The Wordsmith of the Jute Mills

Mary Brooksbank is inspiring a new generation of socialists far beyond her Dundee home, finds Siobhan Tolland.

Oh dear me,
the warld’s ill divided
Them that work the hardest,
are aye wi least provided.

This rhyme from Mary Brooksbank’s Sidlaw Breezes is the only text from a female artist on the wall of the Scottish Parliament. As the singer Sheena Wellington noted, the song it comes from helped put Dundee’s workers on the international stage, under the political banner of the labour movement. It could serve as an anthem for modern times.

Mary Brooksbank, from the cover of In One Woman’s Life by Siobhan Tolland and Erin Farley.

Mary Brooksbank was a Dundee singer, songwriter, musician, poet, political activist, propagandist, and writer. Born in Aberdeen in 1897, she moved to Dundee at the age of eleven. With a trade unionist father and a musical family, Mary spent much of her live working, singing, and fighting the political system. Her working life began in the jute mills in 1912, as trade unionism began to take hold in political culture. She became active in the anti-war movement and joined the National Unemployed Workers movement in the 1920s, then joined the Communist Party in 1922 and remained there for a decade until her expulsion in 1932. She never joined another political party after this, but was active in community politics until her later years. She proudly spoke of her work in the Scottish Pensioners’ Forum, and there are stories that she went to help rebuild Hanoi in her 1970s. The woman never stopped fighting.

Brooksbank was a regular on the Scottish folk scene.

Jute mills figure strongly in her songs, which earned her fame in the 1950s folk movement. Original material was rare, and Mary’s songs were an outstanding contribution to the repertoire. As folk music infused Scottish cultural discourse in the 1960s, Mary became a regular on the scene. She published a volume of poetry in 1952, Sidlaw Breezes, and then published her autobiography in 1971, No Sae Lang Syne: a tale of this City, edited by the secretary of the local tenants’ association. Mary died in 1978, a year before Margaret Thatcher came to power.

For a woman who is so often mentioned, quoted, and sung, Mary Brooksbank is very rarely studied. Like many women she gets only cursory historical glances. In One Woman’s life: Celebrating Mary Brooksbank by myself and Erin Farley, released eighteenth months ago, is the first published book about her. But Mary has lived in songs of the folk scene and in memories of Dundee political activists. Her legacy is strong, and those who know her work often make a deep connection.

The power of that legacy lies, I think, in her remarkable ability to blend the personal, creative, and political as seamless interweaving of the same struggles. Her autobiography, structured like a series of political pamphlets, is testament to that. Mary’s political action centred on narrating people’s lives, and her stories of people hang on a political infrastructure. Mary used her voice to humanise the working class. Her work in the National Unemployed Workers movement was based on presenting family cases to the Public Accounts Committee and arguing against cuts. She wrote and sang about lives, loves and tragedies. In those narratives, the injustice of society was laid bare.

Sidlaw Breezes, first published in 1962

One of my favourite of Mary’s poem is ‘A War Wedding’. Her neighbour’s son was getting married. He applies for leave but doesn’t receive word. He returns home to marry anyway, but is dragged out by the Redcoats on the day of his wedding. He is killed in action only six weeks later. Mary captures moments of deep, unimaginable grief in Mrs Hennessy’s face, ‘hard-working, harassed by poverty all her days’.

I remember her sad blue eyes, her careworn and heavily lined face as she bent over the wash-tub, the tears streaming down her face as she leant for a minute over the wash-board, as she said to me, “Oh Mary, my puir laddie, I’ll never see him again”. And I, just a young lassie, could say no word of comfort to her, could only weep with her.

The detail in Mrs Hennessy’s face shows a deep connection and tenderness in Mary’s recollection. Here is the love, horror, and grief of a Dundee woman through the war: a deep evocation of humanity against this moment, in a heart-wrenching, tenderly beautiful way, that brings me to tears every single time I read it. And those are the moments that mark Mary’s life, her creativity, and her political action.

It was the death of Mary’s music teacher Miss Slidder and her newborn baby on the SS Persia during the First World War that first taught Mary her hatred of war and the horrors of capitalism. Those horrors shaped her first public singing performance. She woke in the night screaming from the trauma of losing Miss Slidder and her baby, and was so distraught before the concert that the teachers chose a fast gavotte for her to perform, instead of a lullaby. Her song earned her a great cheer, she recalls, and the moment contributed to her deep hatred of war and its causes.

There is a renewed interest in Mary Brooksbank among writers, singers, academics and young activists, with artists like Ruth Ewan working her texts into new forms, and connections forming across generations that Mary herself would have relished. Her conclusion of Nae Sae Lang Syne reaches out to the young who were awakening and in the throes of revolution. Her life was an offering of struggle, victory, and struggle, which now resonates for a new generation of Mary Brooksbank fans.

This owes something to time and timing, perhaps. I picture Mary’s life starting when the labour movement was gaining strength. Now the labour movement sits in historical uncertainty, evolving against, and with, Scottish constitutional politics. How it emerges, no one knows! But something in the nature of our politics just now suggests that a different political culture is emerging. A re-assessment of political discourse and culture has emerged in Scotland over the last couple of decades, leading people to rethink our political values and what their articulation might look like. The shift from party politics to issue-based politics is a case in point.

Mary embraced the emerging labour movement, and the struggle for revolution through the Communist Party of Great Britain. Her loyalty to the party was strong, but Mary’s politics, and her creativity, were uneasy with that industrialisation that sparked the labour movement’s rise. Mary’s early experiences of political action was through her father’s trade unionism, and the spontaneous jingo rings and cake walks of the women jute strikers in the Edwardian period. These experiences gave Mary a flexible and wide-ranging repertoire of what political action can be. When depression hit in the 1930s, the Dundee Working Women’s Guild looked to domestic resistance, and the group’s action was born from family and community customs, rather than industrial trade union culture. The distinction made little difference to Mary: political culture is shifting and changing according to circumstances. This shifting, flexible thinking about political struggle resonates with this generation’s political activists.

Another reason she still resonates is because of the post-pandemic vulnerabilities of our society. We live in a period of crises. A series of economic collapses encases a Brexit shift to the right at home and across the globe. The last few years produced an extreme-right kamikaze budget as we crawled from economic earthquakes and from Covid. What feels like a series of crises is in fact one long crisis, as society struggles to grapple with events and articulate a new society that everyone seems to be talking about. The current horrors in Gaza push this crises even further as the very notion of human rights and justice crack under the strain of a terrifying genocide of the Palestinian people. It feels like our society, domestically and globally, is spiralling out of control.

Mary also lived through crises or one long crisis. Eric Hobsbawm called the period from the First World War to 1945 one long war (not two wars with space in between), with the 1930s being a domestic war against our own people. Mary felt acute grief across this period of deep losses from war and poverty. Like now, the political landscape shifted at a phenomenal rate, and no sooner had it felt like peace had arrived than another jolt to society occurred. The ever-increasing shift to the right and feelings of impending global war marked her early years as it also marks our own lives. The horrors are not the same, of course, but culturally it seems that we are experiencing similar crises and rightwards-shifting ground. Mary’s experiences and reflections resonate with us trying to navigate difficult and unpredictable battles.

I cannot end this writing without talking about gender. For it was as a woman that she lived, worked, fought and hoped. Mary says at the start of her autobiography that she lived with her people, loved them, fought with them. ‘I am them!’, she exclaims. Mary’s decision to publish her work allows us an insight into Dundee women’s life in the early twentieth century that we might never otherwise have viewed. She shone a light on working class women’s lives that were all too often hidden and sidelined. The customs, culture, resistance, and resilience of Dundee women were integral to Mary’s work. And for us political women, Mary’s own experience provides a timely reminder that our space is all too often denigrated and compromised against the ‘proper’ work of male political activism. The women reading this know what I am talking about.

Siobhan Tolland is a writer, political and community activist, and is currently an SNP councillor in Dundee.