Poetry & Song in Victorian Dundee

DUNCAN HOTCHKISS

The May Day bank holiday was the date for the second meeting of the Scottish Studies Research Group at Stirling, and fittingly we had the pleasure of listening to Erin Farley talk about her research on popular and working-class poetry and song in Victorian Dundee. The city is known for its pride in its political traditions, from radical and liberal nineteenth-century identities through to labour and working-class strains into the early twentieth-century – historical legacies which continue to inform popular political discourse in Dundee (and beyond). In a week which saw the Dandy photo-shopping its way into the Scottish political limelight, and Dundee United FC relegated by their city rivals Dundee FC, Pathfoot A7 took on a strong Dundonian flavour for the evening (alas, without any ‘pehs’).

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Erin opened by giving us some background to her research, undertaken in collaboration with Dundee Central Library and the University of Stirling. Her project is focused on a wide range of material – poetry, ballads, maps and photographs, newspaper stories, tales and songs – in the Lamb Collection in Dundee’s local history department. Over 450 boxes make up the collection which was left to the city by Alexander Crawford Lamb (1843-97), who was, in another nod to Dundee’s well-known political identities, the son of a Temperance hotelier. The poetry-enthusiast Lamb was later to become proprietor of his own hotel on Reform Street, which became a centre of writing and reading culture in the city.

Another important figure in the poetic and song cultures of Dundee was George Gilfillan (1813-1878), who championed working-class poetry in the city. Erin’s talk explored how the political content of these poems was conditioned by specific publishing environments, as Gilfillan would be reluctant to print anything that was deemed too radical or politically dangerous. In this model of poetic patronage, ‘untaught’ and ‘natural’ working-class poetic ability was encouraged so long as it pertained to Victorian narratives of moral improvement and respectability.

A major theme in Erin’s work is the significance of place in poetry and song, both in terms of content and as sites of performance and dissemination. Shops which printed and sold cheap broadsides were central to Dundee’s vibrant culture of poetry and song, and operated as focal points for the urban community and also for the rural communities of the surrounding countryside. At the changing of seasonal work patterns and during fair days, rural workers (usually young males) would come into the city and visit the broadside shops to pick up cheap songs and speeches to arm themselves with material for a busy day of (markedly in-Temperate) socialising. These local traditions found their way into the content of poems and songs, which Erin brought to life by playing an archive recording of a Dundee street song about a rural worker’s encounter with the city’s liquor trade, and a disastrous attempt at courting which found the young man awaken (alone) at the foot of a tenement close. The young man returned on foot to the countryside chagrined and vowing never to return to the city again, a nineteenth-century ‘walk of shame’ which, interestingly, placed the shame upon the spurned young man rather than upon the woman in the song.

Place was also significant in the political lives of poems and songs, a good example of this being the city’s Magdalen Green – the focal point for political protest in Victorian Dundee. The square’s topography lent itself to speeches and rallies, such as those held by Dundee weavers in the aftermath of the Peterloo massacre of 1819, to raise money for the families of those killed by the military in Manchester.

George Kinloch statue Dundee[4]

Statue of George Kinloch, Dundee

A local laird named George Kinloch made a speech at Dundee’s Peterloo rally which the authorities deemed rather too inflammatory, who then intended to exile Kinloch to Australia. Kinloch to France, returning to the city in 1832 to become Dundee’s first MP after the Reform Act, only to die shortly after. Kinloch’s place in Dundee’s popular political folklore was thus secured, and the poems and songs in the Lamb Collection attest to Kinloch and Magdalen Green’s symbolic centrality to the ongoing reform movements in the city.

Erin illuminated her presentation with numerous lively examples of Dundee’s Victorian poetry and song. The legacy of Burns was a strong theme to emerge, his songs being regularly re-worked to fit local issues. Erin finished with an engaging reading of one of Dundee’s most well known poets, James Young Geddes, who cast a doubtful eye upon the city’s pride in its radical traditions:

       Here are the people that sing “A man’s a man for a’ that”;

       Here are the people that shout “The rank is but the guinea’s stamp” —

       See how they are crane-ing their necks for honours. 

       See how avaricious they are for gew-gaws, how their souls are athirst for trumpery titles.

James Young Geddes, ‘The Glory has Departed’

A lively discussion followed Erin’s presentation, where we talked about the use of Scots and the Dundee dialect, and explored different aspects of gendered civic identities in the Dundee case and in other Scottish towns and cities. We hope to follow up this meeting by having a Scottish Studies Research Group day-trip to the City of Discovery, to find out from Desperate Dan himself what really happened with THAT Dandy picture with Nicola Sturgeon.

Our next meeting will take place on Wednesday the 18th of May, at 5pm, Room A7, where we will hear from second-year PhD candidate John Ritchie from the division of Communications, Media and Culture, and his research on “Sir Harry Lauder and Will Fyffe: Being Scottish in Early Sound Cinema”. We invite all members of the Stirling research community with an interest in Scottish topics to attend what promises to be another entertaining and stimulating Scottish Studies Research Group event.

 

 

William McGonagall, ‘Poute’, and the Bad Poets of Victorian Dundee

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KIRSTIE BLAIR 

William McGonagall is the most famous ‘bad’ poet in Scottish history. But he was not a one-off. Stirling’s Chair in English Kirstie Blair restores him to his own publishing context, and asks whether he was really so exceptional.

In his essay on ‘The Great McGonagall,’ Hugh McDiarmid commented that:

McGonagall is in a very special category, and has it all to himself. There are no other writings known to me that resemble his. So far as the whole tribe of poets is concerned, from the veritable lords of language to the worst doggerel-mongers, he stands alone.

And indeed, McGonagall does stand alone today. Of all the ‘scores of utterly worthless rhymers’ that were operating in Victorian Dundee and elsewhere, he is the only poet we remember. Yet while MacDiarmid may not have known of any writings resembling McGonagall’s, a substantial body of such writings did exist, and would unquestionably have been known to McGonagall’s Dundee audiences and to the poet himself. For the enormously popular weekend newspapers of mid-late Victorian Dundee, the People’s Journal and the Weekly News, home of McGonagall’s first publications, both fostered a lively culture of bad poetry. This is a culture that has entirely disappeared from view, but it is well worth recovering, not simply because it presents McGonagall’s work in a different light, but because he was arguably neither the worst nor the best bad poet of his times; he was simply the one most prepared to relinquish anonymity and pursue a career in performance as well as in print.

Continue reading at The Bottle Imp.

Professor Kirstie Blair is Stirling’s Established Chair in English, and an authority on Victorian poetry. She is currently researching Scottish working-class poetry and the local newspaper press. She has two articles forthcoming in the field in 2014, ‘“A Very Poetical Town”: Newspaper Poetry and the Working-Class Poet in Victorian Dundee’ (in Victorian Poetry) and ‘“Let the Nightingales Alone”: Correspondence Columns, the Scottish Press, and the Making of the Working-Class Poet’ (in Victorian Periodicals Review).