the timer, check to see if the mantle was in order, give the glass panes a wee rub and then close the door pane. Ladder, once again, over his shoulder and on to the next lamp. The boy’s gaze followed the leerie’s progress and when he was within earshot, the boy called out to him. Sid shouted back a greeting and waved........The afternoon crawled on ....the heavy heat....and the ever constant haze hung over the town, which all but hid the spewing lums that created it............

But that was so long ago....the same heavy heat of another day...the man opened his eyes...they crinkled under the glare......The cassies were no longer...the sheen of tar and the slight smell of it, was now in his nose. The gas lamps and the boy who sat there had gone.....but..he could see, clean over the town, no lung shrinking smog, no belching lums, nothing... but the sweet view of the river and the far shore of an ancient kingdome...The houses of his childhood were there still... In their back greens, battles once had been waged, cattle had been rustled, indians fought, and shoot outs were an everyday occurrence. The boy had shot and been shot at, many duels ago.....but now he was no longer a boy... he was a young man.....

Part II

A late evening in summer.....

And the man sat basking in the last rays of the sinking red sun as it bade farewell on its journey beyond the purple hills of Perthshire. He too, on the morrow, would be on a journey, into the same western sky. A long journey this ... a new start. Far from all the auld familiarities that he knew and loved ... For now however, he was content to sit and wander through the forest of his memories.

He was perched on the high hill of The Law. The ancient sentinel point of the northern river dwellers. He was comfortable on this hill. He could look over centuries of history from this vantage point. For him, the ancient bygone eras were vivid and real, and a valid part of his own short past and his uncertain future. He was a son of this once industrial monster of a city. He had the deep gut-pride of belonging. He loved it with a passion, warts and all, it would be, forever his city. His thoughts turned once more to memory of the folk he knew who had toiled in the desperate conditions within the hellish heat and deafening din that was the jute mills.

One such .... the mother of the man. She was long dead now, but her spirit was still fresh in his heart. He likened her to the warrior women of old who with their men fought off invading Celt, Roman and the ravaging Irish from the west. Pictish blood in her veins, she passed on the visions and the old ways to the man who sat here on the high hill. She was the rock from which he had been formed. She guided him through his formative years and gave him the strong simple teachings from which he would find the courage to go forward. She would remain his role model for the remainder of his life.

He never at any tyme quarreled with his mother. They differed in opinions often, but he respected and heeded her way of thought and the canny manner she had, when stressing her positive views. He was always very protective of her and it was this quality which would, in his youth, bring him into serious conflict with his father.

The man sat in the fading sunlight and cast his mind back ... back ...........

There was a tyme of confusion in his life, when nothing seemed normal. Chaos ruled and all control had escaped his grasp. He was left floundering in a sea of uncertainty, with no lifeline and the guiding star of logic long extinguished.

His marital life was fast approaching bedlam ... the ties of love and trust snapping dangerously, like the steel strings of an over- strung guitar. Unable to ride the tide of constant recriminations, he fled into the safety of overwork. Endless days of long and labourious hours, he became a solitary and humourless shell, like some Dickensian scribe. His only pleasure ... seeing his fine sons growing into strong men. They too were aware of the gathering storm clouds, and remained resolute and ready for the approaching fury.

However, his strength took a hellish blow, when on a summer Saturday, upon returning from work, he received word from from his sister to come immediately to the hospital. His mother was critically ill and it became very obvious to all her family that the end of her life was nearing. Two years previously, she had suffered from the growth of a malignant brain tumour, but an operation, quickly executed, had saved her for the present, and had prolonged her life for a short while. The tumour reappeared however, and so it was just a matter of tyme. His ma had never been the same after that operation. At first she appeared to get better, her cheeks once rosy in their redness seemed paler now, and her smile was strained and forced. Her eyes, once so twinkly with laughter and love were now dull with the hurting, and in them the man could see his mother’s pain.

At tymes when visiting, he would speak quietly and gently to her, but she would appear not to know who he was. He would despair at the confusion on her face and would cry inside with hopeless grief. Other tymes, she would glare at him without recognition and tell him to go away and leave her in peace, but he would sit quiet, until the awful fog cleared and he would be, once again, her wee boy...

Long, long, the journey to the hospital where she lay ... his heart pounding in his chest ... willing himself across the miles, until finally ... the sanitized corridor, stretching endlessly before him ... his feet suddenly leaden within his workboots. Gathering himself , he quickened his pace, the noise of his forced march echoing in that sterile place. From a room ahead, a nurse emerged. She took a few steps toward him and held out her arms as if she would embrace him. In that simple gesture of compassion, the man’s worst fears were realised.

Now, from the darkened room, he could hear the soft sobbings of his sisters as they mourned their mother’s passing. He waited in the corridor. The women finally emerged. They looked exhausted. They
had taken turns to be near her and were with her when she died. He went in to see his ma. She lay, as if sleeping ... all relaxed, the strains of her illness no longer visible ... he could see a smile on the edge of her mouth, and her cheeks, once again plump and rosy. In his head he recited an old prayer and he bent forward and kissed, for the last tyme, the lovely face of his gentle mother. He ruffled her graying old hair, just the way she would do to him, when as a child, he would run to greet her. He turned from her and left the room.

He took the lead and dealt with all the arrangements for her funeral. She lay in Saint Theresa’s and the solemn Requiem Mass was said for the repose of her soul. They laid her in a nice quiet part of the local cemetery and there were many flowers sent that day to cover where she rested.

Life went back to normal for a while. The man went on with his daily routine, but there was a nagging feeling that kept knocking on the door of his mind. It entered and took root, and he could not shake it free. He would attempt to ignore it, or force it from his daily thoughts, but budge, it would not. It blossomed into a twisted and terrible mentor. It was a feeling of such dreadful Guilt ... For what? .... For not being there at the bedside with his mother when she died. He became constantly racked with the pain of it. He tried to alleviate it with all manner of logic and rational thought but as months turned into years the burden remained a constant companion..........

He opened his eyes to the present...........

A wind was coming up, and the man shivered slightly. The sun had disappeared under the western hills. The clouds had changed colour and the river was no longer sparkling in the sun’s warm embrace. Below him, the city prepared for the darkness and lights started to twinkle, hither and thither, first in the streets, and then in the closes and windows of the dull grey tenements. He could smell the night approaching. The cooling of the air and the earth giving up its last warm odours of the sun heat. This was an intoxicant for his senses and he inhaled deeply, as if to savour the last breath of hame.

He could see the car far below. He had not driven up the hill, for he wanted to climb this hillside as he often had, from boyhood, to courting youth. Many’s the lass had sported her knickers on the loving slopes of this hill and wild in the chasing, they would run screaming and laughing until finally caught, they would surrender with breathless kissing. He smiled to himself as he thought of these far away days. He wondered if the same girls remembered the same heady days of their lost youth.

He made his way down and off the hill. The road spiraled down and around the hill. With every stride, he could see a different view of the city as he descended from that high place.

He drove in an endless circle around the streets of his youth. This was a silent farewell to all the old familiar nooks and crannies, the wynds and pends and the dark stone streets. He parked the car at the bottom of the old cobbled road. Getting out, he slowly walked up toward the dark cavernous close. Stopping at the entrance, he peered into the darkness, trying to see beyond the black. He could make out no shapes or forms, nothing but the ebony blackness. He remembered the first tyme he had visited this place. He could think of no reason why he had chosen the path to it, only remembering standing here, in the same road, looking into the same darkness. He had never told anyone what had transpired here on that winter night. Not wanting to be the object of ridicule, he had kept a silent tongue on the matter, although he knew, that as strange as it surely was, it had banished the guilt that for years had squatted upon him, causing feelings of the greatest melancholy.........

Back into the memories, to the snowy January night...

He was back, living the life of the bachelor, a regular “Jack the Lad”. Lock up your wives and daughters, for mischief and mayhem abound in the West End! This was his new life. His marriage like a ship in a storm, smashed and broken on the rocks of betrayal and jealousy. He had been cast overboard but had somehow, managed to salvage his life. The wild oats, that for years had been packaged and sealed and privy to none, but one, had suddenly burst asunder with surprising vigour and alacrity and in the spilling had satisfied the most delicate and hungriest of appetites. So here the man was ... gaining the reputation as hard drinking, hard loving skirt chaser, a ready smile and a song and a kiss for any lass, willing to catch his roving eye.

Such a night it was .... a dreich winters night .... cold and damp with the haar from the river sneaking it’s way into the shivering streets. He made his way with a military pace that a light infantry sergeant would envy. Nothing would delay him this night. He had a lady to visit. A good brisk thirty minute walk would deliver him into her company.... Although, he could not but wonder, why he had chosen to walk up the cobbled old road, instead of taking the most obvious and shorter route. The Benvie Road was not one he was well acquainted with. Old Victorian tenement blocks, an old mill building, it was but poorly lit and gave a slight eerie feeling, much like the film sets of the old pre-war Ealing Studio suspense films ... But here he was, walking, not so smartly now, up this ill lit way. It had began to drizzle rain and he hunched into the upturned collar of his overcoat. Up ahead, he became aware of people moving toward him. He could see that they clung together, as if for support. Linking arms and with heads bowed, they suddenly disappeared into the black mouth of a tenement close. Two or three
chattering girls crossed the road and they too vanished into the same passageway. For some reason, he knew not why, he approached and stopped at the close end. It was dark here, and he could not see anything, but he could hear music emanating from somewhere. His pulse had quickened and he felt a shiver. He stepped into the close.

Stretching his arms out from his shoulders, he could feel both sides of the hallway, and he made his way tentatively forward .... He wondered about the old folks and the lassies. He could not hear any more of their chatter, only his own teeth, which had lost control and were defying his attempts to stop them from dancing loudly in his mouth. He shuffled forward toward the source of the music. Then he became aware that he could see the end of the close and shapes in the darkness. Suddenly, he was out of the dark and back into the drizzle. He stood in the vast square in the backlands of the tall tenements. All was silent now, for the music had stopped.

Now, anyone who has grown up in these backlands will know that they are a maze of small alleys between the old air-raid shelters that were built during the war. Further back in tyme, there were communal middens situated here. People would throw all manner of rubbish out over the outside platforms or (pletties) as they were known in Dundee.  He stood and looked about him. The tall spectres of the washing line poles stood in silent vigil, their tops obscured in the haar. Altogether, a strange and bizarre situation he found himself in. The music began to play again. He heard a sudden shuffling behind him and the sound brought about an involuntary intake of a breath. Spinning around in fright, he was confronted with the figure of a man approaching. Feeling his heart pounding, he opened his mouth to speak, but before he could utter a word, an old croaky voice inquired; “Are ye here for the meeting laddie? ”... A great gush of relief washed over him. “Aye mister I am”, he lied. “Just follow me son, I’m for it as weel”... and so, with the apparition in the lead, he came to the hall.

It was an odd structure in an odd setting. These backlands were the playgrounds of hosts of bairns who knew all the secret places to hide when they were being called in from play. Some lands were littered with debris of all sorts and the derelict old air-raid shelters would often reek of unmentionable foulness .... so ... it was with strange surprise that he viewed this most incongruous of structures. It was damp and smelly. God knows how old it was .... a wooden structure this, and in a shocking need of repair. A heavy smell of burning candles, damp clothes and the queer mouldy smell of decay. It was lit by a few weak and inefficient lights. He stood just inside the entrance at the rear of the aisle leading up to a raised dais. To the left of the dais, with her back to the main body of the hall, sat a woman playing enthusiastically on an old, small church organ. There was roughly a score or so of people crowded, mostly into the first three pews. A few were singing, half heartedly, a hymn about being washed in the water of love. The straining of the organ, the wheezing of the hidden bellows and the off-key lament of the huddling congregation made him vaguely amused. He felt a laugh rising in his throat, but not being a man who was prone to such foolishness, he subdued the inclination and turned to leave, but something clouded his better judgement, and he turned back and sat down wearily in the back pew.

He knew he should not be here. This was the realm of olde wives tales ... of the sighs of the ones long gone, and the shadows of the dead flitting amangst the imaginations of nervous lassies and the gross exaggerations of the chosen seers. This was a “Spooky meeting place “. He could not be seen HERE ..... he daren’t tell a soul that he came here ... for he would be the laughing stock of his pub peers...

He looked at his watch and realised ... he was late ... he was late ... for a very important date ...

The music ceased. A tall skinny woman materialised from nowhere ... well ... from somewhere ... and asked all to pray a moment or so before starting the proceedings. So the man stood and listened to the mumbled incantations ... What WOULD father McBride say to this heresy.... then, finishing, they all sat to wait for the first act. What happened in the next few minutes would change the man’s opinions and ways of thinking. He never was prepared for this.......

He settled down to survey the gathering, and that’s when he became aware of the auld one watching him. From where he sat, to where she stood, he could see the heads begin to turn in his direction. It was the second tyme this night that he felt this tickling fear creep up on him. She began to shuffle her way towards him, up the aisle. She did not float, he was relieved to see ... but serious she was in her approach. She was an auld wifie just like any other, small and frail, with rheumy eyes. A scarf around her head, making her face seem small within it’s folds, she stood in front of where he sat, his eyes in line with her shoulders ... she was tiny. He dropped his gaze to his knees and would not look up at her. The place was silent now ... only the fluttering of the burning candles interrupted the quiet.

Her wee withered hand reached out and ever so softly, she rested it upon his right shoulder. Her voice was a whisper ..... “There is a woman standing behind you son”. He jumped in sudden fright, but she wheisht him, and he calmed and sat, but a sweat was on him now, and he shivered. She continued ....
“She wants you to know that she is happy where she is, but unhappy to see you so guilty ... she wants you to go on with your life, and be as happy as she now is, and to forget the guilt and sadness you feel”.

Now the man was no one’s fool, and was well read enough to know that charlatans had been in this spooky caper for years, playing on the emotions of the bereaved and making a living from their gullibility. So he was not about to fall for any sham.

He sat motionless still, waiting for her to go, but she still held his shoulder firmly and began anew. She began to describe to him in some detail .... “The woman is smiling now, and her teeth are very white ... her hair is slightly reddish, and very wiry.... she has the high colour in her cheeks ... she wears an old
coat, unbuttoned, and under it, she wears a millworker’s pinny.... she has big jute scissors on a string round her waist and they rest in the pocket of her pinny...... Her name ...... Isabel ...... no .... Isabella ..... she gets called Bella...but someone close to her calls her Bell”.

He looked up at the woman. She looked down at him. She smiled a toothless smile at him but he did not afford her one back, so she turned, and left him sitting there. He was now no longer the centre stage. As quietly and as quickly as possible, he made his exit. Once more, returning through the backlands and once more through the close. Out into the street ... he stopped under a lamp to check the tyme. It was only fifteen minutes or so since he had entered the close. He had imagined that it had been much longer... so he was not late ... for that important date.

It was much later, in the wee hours of the morning. He could hear the rhythmic breathing of the sleeping woman beside him. He eased himself onto his side. He thought of the strange meeting in the backlands of Benvie Road ..... He was confused and bewildered. Could there be any truth or sincerity in what the auld one had told him?.... He did not know... He would say nothing of this to anyone. It was all so ridiculous ... a farce. Was he taken in by a clever auld twister? But then ... the description that the auld one gave him could easily be likened to the image of his Ma..... He felt the sadness in him welling, and the tears began to spill from his eyes. He had never cried like this, not at the moment of her death, and never since, but now, on this strange night, in a strange bed, they came from him in a torrent of grief, and he shook in the emotion of it........

And so it was on this last night in his hometown, the memory of that meeting had lured him back. He stood at the close end .... nothing for him here now. He got into the car and drove home.

The next day, on the Glasgow bound train, he watched, as his city disappeared into the distance. He has never returned.

Read other stories from Graham Donachie


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus