Sangstories
Stories of Scottish Songs

Tales of Scottish traditional
and newer songs 
sung by Sangschule 
of Linlithgow

The Spinner's Waddin

by Mary Brooksbank (1897-1980)

The gaffer’s looking worried
The flett’s a’ in a steer,
Jessie Brodie’s getting merried
And the morn she’ll no be here

Hurrah, hurro, a daddie-o
Hurrah, hurro, a daddie-o
Hurrah, hurro, a daddie-o
Jessie’s getting merried –o

The helper and the piecer went
Doon the toon last nicht,
Tae buy a wee bit present
Tae mak her hame look bricht

They bocht a cheeny tea-set
A chanty fu o saut
A bonnie coloured carpet,
A kettle and a pot

The shifters they’re a’ dancing
The spinners singing tae,
The gaffer’s standing watching
But there’s nothing he can dae

Here’s best wishes tae ye, lassie
Standing at yer spinning frame,
May ye aye hae full and plenty
In yer wee bit hame

Ye’ll no make muckle siller
Nae maitter hoo ye try
But hoard ye love and loyalty,
That’s what money canna buy

Words
Chanty: Potty – salt in the potty is for good luck
Cheeny: china
Flett, flat, : working platform
Gaffer: boss, foreman
Muckle: much
Piecers: millworkers, often children, who had to join the ends of broken fibres
Saut: salt
Shifters: millworkers, often children, who moved amongst machinery to change bobbins on the frame
Siller: money
Steer: bustle, excitement

This song was brought to Sangschule by singer and former Sangschule Chair, Liz Wilson. It appears in The Scottish Folksinger, who note that it comes from Sidlaw Breezes, a collection of poems by Mary Brooksbank, a former jute mill worker.”

About this song, Mary told Dundee journalist and writer Maurice Fleming for Chapbook Vol.3, No.4:
 “This describes what went on when a girl in the mill was getting married. The gaffer couldn’t get the work properly done… They danced and they sang and had a right rollicking time. There would usually be a pey-off and they ate cookies and drank lemonade. Ultimately they dressed her up in a long lace curtain and a cabbage as a bouquet. Another girl would dress up as the bridegroom and they would walk through the streets with their friends behind them.” (A pey-off would mean clubbing together to buy the refreshments.)

Roy Palmer in The Sound of History tells a Dundee joke about the weavers’ dislike of spinners. A weaver goes to see the registrar to make arrangements for her wedding: ‘So he says to her, “Now you’re a spinster?” and she says, “No, look, I’m a weaver.” And he says, “Now, look, lassie, doon on this form, put you’re a spinster”. She says, “Dinna ca’ me a spinster, because I’m a weaver”. So he says to her, “Look, lassie, are you ignorant? She says, “Aye, fower month”.

Nigel Gatherer in Songs and Ballads of Dundee says that the Brooksbanks were a singing family, and that it was “while Mary was nursing her sick mother that she began writing poetry and songs, which she eventually published in 1966, in a collection called Sidlaw Breezes. The cost of the book was covered by Mary herself, and she lost money on it.”  It was reprinted since her death by David Winter and Son Ltd., at the instigation of Dundee writer David Phillips, but is currently out of print again.

Maurice Fleming interviewed Mary Brooksbank in 1966 for Chapbook vol. 3, no.4 when she was a tiny, stocky woman in her sixties, who sang and played the fiddle at Dundee Folk Club. He recorded and collected her songs.

He says that she was born in a single-end in Aberdeen where her father worked on the docks and helped to establish the Dockers’ Union. Next door lived “a happy gallus family, who travelled all summer and came back to roost in winter. One of the McPhail boys played the squeeze-box and they sang like linties.” From this traveller family Mary’s mother, herself a fine singer, picked up the tune to which Mary was later to put the words of “As I Cam Ower Strathmartine Mains.”

Mary said that she hadn’t a stitch when she was born : “My mither had nothing for me – nothing. But all the neighbours rallied roon and gave her this and that. They rigged me oot. And they bathed my eyes. Afterwards my mither blamed that for me bein nearly blind for so long. ….Maybe it was something these women did, even though they meant well.” She was nearly blind for her first year.

When Mary was eight, the family sailed on the “Princess Maud” for Dundee. A coal merchant carried their belongings to the boat, and her mother gave him a yellow canary for his trouble. Nigel Gatherer says her mother was originally a fisher lass but worked in the jute mills in Dundee, often leaving Mary to look after the younger children. Mary was largely self-educated. Her father was often unemployed and away for weeks looking for work.

Mary started work as a shifter at thirteen in the Baltic Jute Mill and became a spinner at fifteen. She became politically active very young and “led protest marchers through the streets of Dundee in the Twenties.”

There was much more to this self-educated former mill-worker than first appeared and Hamish Henderson was to describe her as  “a heroine of the working class movement in Dundee, and a free-spoken, free-thinking old rebel who got thrown out of the CP for denouncing Stalin in the early thirties.”

Tim Neat, Hamish’s biographer, tells how “in 1970, at the age of 73, she went out to Hanoi to tend the wounded and help rebuild a city being bombed ‘ round the clock’ by B52 bombers.” From Hanoi she sent Hamish a postcard saying that, in spite of the poverty of the people, their life had a quality which made it seem to her like paradise – “like the dreaming of all great revolutionaries.” According to Neat, Mary Brooksbank “gave her life to peace campaigning and the communist cause.”

She figures in the website: www.dundeewomenstrail.org.uk

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