We asked Iain Flett, City Archivist at the City Archives based under the Caird Hall, a few things about the city’s dark past because if anyone would know, it would be him! Iain has worked for the archives department for 40 years, joining after local government regionalisation in 1975 when some local authorities were introducing civic archives.
Describe for us a typical day in the life of the archives department.
From 8:15 am onwards the office and stores are opened up and records retrieved for members of the public and for volunteers who are working on projects.
From 8:30 am phone calls start from council and public. Council staff will be enquiring about council title deeds, past minutes, council house sales and non-current legal files. The Public may be booking an appointment to look at a record, asking for information about local industry, housing, or family history, and may be schoolchildren, undergraduates, post graduates, environmental consultants, business people or retired people.
Members of the public and volunteers arrive from 9:30 am. Occasionally small groups from schools or community groups may call in for a project or talk and we book a committee room for that.
The office closes for lunch between 1 and 2 pm and the public leave at 4:30 pm in time for staff to clear up, put away records and set the alarms. Archive staff may give occasional talks in the community during the working day or in the evenings.
What are the oldest records held in the archives?
The grant by King Robert the Bruce of a tollbooth in 1325. The National Archives, Kew, have the Royal copy of a trading grant given to Dundee in 1199, but the original in Dundee was probably destroyed or ransomed during the siege of Dundee Castle in the late 13th century.
What is your favoured story regarding the origins of the naming of Dundee?
From the Gaelic, Dùn Dè. Dùn is definitely hill. Some describe Dè as being “fire” but I prefer another theory which says it comes from ancient Gaelic meaning “of God”. The Latin motto on the coat of arms “Dei Donum” – Gift of God – a pun on the Latin name ‘Taodunum’ – may be a further pun on a latter Gaelic derivation.
There are many myths and fallacies surrounding the “witch” Grissell Jaffray. Care to debunk some of them?
Her execution in 1669 comes in the spate of late witch burnings between the restoration of Charles II in 1660 and his death in 1685. Grissell Jaffray was probably an Aberdonian married to James Butchart, a Dundee burgess in 1615 and therefore an influential member of society. James was born in 1594 and therefore would be 73 when his wife was executed. We can assume that she would roughly have been the same age. The Jaffrays were an influential Aberdeen family, with people like Alexander Jaffray who was Provost of Aberdeen in 1651 during the time of the Cromwellian occupation. The execution of Grissell Jaffray may have been politically motivated in the wake of destruction carried out in Dundee by the Cromwellian forces in 1651.
Public executions have been fairly popular in the past – what were the most common methods of execution in Dundee over the passing centuries, and, more importantly, where did it all happen?
Beheading by axe and by hanging. Beheading by axe would be a higher status method of departure while hanging was used for the general criminal classes. Both would take place centrally. Hanging would take place from the window of the Guildhall on the first floor of The “Pillars” Town House built by Adam before the building of the new Gaol at the back of the Dundee Sheriff Court, when a gibbet would be erected as necessary. Witch burnings, with their stench and heat from fierce fires, would take place outside the burgh in the natural amphitheatre of Witches’ Knoll beyond the West Port, still named in Wood’s Plan of 1821.
In your opinion, what was the darkest day in Dundee’s history?
1st September 1651. Governor Lumsden defending the town had been offered quarter (surrender) by the most efficient army in Europe but had inexplicably refused it, possibly because of pressure put on him by the rich merchants who had taken shelter in Dundee. When the Cromwellian troops did storm the barricades they therefore took no quarter and slaughtered up to a fifth of the population and destroyed much of the town’s guild, church and civic records.
If you didn’t already have your “dream job” as City Archivist, what would have been your next choice of “dream job”?
A marine archaeologist in the Mediterranean. I had a Royal Naval childhood in Malta and fell in love with the clear blue seabed.
Why is it still important in “modern times” to keep hold of our city’s history?
George Santayana (1863-1952); “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
If you could re-write just one piece of history, what would you change, and why?
As we know from “Back To The Future”, you can’t change just one piece of history without ultimately changing the whole of history – local always becomes global.
We also asked Iain a bit about what the future held for the city archives. As with most government funded initiatives budget cuts are always a threat, and the conservation of both their paper and digital collection is always going to be difficult in financially tight times. Iain remains positive for the future however, saying the introduction of the Public Records Act 2011 will lead to a higher standard of public record keeping, and the volunteers of the Friends of Dundee City Archives also continue to do an amazing job creating indexes and guides to the records. Iain would like to encourage Dundonians to appreciate the richness of their history – Dundee has always been a community who “punched above their weight” – as well as teachers and schoolchildren, who can use local investigations of history in the Curriculum for Excellence.
The city archive is an amazing resource, one we have frequently used to find records of Dundee’s history, as well as a little bit of family research. We hope if you haven’t already you’ll take a trip to the archives to research your past, or even volunteer with the Friends of Dundee City Archives. Also keep an eye out for their digital content online including the Friends of Dundee City Archives which has a wealth of information from the archive available to read online, and the Flickr account which has attracted 6 million searches since its creation. The future of the City Archives should be a bright one, as long as we all continue to appreciate and support this amazing resource right on our doorstep.