You will have heard of the old saying ‘Give a dog a bad name and hang him.’ That is something like the feeling for the city of Dundee in Scotland. At one time it was the second town of the country, a place of trade and influence filled with the great and the good; town where people worked steadily and lived quiet, respectable lives. But then it changed.
Industry; or to be more precise, the Industrial Revolution. Although Dundee had been involved in the linen industry in the eighteenth century to such an extent that the town’s mills made the sail cloth for Nelson’s ship Victory and had perhaps also supplied the US Navy, from the 1820s onward the town’s industrial base mushroomed. So did the population. Unfortunately, the housing stock did not keep pace, so the ordinary people, the men and women who did the unremitting graft, working long long hours for short, short money, were crammed together. The result was inevitable; disease, frustration and crime.
When work was plentiful, men and women were reluctant to return to the single-roomed tenement home they possibly shared with six or seven people, so resorted to street life or the local pub. Alcohol-fuelled arguments often led to violence. When work was scarce, people could not afford rents or food and had a choice of theft or starvation. Dundee’s reputation plummeted.
It was the Circuit Judge, Lord Henry Cockburn, who gave the city its most damning titles:
‘Dundee, certainly now, and for many years past, the most blackguard place in Scotland’
‘Dundee, a sink of atrocity, which no moral flushing seems capable of cleansing. A Dundee criminal, especially if a lady, may be known by the intensity of the crime, the audacious bar air, and the parting curses. What a set of she-devils were before us!‘
How true were these comments?
When I researched my book: A Sink of Atrocity: Crime in 19th Century Dundee, I read hundreds of court cases and studied the police recods for the town. Taken alone the present a disturbing picture. There were riots and rapes, murders and muggings, theft and various types of skulduggerry from the naked man who intruded on a church service to the theft of a whale; there were hangings and public whippings, drunken brawls and areas where it was not safe to enter. But that was only a small part of the story. I looked beneath the crimes and found the people.
For every crime there would be a hundred acts of kindness. There was a sense of community, a feeling of friendship among co-workers and a definite pride and vitality. There was utter tolerance and decency throughout the city of Dundee that I found heartwarming.
I had the gebnuine pleasure of living and working in that city for upwards of a decade and my memories could not be warmer. I met the most friendly people I have ever encountered and will return as often as I can. Yet in some quarters there is still a negative feeling, created not by personal knowledge, but by rumours, second or third hand speculation and downright ignorance.
There is a major lesson in that. Before we attach a bad name to any dog, perhaps it would be an idea to shake its paw, look into its eyes and get to know it? In other words, don’t listen to the prejudices of other people.
Happy visiting, people