It was late afternoon on Saturday 20th December 1873 when the flames were first spotted from the windows of the calendering department halfway down Sugarhouse Wynd in Dundee’s Cowgate. By the time they had been seen, the fire had already caused significant damage. The Fire Brigade were called, but despite their attendance and protracted efforts, the building suffered greatly, the gable wall collapsing under the strain.

Before you think this was a building that dealt with calendars, we should clear this up. Calendering is a process of finishing fabrics; smoothing or coating them and then subjecting them to stress by the use of pressured heated rollers (thanks, Wikipedia). For some more info on the building, check out this link. Calendering has moved on significantly over the decades, and includes plastics and various other materials too (but we digress).

Back to the fire; rumours quickly spread that one of the firemen had died in the resulting gable wall accident, but, this time, nobody died. When the wall collapsed, it was very close to a team of firefighters, but everyone was unharmed. Folk love a good rumour and a gossip so it’s easy to see why stories spread almost as quickly as the flames did. With people also piling into the streets for a good look (probably because this was the most exciting thing going on in the centre at that time), the firefighting efforts were said to have been severely hampered.

Despite this, the men fought for hours to control the blaze, under the ever-darkening December skies. A news report in the Dundee Courier and Argus a few days after the fire stated that “the flames lit up the Eastern sky with a deep crimson glow, magnificently contrasting with the surrounding darkness, and which was distinctly visible for miles around. The buildings destroyed were two storeys in height and occupied almost a square, extending in the one way from Sugarhouse Wynd to Queen Street and in the other almost from the Cowgate to the Seagate.”

The origin of the fire remained entirely unknown. When the works stopped for the day at 2pm on the Saturday afternoon, all the workers left the building, with only the 2 foremen in charge remaining. After determining that everything was in good order, the foremen left an hour after clocking-off time, at 3pm. Whilst the fire must have started sometime after they left, and before it was noticed around 4:30pm, the fire was of such an intensity that it must have burned for a good half an hour at least before it had been noticed – and continued to burn for hours afterwards.

The other buildings in the area remained relatively unscathed, thanks to the small streets dividing properties. Whilst the Dundee Calendering Company had been dealt a heavy blow (the damage to the building were estimated at around £20000, which is roughly around £1.5million in today’s money), there were no fatalities…and some of the building remained untouched. Silver lining, and all that…

Fires were prevalent in mills and factories – it was just accepted as part of the everyday hazards of industrial living. Between hot machinery, straw or hay-covered floors and the ever-present risk of flammable materials and substances (and no health and safety to speak of), it’s a small wonder any of us managed to survive. Homes weren’t free from the threat either; there are a whole host of stories about fires we may one day get round to tackling. If you’ve not read the burning of the city churches post, you can read it here  or you can read about another fiery tragedy here.

Refs:, Dundee Courier and Argus, City Library archives, Wikipedia




The site of the city churches, St Mary’s and The Steeple, which sit surrounded by the Overgate shopping centre, has been the home to a church since the very beginnings of Dundee as a town. When the Earl of Huntingdon landed here in 1190 he founded the ‘kirk in the field’ dedicated to St Mary, after his time in the crusades. More on this exiting backstory later… for now we have been looking at the incidents throughout the history of the Church when it was ravaged by fire which happened several times over the years. It is a testament of the dedication of the town to the Church that it was rebuilt, restored and extended every time.

The first destruction of the church came at the hands of Edward I when Dundee was attacked and the church was torched in 1303 during the Wars of Independence, the Scottish side led by William Wallace. All the town records had been taken there for safety before the invading army arrived, but all were either taken off by Edward’s men or destroyed in the fire.

It took until the early 15th century before work had begun to rebuild the church, but on such a large stone building work was slow. With a bit of new investment the work was completed and a final square tower completed the new building in 1480, which is the only part of the building which still stands today known to us as ‘The Old Steeple’.

This new church had a short life, as in 1547 the English army had captured Dundee and used the church for stables. Whether caused by an accident or on purpose, the church was set on fire and the nave was destroyed along with the transepts. Only the tower and the choir were saved from the raging inferno while the nave remained a charred, roofless wreck until 1789.

The roofless, fire damaged parts of the church were removed and the choir was built upon and then established as the first reformed church in Dundee, and called St Mary’s Kirk. Later in the 16th century the Town rebuilt the south transept which accommodated a second church known as the South Kirk. For a while in the late 16th century the choir area was used as a jail, and part of it was also used as a library.

In 1651, General Monck laid siege to Dundee, but although he set a fire to smoke out General Lumsden from the Steeple Tower, the church mercifully remained unharmed. The chaos surrounding the church during this siege left its mark, with remains uncovered periodically around the site, likely victims of Moncks massacre. On the south wall there is a dent in the base wall which is said to have been caused by a cannon shot fired by Moncks army when they laid siege to the tower.

The north transept was rebuilt and this third church was known as the North or Cross church, with finally a fourth church rebuilt in the nave which was St Clement’s or Steeple Kirk. From 1789 to 1841 the site was the home of four separate churches under one roof, each with their own ministers but sharing one tower and bells.

In early 1841 a fire broke out in the heating system of the East Kirk, again destroying the fine buildings, although this time by accident. The tower survived, along with the nave. The destruction of this fire was immense, with the fine gothic arches and pillars destroyed, the exterior walls shattered by the heat. The Chapter house adjoining the church was also destroyed, along with a library containing over 1800 volumes including ancient works in Greek and Latin, many dating from pre-reformation clergy.

The North or Cross Church moved to another place of worship and the fire-damaged buildings of the East and south Churches were rebuilt and opened again in 1844. Two of the three remaining churches, the Steeple Church and St Paul’s and St David’s (The south church) amalgamated and the premises of the South Church now form a community centre, dedicated to the Dundee-born missionary Mary Slessor. Thankfully the churches have remained fire free for many years now.


The song ‘Bonnie Susie Cleland’ is an interesting one. Adapted from The Child Ballads “Lady Maisry”, which tells a particularly brutal tale of a young Scots woman being burned at the stake by her family for falling in love with an English lord. Bonnie Susie Cleland is an adaptation of this tale set in Dundee, with Susie Cleland meeting a similar fate.

The name Cleland was not common in the Dundee area, and there are no records which show the song to be based on fact, but it is not without historical context. There is a local tradition that many women were killed for consorting with English soldiers who were stationed in the city in the years after the storming of the city by General Monck in 1651. Burning or hanging was also the prescribed penalty in medieval Scottish law for sexual indulgence by an unmarried woman, unless her family protected the offender or found a father for her child.

There were also witch burnings in Dundee, the last of which was Grissell Jaffray in 1669, with women accused of witchcraft to cover the real reasons behind their burnings. The Presbytery Records do not always record the name of the women who were burned. An account from the Burgh Treasurer’s Accounts of 1590 lists sums spent on the burning of a witch, which included two shillings (£0.10) to Esmie Goldman for four fathoms of rope, fifteen shillings (£0.75) for three baskets of coal, six shillings (£0.30) for two tar barrels and six shillings and eightpence (£0.33) for the hangman’s travel expenses from St Andrews. The treasurer totals the expense as five pounds, sixteen shillings and eightpence (£5.81)—but the name of the poor woman does not merit a mention!

The cruelty of the family in the ballad in burning their own daughter is unimaginable. Whether real or not, it’s hard to listen to the song and not feel awful for poor Susie Cleland.


Bonnie Susie Cleland
There lived a lady in Scotland
Hey my love and ho my joy
There lived a lady in Scotland
Wha dearly lo’d me
There lived a lady in Scotland
She’s fa’n in love wi’ an Englishman
And bonnie Susie Cleland’s tae be burnt in Dundee.
The faither tae the dochter cam’
Sayin, “Will ye forsake yer Englishman?”
And bonnie Susie Cleland’s tae be burnt in Dundee.
“If ye’ll no’ that Englishman forsake
Then I maun burn ye at the stake”
And bonnie Susie Cleland’s tae be burnt in Dundee.
“I’ll no’ that Englishman forsake
Though ye may burn me at the stake”
And bonnie Susie Cleland’s tae be burnt in Dundee.
“Oh whaur will I get a little wee boy
Tae carry tidings tae my joy
That bonnie Susie Cleland’s tae be burnt in Dundee?”
“Here am I a pretty wee boy
An’ I’ll carry tidings tae yer joy
That bonnie Susie Cleland’s tae be burnt in Dundee.”
“O gie tae him my right hand glove
Tell him tae get another love
For bonnie Susie Cleland’s tae be burnt in Dundee.”
“Gie tae him this gay gowd ring
Tell him I’m gaun tae my burnin’
And bonnie Susie Cleland’s tae be burnt in Dundee.”
Her faither he ca’d up the stake
Her brither he the fire did make
And bonnie Susie Cleland was burnt in Dundee.

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