Category Archives: Dumbiedykes

A Tenement with a View

As a child I was always drawn to the set of photographs taken from the balcony of my great-grandparents’ tenement flat in Edinburgh’s Dumbieykes area. Through these images I saw my grandmother morph from a gangly 1920s teenager into a young married woman in the 1930s and then as a mother in the 1940s. Fashion moved on over the decades, but the solid-looking wrought-iron balcony was a constant. I have been told that the views from the flat over Holyrood Park were spectacular, although unfortunately no-one in the family thought to photograph them. My mother credits the fresh air blowing in from Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags for the Neilsons’ longevity – in addition to my great-grandmother’s plain and wholesome Scottish cooking. Even if they did not take advantage of the outdoor space in quite the same way we would today, the family must have appreciated being able to step out onto the balcony on a sunny morning, or to simply have a place to hang up damp laundry or wet overcoats.

My Grandparents on the Dumbiedykes Balcony, c1930

My mother assures me that the ironwork on the balcony was painted dark green, but by the time I was born, the balcony, the flat, the street and in fact the whole area had been demolished. As an article in the Scotsman newspaper on ‘Lost Edinburgh’ (here) points out: By the 1970s the Dumbiedykes of old was all but wiped from the map, with stone and slate switched for concrete and steel. Sadly, a centuries-old community was displaced in the process. Like many so-called ‘slum clearances’ throughout the country in the post-war period, the replacement housing proved to have its own issues as the new high-rise estate was built using continental designs that were not robust enough for Scottish weather. It is also said that the workmen struggled to work with these ‘alien’ designs, resulting in sub-standard workmanship which has blighted the estate ever since. To be fair, however, there has recently been investment in both the buildings and the community (possibly due to the area’s proximity to the relatively new Scottish Parliament), and the views from the high rise blocks have always been an attraction.

The Dumbiedykes today (front) from Salisbury Crags

While I was growing up, my mother and her older relatives often talked fondly of the Dumbiedykes and expressed their sadness that the old stone tenements had been demolished. My great grandfather, Robert Neilson, had spent all his life there, and my great-grandmother, Catherine Neilson (née Thomson), had also lived there with her family after moving from the nearby Canongate, so they were both embedded within the community. The Dumbiedykes was an area built during the industrial boom in the 19th century to house the families who worked in the nearby factories and breweries in the East of the city (all now gone, too), and the tenements ranged from unsanitary and over-crowded buildings to relatively well-kept groups of flats, such as ‘the balconies’ where the Neilsons lived. 

My mother has told me about her grandparents’ flat in such detail that I can almost imagine to have been there myself. One of her earliest memories was sleeping in the recessed bed in the living room-cum-kitchen, and falling asleep to the comforting sound of the grown-ups chatting or listening to the radio. It must have been warm and cosy in that room as great-grandma only had an old-fashioned black-leaded Victorian range in which to heat and cook with, which was always lit from dawn to dusk, and although the floor was linoleum, there was a homemade clippy rug in front of the fireplace. My mother remembers how early in the morning she would hear the brewery workers in their clogs clattering along the cobbled stones, then later she would rise to see her grandmother in her stays, washing in the kitchen corner of the room with its single cold tap. She found it strange that her grandmother always called this sink ‘the well’. but to the Victorian generation brought up in houses without indoor plumbing, it really must have seemed like having your own private well inside the house.

Catherine and Robert Neilson (my great-grandparents), Dumbiedykes c1945

The fact that a family of twelve lived in a two-bedroomed flat with no bathroom (only an indoor toilet – a luxury some others on the estate did not have) and a living-room which doubled as a kitchen and the parents’ bedroom at night, may seem like deprivation to us today and was one of the reason the houses were not deemed fit-for-purpose by the 1960s. But when speaking about their childhood, not one of the Neilson children (many of whom I got to know well in their old age) felt they had lacked anything while growing up. There were the usual squabbles for bed space and bath water, but nothing that hinted at the kind of poverty on which the post-war town-planners focussed; although it obviously did exist, particularly as the 20th century wore on and the buildings aged. My mother does recall one winter in the 1940s when condensation ran down the inside walls, which the family re-named ‘the weeping walls’, although she cannot recall if there was any specific reason for the event. However, it is interesting to speculate what would have happened to the estate had it been allowed to remain intact. Nearby upgraded tenements with balconies which escaped demolition are much sought after today with the outside space often decorated with plants and outdoor furniture.

Dumbiedykes Rd 1950s (c) Edinburgh City Libraries

In contrast, my mother never remembers the balconies in Dumbiedykes Road being used for anything that was not functional. As it was to all intents partly a shared area that ran along the front of the buildings, it would have to have been kept as neat and clean as the stairwell (stair cleaning being a rota that the women in the block shared). This was one of the reasons my grandmother still regularly scrubbed the steps leading to her 1930s ‘four-in-a-block’ house up until she had a stroke in the early 1980s. As a child I always found it strange to see her on her knees wielding a great wooden brush and a pail of soapy water, even in the winter, but it was a hangover from the days when everyone was expected to keep communal entrances clean – perhaps even forfeiting their tenancy if they did not. For that generation of professional housewives it was also important to show your neighbours that you were not slovenly.

I often think this strong Presbyterian streak was also what prevented people from using their balconies for rest and relaxation: they possibly wouldn’t have wanted others to think they were not busy working (if men) or cooking and cleaning (if women). Of course this meant that many housewives were trapped inside for hours on end, and I remember that my own grandmother was always finding things to do in the house, even on summer days. My mother tells me that all her adult life she would never just sit outside in the sun and relax, but only used the ‘back green’ for hanging out washing, despite the fact my grandfather was often to be found outside pottering around in their section of the shared garden.

When my great-grandmother became widowed in 1948, she soon gave up the tenement flat in the Dumbiedykes and spent the next two decades of her life living with her grown-up children. My mother tells me she spent most of the time staying with them in their two-bedroomed house, possibly because it was easier in a family with only one child. However, this meant that initially my mother had to share her bedroom with her grandmother, which was certainly not a long-term solution. Eventually my grandparents gave up their own room and slept on the pull-out sofa bed in the living room instead. This couldn’t have been easy for everyone, especially during my mother’s teenage years, and it seems that her strongest and happiest memories of her grandmother was of the time when she visited her in the Dumbiedykes. My mother’s grandfather was also a comforting and cheerful presence in those days, and my mother recalls his old comfy chair by the fire and pipe stand at the side of the range and that she would always kiss him on his bald head before leaving. 

My Mother and Grandparents, Dumbiedykes c1945

On Fridays, my grandmother would meet my mother after school and they would take the number 1 bus all the way from their suburb of Carrick Knowe, in the West of the city, into Edinburgh’s old town, a place that my mother said always looked rather gloomy and seedy on account of the blackened soot-stained buildings and narrow cobbled streets. They would leave the bus in the Royal Mile and walk down St Mary’s Street towards the Pleasance, then cut down Holyrood Road. Before they went up to my great-grandparents third floor flat in Dumbiedykes Road, they would pick up a pre-ordered copy of The Girl’s Crystal from Miss Yardley’s local shop so that my mother could be entertained when the grown-ups were talking or listening to the radio – something they did a lot in those wartime days.

My mother recalls that when she was very young and it was time to leave her grandparents’ house (if they did not stay overnight in the recess bed) she would be picked up by my grandmother, tucked under her arm like a bag of groceries, and whisked all the way down the three flights of stone tenement stairs. Apart from the injustice of it all, she mostly remembers her mother’s boney hip painfully pushing into her stomach as she leapt from step to step. Knowing my grandmother – a small, nervy, sinewy woman with a vice-like grip well into old age who was always running late – I can just imagine her pounding down those stairs, rushing to catch the next bus to get home to make my grandad’s tea or to avoid the blackout. Yet those three flights of stone steps also used to fascinate my mother as she noticed they were worn into dips at the entrance and ground floor, but became flatter farther up the stairs where there was less footfall. This is, of course, is just the sort of detail that a child would pick out, and I remember being equally taken by the strange undulations in the stones on a section of my grandparents’ front path in Carrick Knowe – the result of a botch tarmac job many years earlier which is still there today.

Ann, Catherine and Mary Neilson, with nephew, Dumbiedykes, c1930

As the middle child, my grandmother had four older and four younger siblings: the photograph above shows her with the two younger sisters, Ann and Mary. These little girls (who I got to know well in their old age) learnt to slip notes out the coal cupboard in the tenement hallway to my grandmother when she was canoodling on the stair with my grandfather. The cupboard opened at both ends so that the coalman did not need to enter the house and was an ideal way to send out messages from the living room to tell my future grandparents when tea or supper was ready and they had to come inside.

The Neilsons’ childhoods were full of such stories about the ways they would help and support each other, in particular the girls. They learnt to let in late night returnees from ‘the dancing’ and share clothes and make-up and trade allotted household tasks with each other. It must have been a very intensive way to live, which makes me wonder how my grandmother felt when she left home after her marriage, with no job or child (for the first seven years) to keep her busy.

I was always fascinated by my grandmothers’ tales of growing up in a family of nine children that the evenings with the photo album seemed to prompt. And yet I naturally assumed that my life with my own bedroom and private back garden was far superior, and possibly even said as much. For years I believed my grandmother’s childhood must have been full of deprivations and boring chores and responsibilities, when I now believe it would have been an upbringing that in many respects was richer in experience than my own. 

The Incidental Genealogist, February 2022

An Ordinary and Unremarkable Woman: Part 2

This month, I am publishing the second part of an essay my mother (born Catherine Thomson McKay in 1938) wrote about her namesake maternal grandmother – Catherine Miller Thomson – the great-grandmother who I remembered from my early childhood. With my mother’s permission, I have edited and updated her text slightly, without removing the spirit of the original. This potted biography was originally an assignment for a course in family history, a subject my mother took up after I returned home from London and recounted my exploits as an heir hunter in Holborn in the 1980s (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born). When my mother wrote the article, she was younger than I am now; which is a sobering reminder of how time has a habit of overtaking us all. But this can also be a spur to action, as it is never too late to start working on a family history and interview living relatives.

Part 1 last month focussed on my great-grandmother’s early years and this post will move through the years of her marriage in the Dumbiedykestenement flat in the east of Edinburgh. It is a house which no longer exists, being torn down during the 1960s ‘slum clearances’ that destroyed many solid housing in its well-meant quest for social change during the post-war period, but was a much loved family home. Not only did the balcony from the top floor flat afford the Neilson family wonderful vistas over Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat, but it was fairly central for the rest of the city, in particular the south side. Despite my assumption that the moves to the suburbs or farther afield were something the subsequent generation had aspired to, I later discovered that most of the Neilsons liked their life in the city. And during my time living and working in The Canongate – the eastern end of the Royal Mile – in the mid-90s, I grew to appreciate the benefits of being in the heart of the old town, but with parks and hills and a palace on my doorstep. 

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       The Neilsons on their balcony in Dumbiedykes Road c1940

In the years after my grandmother’s marriage to Robert Neilson in 1897, the outside world was changing. Queen Victoria had died; there followed the short reign of Edward the Seventh, and then George the Fifth ascended the throne. Great ships were being built in Scotland at Clydebank, but for the working man the fear of being out of work was omnipresent. There were no family allowances or unemployment benefits and the one dread of a family was to go ‘on the Parish’ or into the workhouse – known locally as ‘the Poorshoose’. Fortunately, through the thrift of my grandparents, this did not happen to their family. Good genes were also a strong factor in their favour as they all remained in remarkably good health, despite the relatively crowded conditions of their living quarters. The dreaded spectre of tuberculosis, which wiped out many families in those days, was fortunately absent from their household. 

Although my grandfather was allowed to vote, my grandmother had to wait until 1918 for that privilege. She followed the activities of the suffragette movement with great interest, but it had no real significance for her, absorbed as she was in the up-bringing of a large family. In 1917, when her last child was born, Grandma had other worries. The First World War had been dragging on for three long years, and her eldest son Adam was in France in one of the most dangerous occupations – a signaller in the trenches. He had not been truthful about his birth year and enlisted at the tender age of 16 in 1914 to enable him to enter the regiment of his choice instead of waiting for conscription. My grandparents were upset of course, and informed the authorities that he’d lied with regard to his age in an attempt to get him out of the army, but to no avail. However, unlike that of many of his contemporaries, his story has a happy ending in that he returned home at the end of the war without the proverbial scratch; although he had narrowly escaped death when a trench he had left only seconds before was blown up with no survivors.

Signallers on the Somme

When the Second World War came in 1939 two of the youngest children were in uniform. Robert was in the army and Mary, the baby of the family, enlisted in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAFS).  By a tremendous stroke of good fortune, they too came back home unscathed. Grandma had achieved a hat trick – three children returned from wars which had decimated many families in the land.

Grandma ruled the family with a rod of iron. Her sons were expected to work as message boys for local shopkeepers to earn their own pocket money, and the girls all had specific household tasks to carry out, as well as having to queue at the butcher’s, grocer’s and baker’s before school in the morning. Their tenement home had no bathroom, although the family were luckier than many others in the area in that they had an inside toilet and did not have to share with others in the block. On Fridays the menfolk went to the local public baths to wash and the women bathed in a tin bath in front of the fire, the water heated in pots on the black-leaded range.

Anne and Mary Neilson in the Dumbiedykes c1920 with older friend.

Food was plain and wholesome with plenty of soups and stews and they never went short. The miracle was that Grandma managed to feed and clothe them all and even save a little for a rainy day on an income of which, in the first decade of the 20th century, could not have been much in excess of £2.10s per week. One thing that might sound strange to modern ears is that although Grandma made bars of Scottish tablet for the children, she sold it to them for a small amount of their pocket money and then used the money to buy ingredients for the next batch. Later she would make tablet for her grandchildren – but without charging them of course. My mother learnt this recipe from my grandmother, and made the same tablet for my own children who loved it, although we now all find the taste very sweet and do not make it ourselves!

Traditional Scottish Tablet

The first week of July in Edinburgh is always the local trades’ holiday. My grandparents and some of their younger children were on holiday in Burntisland in Fife on that week in 1920 when they heard the news that grandma’s beloved baby brother, Charles, had been killed in a horrific accident at his work’s annual outing. Edinburgh had been in a festive mood on that date, the 7th of July. It was warm and sunny weather and the degree ceremonies were taking place at Edinburgh University. Queen Mary was also visiting the city. Charles Neilson was a van driver for a local grocer’s shop, Elliott’s, in the Royal Mile, and it had been his task to transport his colleagues to and from their picnic. They’d all had a happy day and were returning home in the evening when at Bilston, on the outskirts of the city, the horse took fright at a waterfall and reared up, unseating Charles and throwing him to the ground. Unfortunately the wheels of the heavy cart then passed over his body and although he was not killed instantly, he died the following day at the Royal Infirmary from internal haemorrhaging. He was only 28 years old, small and dark like Grandma, with rosy cheeks and curly hair. He left a widow Susan, and three young children.

Charles Thomson c1910

Even in the luckiest of families, untimely death is inevitable. Although my grandmother went on to die of old age in later life, my grandfather was not so fortunate. In January 1949, at the age of 77, Robert Neilson went out to the shops and slipped on some ice on a particularly steep flight of stone steps in Edinburgh’s hilly Old Town. He suffered a brain injury, and although he was operated on by the famous Edinburgh neurosurgeon, Professor Norman Dott, his life was unable to be saved. On the day of his funeral the first great-grandchild was born into the family.

In her stoical way Grandma soldiered on, still keeping her watchful eyes on all her brood. They were mentioned in her bed-time prayers each night, but she often fell asleep before she reached the end of the list! She died as she had lived, quietly and with dignity, at the age of 94. She had no disease – indeed she had undergone a successful gall-bladder removal at the age of 90 – but just seemed to quietly wind down at the end of a busy life.

My Neilson Grandparents in the 1920s (baby unknown)

Wishing everyone a very Happy New Year!

The Incidental Genealogist and her Mother, January 2022