Mary Brooksbank

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Mary Brooksbank
Born Mary Soutar
15 December 1897
Died 16 March 1978
Ninewells Hospital, Dundee
Nationality Scottish
Occupation Mill worker
Known for Socialist activism and trade unionism

Mary Brooksbank (born Soutar; 15 December 1897 – 16 March 1978) was a Scottish mill worker, socialist and trade unionist. She was an active member of the Communist Party of Great Britain between 1920 and 1933, and spent three periods in prison as a result of her agitation. She attended John Maclean's last meetings at the Scottish Labour College.[1]

She is remembered today as a prominent figure in Dundee's labour movement. She founded the Working Women Guild to fight for better health and social services in Dundee, securing a membership of over 300, and was heavily involved in October 1934 with the National Unemployed Workers Movement county march to Forfar, to lobby the County Council; contingents were raised from Dundee, Blairgowrie, Montrose, Ferryden, and Arbroath.[2]

More information about Mary Brooksbank can be found in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [3]

Early life[edit]

Mary Brooksbank was born in an Aberdeen slum, the oldest of either five[4] or ten[2] children, and came to Dundee when she was eight or nine years old. She began working illegally in Dundee's jute mills as a bobbin shifter [5] by the age of 12, and had her first experience of trade unionism at the age of 14, when the girls at her jute mill successfully marched for a 15% pay rise.[4]

Mary's father, Sandy Soutar (who died in 1953, aged 86), was from St Vigeans, Arbroath, near Dundee, and had been an active trade unionist amongst the dock workers, working with James Connolly. Her mother, Rose Ann Soutar née Gillan was a fisher lassie and domestic servant. It is said that the Soutar family was "effectively blacklisted in Dundee because of their trade union activities".[4]

Political life[edit]

At 21, Mary Brooksbank rejected Roman Catholicism, became an atheist and was inspired by John McLean to join the Communist Party to fight for women's rights, equality, and the demise of capitalism. She is famously quoted as saying:[4]

“I have never had any personal ambitions. I have but one: to make my contribution to destroy the capitalist system.”

She later drifted from the Communist Party as she was critical of Stalin, and became more sympathetic to Scottish nationalism. John Maclean, whose classes she attended in Glasgow, was a major proponent of an independent "Scottish workers republic".


Family sing-a-longs nurtured Mary Brooksbank's love of music. She sang, played the violin and wrote songs. When money was low, she would ride the ferry from Dundee to Tayport and sing for money in the street.

Most of her songs were about the life of the working-class mill workers of Dundee, mostly women. She called these songs "Mill Songs". They were full of detail and sympathy for the struggle with which these hard-working, poorly paid women were engaged just to feed and care for their families. [6]

Her most famous song was "Jute Mill Song" or "Oh Dear Me".

[7]Jute Mill Song (Mary Brooksbank)

Oh dear me, the mill's gannin' fast The puir wee shifters canna get a rest Shiftin' bobbins coorse and fine They fairly mak' ye work for your ten and nine

Oh dear me, I wish the day was done Rinnin' up and doon the Pass it is nae fun Shiftin', piecin', spinnin' warp weft and twine Tae feed and clad my bairnie affen ten and nine

Oh dear me, the warld is ill divided Them that works the hardest are the least provided I maun bide contented, dark days or fine For there's nae much pleasure livin' affen ten and nine Repeat 1

You can hear it sung by Mary Brookshanks and then by later folksingers at the Scots Language Centre:

Her original notebook of songs and poems is held by the archives at the University of Dundee.[8]


Mary Brooksbank died at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee on 16 March 1978. A library in Dundee was named in her honour.[1] When the library was closed, the Brooksbank Centre on Pitairlie Road was named after her.[2] As well, a verse from her famous Jute Mill Song is inscribed in Iona marble on the Scottish Parliament Building's Canongate Wall, which displays quotations from many famous Scottish writers and poets.[9]


  1. ^ a b "Mary Brooksbank - Revolutionary, Poet and Songwriter". Alternative Perth. Retrieved 1 September 2014. 
  2. ^ a b c Stevenson, Graham. "Brooksbank Mary". Retrieved 1 September 2014. 
  3. ^ Smith, Graham. "Brooksbank [née Soutar], Mary Watson (1897–1978), revolutionary and songwriter". Retrieved 25 October 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c d "Mary Brooksbank". Dundee Women's Trail. Retrieved 1 September 2014. 
  5. ^ Knox, William (2006). Lives of Scottish women. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 205. ISBN 9780748617883. 
  6. ^ Dundee Women's Trail: 25 Footsteps over 4 Centuries, Mary Henderson, 2008.
  7. ^ Scots Language Centre
  8. ^ "MS 103/3/6/1 'Poems and Songs'". Archive Services Online Catalogue. University of Dundee. Retrieved 23 February 2016. 
  9. ^ Canongate Wall quotations