The back streets of Dundee are presided over by remnants of old jute mills; stone and wooden structures with great doors and high windows out onto the Tay. For generations it was the women of the city who worked the mills, producing material for tailoring, agriculture, trade and construction – and giving rise to some of the most militant suffragettes, the first hunger strikers, in the whole of Europe.
Little of the industry is now left except for the Verdant Works, a mill and museum where visitors can see the jute being processed through handlooms, spinning wheels and the great clickety-clacking of green-and-red Victorian machinery. An old woman who worked as a child demonstrates, and explains: “This is the sound of one machine; at one point there were hundreds in here, all going at once. Now you know why Dundee women are always shouting.”
We set up for the evening around the corner in a former church hall, converted to a bar and music venue. Amongst those to make an appearance: Dundee singer Sheena Wellington, who famously re-opened the Scottish Parliament in 1999 with a rendition of A Man’s A Man, writer and broadcaster Lesley Riddoch, and a small television crew from BBC News.
Crime writer Sara Sheridan takes to the microphone for her journey to independence – a story of gradual conversion from No to Yes through several months’ reading and investigation. She writes primarily in the world of the 1950s – an interesting time, she says, because it’s the end of the British Empire and a time of great social upheaval. A new generation appears to fight the racial and sexual prejudices of the last.
“Now, what are we going to do?” she asks, provocatively, “What is our generation going to do to change the world? I didn’t have an answer to that until recently. Now I know what we’re going to do to change the world – we’re going to vote Yes in September.
“I started out as a No, but I wanted to make an informed decision. Let me tell you about people making decisions; people don’t make decisions the way you think they make decisions. First, you find what you want to do emotionally and then you find all sorts of reasons to back it up. That’s what I have to explore when I’m writing about characters for a new crime novel.
“At first I was worried that if we got a Yes vote we were going to be small, parochial – and I stuck with that view. But I’m a reader and a novelist – so I’m nosy, and I stared listening. Everyone was talking about it and I began to realise it was the No side which was inward looking and parochial, and it was the Yes which wanted to make a difference in the world and be part of something better.
“I was so shocked at how little I knew, how disengaged I had been until that point and how so many around me had been like that too. I started to find politics interesting – and heart-breaking at the same time. I thought there might be a good heart at the centre of British politics but the extent of the corruption really shocked me. It took me a few months to process all this new information but by the end I thought – right, I’m not having this.
“If we get a Yes it’s not the day after I’m looking forward to – it’s a few years from now when someone can get up on stage like me and say ‘Now, what are we going to do next?’”
In this hall in the city of suffragettes a space is cleared, tables and chairs drawn aside for feminist dance theatre. Ruth Mills appears from nowhere, militant, disguised in pink balaclava, clenched fist raised overhead. The music begins; fast, and electronic, interspersed with the voice recording of a young American woman decrying feminism, decrying her own power – and the expressive dancing we see before us is one of reaction against it. The audience are quiet, and stunned.
Later, the mood changes with a poem, ‘Tae a Cooncillor’ by Harry Giles, describing city councillors and evoking Burns’s words from ‘Tae a Moose’: “Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beasties.” In the city of destruction, rubble and roadworks, the poem proves more popular than ever. Howls of laughter to the church roof.
“My Yes vote is an uncomfortable one,” Harry explains, “I have no particular interest in a coherent Scottish nation. What I’m interested in preserving the welfare state, a welfare system that doesn’t throw people from their homes, that doesn’t abuse disabled people – I think a Yes vote is part of the journey to achieving that.”
– Andrew Redmond Barr