Political Poetry and Dundee City Council – Erin Catriona Farley

During the 19th century, Dundee’s newspapers (like those of other Scottish cities) were studded with poems on national political matters, particularly around elections, and the acts which extended the franchise. However, the city also had a strong tradition of songs and poems focusing on local politics and specifically the affairs (and wrongdoings) of Dundee City Council.

“The Charge on the Common Good”, by the pseudonymous “A. Tammyson,” takes on an issue very familiar to satirists today: politicians’ expenses. The Provost’s allowance from council funds was doubled to £200 in 1868. The opening verses are:

 

Double it, double it,

Seize on the plunder;

Out of the Common Good

Vote the Twa Hunder.

“Forward, ye drouthy boys;

Fear not thy rant and noise;

Heed not the public gabble:

Let us be hospitable:

Vote the Twa Hunder.”

 

“Amen!” all the Council cried,

With jaws extended wide;

Visions of toddy-bowls,

Melting their flinty souls,

Make them knock under.

“Vote!” cried the Civic Chief;

Speeches are few and brief:

Theirs not to make a din,

Theirs but to vote the “tin”

Into the Provost’s “fin”

Goes the Twa Hunder.

 

Roast beef to right of them,

Veal pie to left of them,

Champagne in front of them,

Waiters in rear of them,

Gaping with wonder

To see how the custard,

The beef, bread and mustard,

The “brandies” and “toddies”

Slip into their bodies –

Good Lord, how they’re sweating;

There’s labour in eating

And drinking Twa Hunder!

 

A note accompanying the poem advises: “The above is respectfully dedicated by the author as a contribution to the next public readings in the Kinnaird Hall for the benefit of the Royal Infirmary – the Provost in the chair.” When the public were being asked to donate towards the upkeep of the hospital by the Provost himself, doubling his hospitality budget was never going to be a popular move. Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” being a very well-known poem, was a good option for parody, and here the heroism described in the original poem is contrasted with the Council’s very un-heroic deeds. The double meaning of ‘charge’ was also no doubt at the front of the poet’s mind.

The council are frequently portrayed as drunken, feckless and in the lap of luxury, a contrast to the people whose affairs they manage. “Ye Song of Ye Committee,” was published in the magazine The Piper O Dundee to commemorate the opening of the Burns statue in Albert Square in September 1880. The verse is in favour of both statue and celebration, but slips in a small dig:

 

The Provost and the Bailies a’

Will join us in oor glee, man;

For, what wi drinking halfs and hales,

They’re aye fit for a spree, man.

 

One of the challenges posed by poetry with a very local focus is contextualising it fully – nicknames which were obvious to contemporary readers can be very difficult to match to real individuals, and dates are often unclear for broadsides or pamphlets. The following song is one of several which were printed in an undated pamphlet, all set to well-known Scots tunes and all on council politics. For obvious reasons, this is probably the most frequently used tune for songs on Dundonian matters in the 19th century.

 

Bonny Dundee

Wha ettled to ding down our Guild Corporation?

Silly blind body! Why dinna ye see?

A ketteran bit callan, wha starved in the Hielands

Cam doon on a foray to Bonny Dundee.

Saw ye his bonnet, his hair stickin’ through it;

His wee tattered kiltie scarce coverin’ his knee:

Wha wad hae dreamed it, far less wad ha’e said it,

That he’d become ruler o’ bonny Dundee?

 

He first trock’d in brandy, syne gin and tobacco,

Sour trash o sma’ claret, and Gottenburg tea:

He ousted the Maxwells, the Thoms and Pitcairns,

And sae got the whip-hand o Bonnie Dundee.

He open’d up Crichton Street, Tay Street, and Castle Street,

Syne gat the stanes fae the famed Howkerie;

Sell’d himsel’ stances, grew rich, and his creatures

Set up o’er the natives o Bonnie Dundee.

 

The Harbour was chok’d up, neglected and ruin’d;

The Hospital fell as arose the pear-tree;

The streets were all miry, unguarded, not lighted,

And a’thing look’d dowie in Bonnie Dundee.

But joy is returnin’; the Harbour’s repairin’;

The Guildry hae roused them, and sae far are free;

The Trades are determined; the Burgesses steady, –

Success to their efforts for Bonnie Dundee!

(Dundee Central Library: A.C. Lamb Collection 433/11)

 

Judging by the events referred to in this booklet, it was written after the Dundee City Council reforms which took place in 1830 (though possibly before the first Reform Act in 1832, as this is not referenced.) The “ketteran bit callan” is Provost Alexander Riddoch, born in Comrie (hence linking him to caterans or ‘ketterans,’ cattle thieves or raiders who were active in Highland Perthshire.) He was Provost between the years of 1776-1819, alternating terms with his supporters. Riddoch’s refusal to implement many proposed mprovements, particularly in the harbour, made him extremely unpopular among Dundee’s Trades guildry and merchants, while radical groups in the town despaired of the council’s practice of self-election. In the early years of the 19th century, the Dundee Political Union was formed – a coalition of leading merchants and political reformers including Robert Rintoul, a newspaper editor who would later be arrested for his part in reform demonstrations in 1819. The pressure this group put on the council led to the establishment of an independent Harbour Commission in 1815, and ultimately to a restructuring of the council election process in 1830 – changes which would shortly be extended with the 1832 Reform Act. The DPU’s perhaps unlikely collaboration of political and business interests effected real change in Dundee, and (at a time when waterfront developments are again at the top of the local agenda in Dundee) illustrates how important it is to consider how local action and allegiances work alongside the wider national, party-political picture.

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