Monday, September 17

Jute, Jam and Journeying

Been off in the glorious Perthshire countryside for a week with Hugh. We stayed in the little village of Kirkmichael which allowed us to explore in lots of different directions. Most days we clocked up a good few miles walking, split into two or maybe three outings. The village is situated on The Cateran Trail - a 64 mile circular walking route 'in the footsteps of the marauding clans and cattle thieves of the Highlands' and all the footpath signs have dinky little red hearts on them - not quite the image you associate with marauding cattle thieves but easy to spot!

On Wednesday we drove to Dundee where we played tourist. Dundee is of course known for jute, jam and jounalism. Jam because the countryside surrounding Dundee is gently sloping quality growing ground for soft fruit. There are acres of poly tunnels and fleece-protected strawberries and raspberries everywhere you look. Journalism - Dundee is home to D C Thomson, publishers since 1905, with over 200 million newspapers and magazines each year. Jute is your lesson for today.

First we explored Her Majesty's Frigate Unicorn, built in the Royal Naval Dockyard at Chatham in 1824. Although she did not put to sea in wartime, she was in constant service in the Royal Navy till 1968. It was fascinating exploring below deck, and deeper and deeper below water level to where a poor ship's carpenter would have had to run round a tiny gantry over the open hold, plugging holes in the hull whenever cannonballs found their target. And what about the fact that traditionally the deck where the officers had their qaurters was painted red so that the blood did not show up so much as the wounded were laid out?

Then we visited Verdant Works .

Verdant Works was built in 1833 for a merchant and flax spinner. By 1864 it had 70 power looms and 500 people were employed there. In 1991 the Dundee Heritage Trust purchased the derelict site and set about restoring the jute mill as a working museum. Jute is obtained from two varieties of plant native to Bangladesh (Bengal as was). In 1820 the first twenty bales of jute were unloaded at Dundee docks. The city was already an important weaving and whaling centre. So the local workforce could weave and they had access to whale oil which was needed to soften the raw jute fibre and make it workable. The enterprising merchant community was quick to see the possibilities. During the 19th and early 20th centuries jute was indispensable - its uses included sacking, ropes, boot linings, aprons, carpets, tents, roofing felts, sand bags, sailcloth, scrims, tapestries, horse covers, cattle bedding, electric cables and even parachutes. It was cheap, durable and very versatile. Between 1841 and 1901 the population of the city tripled. By then 50,000 people were employed in the mills and Dundee was the jute capital of the world. Most of the workers were women and children (cheaper to employ), working conditions were appalling and accidents common. The workers lived in overcrowded squalor and the mill owners got richer and richer (sound familiar?) However, the Jute Barons did spend some of their riches on parks and libraries, swimming pools and theatres and dance halls, so that the workers' brief leisure time was varied and enjoyable.
The death knell of the industry was the growing competition from India itself. The Indian jute industry was established by Dundee's own engineers and mill managers who were lured out by higher wages and a better standard of living. Dundee held its own through two world wars but the advent of polypropylene finally killed off the Scottish jute business.
OK, history lesson over (cribbed from the guide book, I admit). Hugh and I paid our money and took the tour - first into the accounts department and the manager's office, then a little history section and straight into see the process for ourselves. Batching and softening, carding, drawing, roving, spinning, spool winding, beaming, weaving and finishing. Wonderful words, I love 'em, they remind me of my time at textile college (any fellow students reading this, do not snort with derision, it's unbecoming...) We had a real live guide all to ourselves who explained the process and ran each of the machines in turn, and gave me wee samples to take away and cherish. The final pics here show two from a series of lovely little models illustrating the uses of jute.