‘Recollections of a Dundee East-Ender. “’Tis Fifty Years Since.”’ by McR. (26 June, 1880)

This article appeared in the ‘People’s Journal’ in June 1880. The title parodies Sir Walter Scott as the author looks back fifty years and observes the huge changes that had taken place in the East End in that time. This map from 1832 gives an insight into how little the city had expanded east on the Forfar and Arbroath Roads. Compare to 1882.

“After this Baxter Brothers came to build their first spinning mill, which stood with its end to the “Plantin’.” After that they built their second mill, and so demolished the west side of the “Plantin’.” After this they took up the whole of the east side of the “Plantin’.” Subsequently they swallowed up Carmichael’s Mill and the whole of the den, trees, and all up to Victoria Road and Bridge, and I think beyond it, all of which space is now occupied by their works, which may be splendid enough in their own matter-of-fact way but there was poetry n the den.”

Aye, it is at least three and fifty years now since Macgregor sang on the stage of the Dundee Theatre Royal “Great are the changes in Bonnie Dundee.” It was a song which was then “just out,” of the words of which I only remember the o’erturn. It spoke of the enterprise of the Dundonians in some such way as this—

“Building quays and piers and walls with mercantile ardour,

They’ve made the river narrower by their new harbour.”

And in lamenting the building of some wall or other along the Perth Road, the object of which would appear to have been the protection of pedestrians from the stormy winds, forgetting that by the same means they were shutting out their view of the grand river and its “Christian side,” the piece came to some such conclusion as this—

“But blow me, I’d rather be blowed than blinded,

Sing hey, sing ho, you all must agree

That great are the changes in Bonnie Dundee.”

The song was sung to a tune to which I have heard the song “Kate Dalrymple” sung. I have also heard the song about a Lowland lass and a Hieland laddie sung to the same tune by a gentleman who has since built that ducal castle that overlooks Broughty Ferry and the Firth of Tay. He and I were then “boys together,” although we were not intimate acquaintances, for he and his brothers R. and A. were then at Mr Gilbert’s school and I at Mr Macintosh’s. Besides, he was a “hiller” and I was a “noo rodder,” for the “New Roads,” or “noo rods,” was the name by which what are now called King Street and Princes Street were then known. But there was not a single house then in what is now called Princes Street from Sandy Gordon’s thatched cot at the foot of the Strait Brae till you came to the old gushet public-house of one story called “Athole Brose,” from these words being painted on the stones forming the arch of the door-top, and which house divided the Forfar from the Arbroath Road. Sandy Gordon’s house was, as I have said, a thatched cot that formed the east foot of the Strait Brae, and a coal yard formed the west foot. But thereby the Brae had a short leg and a long. For Sandy’s house projected into what now forms the beginning, or west end, of Princes Street, so that the back, instead of the front, of Sandy’s house formed the line of street. Sandy was a veritable publican, for although he may not have been “licensed to retail spirits, porter, and ale,” and I am not so sure as to be able to say he was not, yet he sat at the receipt of custom on a buffet stool in front of his house from morning to night, especially on Tuesdays and Fridays. For the Magistrates then, not having yet been put up to the principles of free trade, made the country people pay for leave to sell their butter and eggs to the people in the town; and Sandy was the farmer, on that road, of these customs, I think, till they came to be abolished. Perhaps it was so much exposure to the weather that gave the colour to Sandy’s face, which was a deep mixture of red and blue, with little or no white to relive it. Sandy wore a clean white apron, though over a figure decidedly emborpoint, so that, if not so in every sense of the word, he would have made a goo specimen of the ideal Boniface.

Forming a continuation to the entrance of what is now Princes Street was the office of Mr Carmichael’s mill, built of square finished stones of a size out of proportion to the building, the front of which was in a line with the back of, and formed rather a striking contrast to Sandy Gordon’s thatched cottage. The office formed one side of the gate of the mill, from the other side of which ran a low dyke to the gable end of the mill, little more than the triangular top of which projected above the pathway, for the mill was built from the bottom of the den, and faced the grassy braes and trees of the opposite side of it, at the foot of which flows the Dens Burn, through the arch, over which, and high above it, passed the new road, or Princes Street. In the Strait Brae, from Sandy Gordon’s house, ran Mr Carmichael’s heckle-house up to the gate which formed the common entrance to the den. Immediately within this gateway, on the left, stood not Robin but William Tamson’s smiddy. William had a dochter too—let us hope shw was bonny enough to have got “wooed and married an’ a.” Here the road dvided. On the left it went up by a terraced incline, round the retaining wall of a little table land on which stood a small factory owned by Mr Hutton, the proprietor of the west side of the den. Farther up this incline you came to the foot of a mountain stair. If there had been anything of the romantic in my disposition I would have said that the first sight I got of that stair was the origin of it. The steps were set in the ground, ascending in a straight line up to the top of the west side of the den. As a boy the height or length of it appeared to me something grand, for they were wide, well formed steps, and going up through the trees of that side of the den gave it an aspect of romance. It led up to a villa, part of which was occupied by Mr Hutton and the other by Mr Carmichael, the grounds about which formed a sort of table land high above the Straight Brae; the back gate led into what is now called Victoria Road. The other part of the road led straight from the gate at the smiddy by a low dyke, over which you saw Mr Carmichael’s mill yard and a story of the mill, for it had its high side in the den. In my mind’s eye I see the old gentleman crossing the yard to the mill in his dust-covered coat and hat, as plainly as I did in reality more than half a century ago. He was the father of the gentleman who, I believe, is now the senior partner of Baxter Brothers & Co. From the antiquity of its appearance then, I should say that, if not the first, it must have been among the first spinning mills in Dundee. I am convinced it was the first in the east end, at anyrate. Passing then through between the north end of it and a little drying-loft, with store below, belonging to Mr Hutton’s little factory, the grandeur of the old den burst upon your view. The steep sides of it being covered with trees from top to bottom gave it an aspect of gloomy grandeur. Most of the west side of it was so steep as to be inaccessible even to us boys. Oh! the vandalism of that beautiful den! Not a vestige of it is to be seen now from the Rashy Well at the top down to Blackscroft.

The den had not a common entrance from the road now called Princes Street. Farmer Cobb would appear to have been the proprietor, or, perhaps, the lease-holder under the Laird o’ Craigie, of the east side of the den, and the lea, or ley, as it was called, running to the east from the top of it, which was crowned with a hawthorn hedge.

At anyrate, when coming into town, which he always then did on the back of a handsome horse (and a good picture of a man on horseback he made) he sometimes made a detour into the ley by the gateway, which was level with the road near “Athole Brose,” to chase us boys, who were frequently disporting ourselves on it, when we scampered in two directions, in neither of which he could follow us, for familiarity with the den made us good mountaineers; we could climb and descend, or run along its steep sides like goats. And if we ran down the steep edge of the ley and leaped the retaining dyke to the road, we could there extend our hands from the point of our nose, and tell him to take the measure; for, to bring his horse to the same level with us there, he had just to gallop away back to “Athole Brose,” and come in by the road. Well, the entrance to the den from the road now called Princes Street was by a doorway of the ordinary dimensions of a house-door, immediately within which was the usual strong wooden butt for keeping out quadrupeds of the larger species. But this door was latterly shut up, I suppose by Farmer Cobb, in order to protect his ley ground, and the lieges had just to climb the retaining wall near it. As the lads had to help up their lasses for a stroll through the den, they made holes in the dyke to facilitate matters. From the top of the retaining dyke, at this ascent and in the entrance of the den, ran up the knowe, on which sat lads and lases and mothers and bairns and husbands and wives; for here they had a fine view of all the river and the hills of Fife, out to the Bell Rock Lighthouse. At the foot of the knowe, and not much above the level of the entrance doorway, stood two very tall and handsome trees, as if they had been set down there to guard all the trees of the den, and in the vandal inroads made upon which, no doubt, they would be the first to fall.

Mounting to and along the east side of the top of [the] den ran a narrow footpath, necessitating single file pedestrianism. From this path ran many other paths down the sides of the den, meeting one another zig-zag. After passing the line of the Bucklemaker Wynd the den gradually became less deep up to where it was divided by Stobswell Road. The division above that was called Froster’s Meadow, and was used as a common bleaching green, and the Rushy Well formed the north end of the den. The south end of the den was divided from the rest by the “Dens Brig,” over which the new road, now Princes Street, takes its way. The foot of the den, to the south of this bridge, was called “The Plantin’,” for what reason I could never learn; for the only trees there were two very tall trees which stood at the entrance on a level with the road, and were called the Wallace Trees. The entrance to the “Plantin’” was by a gateway for carts, and level wth the road. To the right you had the green braes of the “Plantin’,” less steep, and less deep than the upper den braes the opposite was inaccessible to visitors, for it was divided from the Dens Burn by a rather high retaining wall, from the top of which the ground sloped up to St Roque’s Lane, at the top of which stood a house with ts end to St Roque’s Lane, its back, or rather roof, to the road, and right opposite to Sandy Gordon’s house. The access to this house was by a stair running down from St Roque’s Lane to the ground or braes in front of it, but the back windows were deep down from the road, the top of the retaining wall of which was crowned with a respectable iron railing, at which the weavers and others used to assemble and hear the newspapers read by on of their number best qualified to do so. After this Baxter Brothers came to build their first spinning mill, which stood with its end to the “Plantin’.” After that they built their second mill, and so demolished the west side of the “Plantin’.” After this they took up the whole of the east side of the “Plantin’.” Subsequently they swallowed up Carmichael’s Mill and the whole of the den, trees, and all up to Victoria Road and Bridge, and I think beyond it, all of which space is now occupied by their works, which may be splendid enough in their own matter-of-fact way but there was poetry n the den. You need not begin to tell be about the gift of Baxter Park, as if was complaining o[?] all. I am only pointing out what is the inevitable consequence of progress. Having done the “Dens” then, in case my old fellow-townsmen may appreciate the fore going recollections, and of my finding leisure, I will just subscribe this

[McR. Anon.]

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