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.

 

In 16th century Scotland, a series of riots began to unfold along the East coast. Believed to have started in Fife, the riots quickly escalated and involved hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of angry protestors. Shipping ports were raided by weapon-wielding locals who assaulted crew members and destroyed grain-exporting ships. Granary deposits, warehouses and stores were broken into and their contents stolen as dozens of men, women and children fought for their ill-gotten supplies. The reasons behind the riots were not so much about the cost of grain, but more to do with the perceived shortage of it, as we continued to export it in massive quantities, often leaving very little for those at home.

The fact that the riots around this time featured in predominantly Jacobean-supported towns and burghs lends itself to the opinion that perhaps the riots were not so much about the fear of food shortages, and perhaps had more to do with the idea that people were opposed to trading our supplies with those who did not support the Jacobite cause. Whilst there is no evidence to directly support this, it is a widely-believed theory, and one which casts a different light on the proceedings at that time.

Anyone standing in the way of the rioters were beaten, and, in some extreme cases, killed. In Dundee, alarmed traders and officials called upon armed forces to attempt to quell the rabble after extensive damage was caused to ships, storehouses and shops. In their efforts to gain the upper hand, troops fired upon the rioters, causing at least one reported death. The Riot Act had been formed, declaring that any group of twelve or more people, deemed to be unlawfully assembled, were required to disperse or face punitive action.

Meal riots were not uncommon, and were not restricted to Scotland, hence the introduction of the Act in 1714. However, the proclamation of the Act itself was not without peril, as it required local officials to read aloud the conditions of the Act to the rioters, giving them one hour to disband or face punishment of death. The problems with the implementation of Act were many: in the first instance, it was difficult to find officials who were brave enough in the smaller districts to stand and read the Act to the rioters. Secondly, trying to shout over a screaming, rioting rabble of people was sometimes impossible. Thirdly, the part of the Act which was to be read was sometimes never read in full, allowing for those convicted to appeal their case and return to their communities without charge. Adding to this, and probably the most frustrating aspect for those trying to police the riots was that it was very difficult to round up every single suspected rioter, meaning that many walked away without apprehension or charge.

Attempts were made, however, to make “examples” of some of the apprehended rioters, and those unfortunate enough to be sentenced were “transported” out of the country for years at a time. In more extreme cases, some were never allowed to return. It must be noted that capital sentencing was never actually carried out, despite repeated threats of the death sentence. Thomas Gilkie, an influential Dundee rioter, along with others from surrounding areas found himself stripped of his burgess-ships and was banned from trading within his locality.

The wording that had to be read out to the assembled gathering was as follows:

“Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the Act made in the first year of King George the First for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies.

God Save the King!”

What made matters worse was that, if, for any reason, the paper on which the Act was written was stolen or damaged during the reading, it was deemed that the Act was never read, and the rioting continued.
To this day many jurisdictions that have inherited the tradition of English common law and Scots law still employ statutes that require police or other executive agents to deliver an oral warning, much like the Riot Act, before an unlawful public assembly may be forcibly dispersed.

Because the authorities were required to read the proclamation that referred to the Riot Act before they could enforce it, the expression “to read the Riot Act” entered into common language as a phrase meaning “to reprimand severely”, with the added sense of a stern warning. The phrase remains in common use in the English language.

On 4th December, 1816, there was yet another meal riot in Dundee, described at the time by Sheriff Duff as “one of the greatest in modern times”. For four days, a mob raged through the town, robbing and pillaging as they went, causing untold damage to people and property.