Mill Women, Part 1

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.

Dundee’s Verdant Works
VW wall
Mill ‘ruins’, still part of the cityscape

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?



2 thoughts on “Mill Women, Part 1

  1. Hi there,

    I am enjoying your blogs. I want to put via you a question to Barry Mill (is Peter Ellis still your miller?) the question of its participation in European May Mill month.

    In France the Fédération des Moulins de France organise Mill Heritage Days each year, on the 3rd weekend of May. These promotional days are solely dedicated to mills and the heritage linked to mills. Across Europe, many associations also celebrate their mill days in May, which is why, since 2007, this national initiative, launched by the Fédération des Moulins de France, strives to be part of a more global “European May Mill month” project. While awaiting the outcome of a joint decision to give more consistency to this French initiative, European countries participating in May mill days can send their posters and programs to
    The Federation will put them online at http://www.journees-europeen­ with links to the organiser’s respective websites.
    Finally, to promote mill events taking place this May, please contact: Dominique Charpentier at:
    Thanking you in advance for your participation and contribution to our exchange on mills.
    To see the Poster click here
    To see the Call for Participation click here.
    (extract from TIMS Newsletter 22)

    Or there is the UK mills weekend on 13-14 May, the week before the French one – contact Sophie at Mills Info

    Specifically re the Scouringburn, as you probably know there was not enough fall, nor a reliable volume of water, for waterwheels. I think there was only one at a flax mill where West Ward Works (D.C.Thompson; Dundee Design Festival) is, next to Verdant Works, that had a steam engine to recirculate water –a 1793 atmospheric engine replaced by a Boulton and Watt rotative engine in 1808, when it became a flour mill. Another flour mill, Castle Mills, next to St Pauls Cathedral, used water from the Scouring and Tod Burns combined after it left the Meadows (=Meadowside/Albert Square) towards the sea, but no wheelpit has yet been found.

    All the textile mills at the Scouringburn and Dens Burn used that water as feedwater for steam engines, then being cooled in cooling ponds and recirculated that way. There is a piece of C19th poetic prose in the Dundee Advertiser (I think) about the hissing and steaming water of that hard-worked stream. I will try to find it.

    Best wishes,

    Mark Watson


    1. Hello Mike, thank you so much for getting in touch, and for following my efforts! Peter is retired and Ciaran Quigley is miller now. What I’ll do, if you don’t mind, is email him this information, or if you’d like to get in touch with him yourself, his email is I’ve been working as a guide at Barry for several years now, so we do always take part in Mills day, but I hadn’t heard of the European one.Thank you for the other info- I don’t know too much about the technical side of things, but am learning all the time, and always good to have such details. I’d love to hear of any poems etc that you think might add to my research. I’m hoping to turn the blog into a book in due course, a sort of mill miscellany of history and folklore. Thanks again, sandra


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