Finding Our Voices – Arbroath

[For an introduction to the ‘Finding Our Voices’ project, including a discussion of our strategy and methodology in engaging primary schools, and an overview of the initial workshops in each school, see this article]

Finding Our Voices: Arbroath – Inverbrothock and St Thomas Primary Schools

Arbroath had several obvious advantages which led us to choose it as one of our target areas. We had piloted similar workshops here in the past and as such had existing relationships with the local authority and several local schools, further aided by it being the hometown of workshop leader Steve. In addition, it was somewhere we knew had a good store of archive audio material to work with, from our previous cataloguing work for Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches.

The initial sessions on sound materials and commercial audio history had added significance for Arbroath children with Sir Harry Lauder’s mother being a native of the town, and Lauder himself living there as a boy.

The workshops then homed in on the ‘local’ with a very personal story, namely that of the workshop leader Steve’s great grandfather, Alexander Gordon. He had been in the Army at the time of the First World War, and worked in local lemonade factories, at the time when carbonated drinks (“aerated water manufacturers”) were becoming fashionable.

This combination of the seemingly modern – fizzy drinks – and some local and personal history allowed us to invoke one of our principles: using tangible material culture as a useful way to reinforce memory. Alexander Gordon’s story was brought to life through the handling of an old Codd lemonade bottle from Robb Bros where he had once worked in the early 20th century.


The company logo on the bottle was that of a bell on the Inchcape Rock from the time prior to the building of the famous Bell Rock lighthouse off Arbroath, a story about which the children were already knowledgeable. The children were encouraged to listen to Steve’s story and remember several pieces of information, which were recalled at various points over the subsequent sessions. The aim of this was at least twofold – firstly to disarm the children through rooting the workshop leader’s personal story in their minds (enhanced by its undoubtedly local character), and secondly to turn minds to the interconnected tasks of listening and remembering.

At St Thomas PS, the story’s validity or currency was, by chance, further enhanced through the teacher, Mr Leslie Robb, having a family connection with the company. There was also some recognition from other teachers in showing images of the company’s later wares – ‘Bon Accord’ drinks bottles which were popular in many parts of Scotland through their delivery lorries in the late 20th century.

The listener/storyteller task in pairs (as described in the introductory article) was in part a useful way of assessing, for the workshop leader, the makeup of the class and their individual backgrounds and identities. Often the stories retold by the listener about their partner would reveal information on family members’ occupations, and in several cases, the fact that a pupil and their family may have a story which started outside of Scotland.

By allowing virtually all the children the opportunity to retell a story in front of their peers, it broke the ice, allowed for some humour and helped reduced the children’s inhibitions. It also played a useful role in children activating their own memories and sense of who their friends and classmates are, what facts they already know and value about them and so on, thereby giving voice to personal and communal identities.

Arbroath in the archives
Moving then from the initial workshops’ grounding in sound materials in the Scottish popular context, we moved to ideas of recording local people and their stories and songs. In particular, the classes at Inverbrothock and St Thomas PS began looking at the Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches website to see whether there were any recordings to do with their town. It is important to note at this point that, up to this point, the children’s main exposure to recorded sound was that of their favourite pop stars, accessed online or via broadcast. It is no understatement to say that the idea that there are songs recorded about or from their town is very radical, and gets right to the heart of the purpose of the workshops – to give value, parity of esteem, to the local. 

The recording we hit on was from 1985, Mabel Skelton (1919-1988) recorded by Hamish Henderson. Within the opening sentences on the recording were a few key words and ideas that sent various lightbulbs on in our heads in relation to Arbroath, its name and the town’s working history:

“Well I know another mill song my grandmother and mother sang…that was sung in the Brothock Mill…It’s still there but it’s now Herald newspaper place where they make papers.”

The Brothock is the name of the river running through Arbroath, the old name for the town being Aberbrothock, and all the children recognised the Brothock Mill being spoken about, which is right in the centre of the town on the main dual carriageway next to the bus station.

Having such a kenspeckle building was a great asset to aid the pupils’ understanding. Not only could we examine the working and social history of the former flax mill, but – crucially – we were able to go a step further than local history projects might otherwise go: we heard and learned a song sung by people who worked there. Hear Inverbrothock P5P sing their version:


Awa Wi Ma Laddie

Now the stoory mill’s for poverty but the Brothock Mill’s for pey

The Brothock Mill’s a bonnie wee mill, doon by the burnside

And awa wi ma laddie, it’s awa wi him I’ll gang
Yes awa wi ma laddie, for he’s a nice young man

I took him doon tae the Brothock Mill tae see them aa gaein in
Rosy cheeks and curly hair, that’s the wey they rin


Maybe I’ll get mairried yet, maybe no ava
Maybe I’ll get mairried yet, tae ma laddie far awa

(Chorus twice)

Again using the principle of material culture to reinforce subjects being discussed, a roll of linen was used to consider the kind of product the mill would have made. In this case, the linen was stamped with the imprint of Francis Webster’s Alma Works nearby to the Brothock Mill; Webster is a name familiar to the children through the town’s Webster Memorial Theatre funded by donation from the same weaving family.


My Mither Says (The Fisherman’s Dandling Song)

With Arbroath’s rich fishing history, it was no surprise to find a children’s song relating to the fisher folk within Mabel’s repertoire. In spite of it being a relatively juvenile song aimed at toddlers – as Mabel’s title indicates, ‘dandling’ meaning to bounce a child on one’s knee while singing – the primary 5s to 7s took to the song with gusto, perhaps due to the pace, simple tune, colourful Scots vocabulary and humour. Listen to Mabel’s version here.

My mither says I must go
Wi ma daddy’s denner, oh
Chappit tatties, beef and steak,
Twa reed herrin and a bawbee bake
Went tae the river, I couldna get across
I peyed ten shillins for an auld blind horse
Jumped on his back, its banes gaed a crack,
Played on ma fiddle til the boatie came back
The boatie came back and we aa jumped in
The boatie capsized and we aa fell in!

Over the course of the workshops, some pupils took it upon themselves to invent hand actions for this song, which were honed and learned by other members of the class for the final performances.

My Mither Says was juxtaposed for performances (due to its short length) with another short song, this time from Steve’s own collecting from his late grandmother, Nan Penman. The song Wee Tammy Tyrie is a cumulative memory song which seems to only have been found in Angus. The children enjoyed exploring the Scots vocabulary, and it also lent itself well to singing at speed.

Wee Tammy Tyrie
Wee Tammy Tyrie
Fell in the firie
The firie wis hot
So he jumped in the pot
The pot wis metal
So he jumped in the kettle
The kettle wis bress
So he jumped in the press
The press wis high
So he jumped in the sky
The sky wis blue
So he jumped on the soo
The soo gave a roar
So he jumped on the boar
The boar gave a bite
So he jumped on the dyke
The dyke fell doon and
Wee Tammy Tyrie
Fell and broke his croon.

Hear P6/7 at St Thomas PS give their version:


Pickin Tatties
Arbroath’s identity as a town is not only that of a coastal community, but its agricultural hinterland, with farms on the northern and western edges of the town stretching into the fertile lands of the Mearns and Strathmore. Mabel Skelton’s bothy ballad-style song, Pickin Tatties, told of the familiar work of days gone by at a particular farm at Dickmontlaw. In a wonderful coincidence, one of the St Thomas pupils lived at Dickmontlaw Farm, so they could not have been more local to the song!

The prelude to learning the song allowed us to explore local maps both current and historical, using the NLS maps tool, in particular its side-by-side and overlay functions, allowing pupils to find older places that may no longer appear on modern maps:

The tradition of tattie-howkin in the autumn was discussed with teachers usually recalling their own experiences, allowing the pupils to connect with part of the teachers’ personal story, with of course the fortnight-long October “tattie holidays” still in place in some regions of Scotland, including Angus. Listen to Inverbrothock P5P sing their version of Mabel’s Pickin Tatties:

Pickin Tatties
by Mabel Skelton

I was workin wi a tattie squad
Up at Dickmontlaw
The digger it gaed roond and roond
The stoor did fairly blaw
Ma back wis sair ma legs were sair
I couldna stand ava
Oh I’ll never mak ma fortune pickin tatties!

Ma neebour wife wis on her knees
Up and doon the dreel
Her knees were stickin through her breeks
She didna look sae weel!
Mrs MacFarlane she wis there
Lyin in a creel!
Cos it’s no an aisy job this pickin tatties!

Then we were late at lowsin time
The grieve he says tae us,
“Sit doon by the ditch wife,
We’ve missed the bloomin bus!”
We went hame on a coal cairt
Ye dinna mak a fuss
Stoory, tired and sair wi pickin tatties!

Sometimes it’s no a bad job
On a sunny day,
Haein yer tea an sandwiches
Sittin on the hay.
Better still on Friday
When we get oor pay
Then aa the squad are happy pickin tatties!
Aa the squad are happy pickin tatties!

The children performed most of these songs to the rest of their school and invited family members at special assemblies in March 2017. As part of the performances, items from the handling box were demonstrated, with the children giving introductions themselves, describing the content of the workshops, what they had learned, as well as the background to the singers and the songs.

Some feedback from the children:

“I would like to learn more Arbroath songs”

“I would like to find more Arbroath songs to teach other kids when I grow up.”

“[My favourite thing about the workshops?] Finding old songs about my town.”

“I would like to find out more about 78s and reel-to-reel tapes so I can tell my gran.”

“I learned loads and loads, one of them I know is I know that 78s are very breakable and so are wax cylinders.”

“My favourite thing about the workshop was performing at assembly because I love singing!”

“I would like to find out more about how they made 78s.”

“My favourite part of the workshop was learning about the history of music and how sound is heard in the olden days.”

“I would like to find out more about all types of sounds new and old.”

“I liked how cool the 78s were.”

“I learned about how the old music was collected, and how interesting the music was to learn!”

A large proportion of the children also expressed a desire to find out more about Mabel Skelton. One of the Inverbrothock teachers actually recalled Mrs Skelton, even although she passed away nearly 30 years ago.


Teacher feedback:

“Steve engaged well with the children, they really enjoyed his input, his music and the items he brought in.”

“They very much enjoyed linking their music to Arbroath.”

“Children fully engaged at all times. Brilliant rapport with the children.”

“Important that children learn about [their] own heritage.”

“Children really enjoyed singing the songs…second time I have worked with Steve and hopefully not the last.”


About the author

Our mission is to help communities across Scotland identify, engage with, collect and celebrate their local heritage, with special focuses on Scots language and traditional arts.