Nearly everywhere seems to have a story about a White Lady, so let’s have a wee look at some of our own local legends concerning mysterious ladies in white…

The White Lady of the Coffin Mill

Now, we all know the media likes a headline, but by and far, this is one of the best. “Ghost walks bridge – Dundee throng visits scene – ‘The White Lady’ of Coffin Mill.” This was the Courier & Advertiser’s announcement on 5th September 1945. The Coffin Mill was named not because of the type of work it undertook, but because of its peculiar shape – very similar to the outline of a coffin.

Believed by some to be the ghost of a young girl who met an untimely death with a mixture of a carding machine accident and a subsequent plummet from the connecting metal bridge, the spectacle drew the attention of the locals, who visited the site in droves hoping to catch a glimpse of the phantom. Another theory is that she is the ghost of a woman who told her employer she was pregnant, and was flung to her death from the bridge, but neither tale can be substantiated. The crowd became so large and bothersome that Police eventually had to break up the spectacle, amidst scenes of high alarm and aggravation.

Whatever the legend, our “White Lady” fair gets about; which brings us to the next haunting…

 

The White Lady of Balgay

As stories go, the White Lady of Balgay is a fairly spooky one. Widely popular, but rarely ever sighted, the White Lady allegedly haunts the area around the bridge at Balgay Park which connects the hill to the centuries-old cemetery, once known as the Western Necropolis. A common area for theft, assaults and suicides, the area quickly gained a reputation as a scary, unsafe place to be after dark. Although men as well as women died on or around the bridge area – George Bruce jumped to his death in 1837 & both James Newlands and William Parker shot themselves in separate incidents almost a decade apart – the legend focusses solely on a “White Lady”.

In his book “Haunted Dundee”, Geoff Holder deliberates the possibility that the White Lady could be the spirit of either Janet Fenton or Christina Fraser, who both committed suicide by jumping or dropping from the bridge. Janet died in 1882 aged 59, and Christina died in 1911, aged 53. Geoff notes that whilst Janet is believed to have died instantly, Christina survived for 4 days, before finally succumbing to her injuries. The ghost of the White Lady is said to be heard screaming as she plummets from the bridge, which lays some credence to the origins of the legend – but some of the other stuff, such as turning people into pools of blood is just a wee bit harder to swallow.

The White Lady of Claypotts Castle

On 29th May each year, the ghost of the White Lady of Claypotts Castle is alleged to appear at one of the upper windows of the castle. She is described as waving a white handkerchief towards St Andrews – the direction of her lover, whilst weeping uncontrollably. There isn’t a lot of information to go on, but there are certainly more inconsistencies and inaccuracies surrounding the legend than there is fact. It is noted that the ghost may be that of Marion Ogilvy, but there are no records stating that Marion Ogilvy ever visited or stayed at Claypotts Castle. Despite the fact that the landscape has changed considerably over the centuries, it would have been just as impossible then as it is now for Marion’s “lover” (who, incidentally, was Cardinal Beaton – the man who executed John Wishart as a heretic) to have ever seen her signal from St Andrews! Even the date her ghost is supposed to appear is uncertain, with various dates throughout the year given as the date of sighting. With all of this in mind, could it be possible that the White Lady of Claypotts doesn’t actually exist…or do we have the identity of the mystery woman all wrong? Does a ghost really haunt the upper levels of Claypotts Castle? Maybe we’ll never know…

 

Weaving was big business in Dundee as far back as the 16th century. After the Union with England in 1707 ended military hostilities, Dundee recovered from the devastation of the Siege of Dundee by General Monck in 1651 and established itself as an industrial and trading centre.

The whaling industry which left such a huge impact in Dundee began in 1753 and ignited a parallel ship building industry. In 1820 when the first delivery of jute arrived in the city, Dundee’s industries were well placed to capitalise on this new industry. The historical weaving industry, the ship building industry built the big, fast ships to bring the jute back from India and the whaling industry provided the whale oil needed for softening the jute fibres. Today it is easy to forget just how much of life in Dundee revolved around jute. We were the jute capital of the world often referred to as ‘juteopolis’, processing over 1 million bales of jute by 1900. The population of Dundee more than tripled in 60 years from 1841 to 1901 and was in fact higher than today. Over 50,000 of Dundee’s inhabitants were working in over 100 jute mills, with more working in mills for linen.

This booming business in Victorian made many rich jute barons as they were known. But these were the few profiteers of the industry, and the conditions were dire for the vast majority of workers. As many as three-quarters of the workers were women and children, who could be employed for cheaper rates than men. The wages were low, and the risks were high. Health and safety was not what it is today, and injuries, accidents and occupational hazards were commonplace. It’s difficult to imagine the working conditions, dust would be everywhere getting in the eyes, noses and mouth. Constant noise from the machines was deafening, and in fact many workers went deaf after spending too much time inside the mill. The machinery also produced lots of heat, grease and oil fumes which led to a condition which was known as ‘Mill fever’. Bronchitis and other breathing problems were also common.

Ever present in the mills was the risk of accident and injury, and the local newspapers have many accounts. Verdant works website notes an accident in Verdant Works Mill on 26th March 1852: ‘On Tuesday afternoon a girl employed in Verdant Mill got entangled about a carding machine and sustained such injuries before she could be released as to occasion instantaneous death’.

Some years previous, in 1839, Sir David Barry submitted the findings of his investigations into the conditions of the Dundee mills to Parliament. Included in this report were lists of workers who had been in accidents at work, or whom were suffering physically.

10-year old boys, Robert Malcolm and Hugh Cook were reported as missing one arm, as well as 11-year old Jane Lappen – most likely a direct result of life in the mills. Many more children and adults were reported as having missing limbs or horrific disfigurements, having fallen foul of the fast-moving machinery.  Many more were reported to be partially amputated somewhere their body, more often than not the foot, arm or hand.  Joan and Thomas Murtree, 16 and 15 respectively, both showed differing syptoms; the latter more serious than the former, causing Sir David Barry to write “likely to die”.

A tragic accident reported in 1853 reads:
‘Accidental Death: We regret to record the death of James Clark, a worker at Verdant Mill, which took place on Wednesday evening in consequence of an accident which happened to him while attending his employment on the previous day. It appears he was caught by a belt of the machinery which carried him rapidly to the roof of the building where he was three times revolved round one of the shafts before he could be extricated. He was conveyed to the Infirmary as soon as possible, but the poor fellow was so much bruised that death was the result’.

As well as the terrible conditions in the mills, the huge increase in population from 1840 to more than triple within 60 years was not met by an increase in house building. Overcrowding became a huge problem with entire families living in a single room. These conditions remained with 70% of people living in just one or two rooms in 1911. Certain areas such as Blackness and Lochee were especially overcrowded due to the common practice of people living close to their workplaces. When you’re working 12 hours a day slaving away in a mill, the last thing you want to do is live a long walk away.

Overcrowding inevitably led to poor sanitary conditions. Diseases including cholera, typhus and smallpox thrived in the city, and together with accidents and other infections and fevers contributed to Dundee having one of the highest death rates in Scotland, and the highest infant mortality rate.

The whole city suffered poor health, which showed when 50% of the men who volunteered at the local army recruiting office in 1911 were rejected as unfit for service because of their health.

Wages in Dundee were one of the lowest in Scotland during this time, whereas the cost of living was the highest. Low wages meant little money for food, medicine or other items necessary for a good quality of life.

Work in the mills of 19th century Dundee offered little except the promise of more bleakness.

Images courtesy of Local Photos (Dundee)