1 The Rag Boiler
Scotland’s Carron River rises in the beautiful, heathercovered
Campsie Fells and flows eastward to the Firth of
Forth passing the town of Denny on its right hand side.
Its banks fringed with bushes, bellflowers and ferns, it
trickles over stones or gushes between huge boulders;
passes fields of barley and turnips, cattle and black faced
sheep. Its brown trout try to dodge the ducks and the
bushy tailed, green-eyed minks creep from their burrows
in its banks to search for food. It flowed past corn fields
too and powered the wheels for the corn mills. Farmers
trundled their grain to be ground and trundled home
again with their flour.
The idyllic scene was gradually distorted as Scotland
met the demands of the industrial age. The water
flowing past Denny became sullied by the distillery,
the dye works, the iron works and the mills producing
fine quality paper. Nearly half of Denny’s population
worked in paper mills, slaving for countless hours with
aching backs and vacant eyes.
Janet Gilliland was one of those toiling daily amongst
a maze of pipes, steam, unbearable heat and ear splitting
noise. The huge waterwheel of the Carron Paper Works
drove the clanking, whirring machines mercilessly; the
enormous boilers hissed unceasingly. And though the
walls were for the most part glass, no one could see out
through the grime to admire the River Carron even if
they had the time, energy and inclination to do so.
Inside the mill, the air was dense with steam.
Generally it was impossible to recognise one’s coworkers
even when they stood right beside you. They
were like so many faceless spirits, doggedly trudging
the same route through the thick fog, day after day.
Janet had worked in one paper mill or another since
she was nine, starting out as a printer’s tearer. Two of her
sisters were among the labourers at the Carron Works
now, dusting, sorting and cutting up rags and wheeling
them on carts to the enormous boilers. Janet worked at
a boiler, feeding rags into the heaving water, standing
over them to poke and stir with a long pole. Perspiration
poured down her face and arms and her dark hair hung
limp and permanently wet.
On a particular morning, she began work at seven
o’clock as usual. The baby in her belly felt very low
but Janet was sure it wasn’t due yet. Walking was hard
that day and she was nervous of slipping on the wet
flagstones. She panted, struggling even more than usual
to extract enough air through the steam.
About midday she realised she was in labour. The
sudden convulsive pain was agony. She crouched on the
floor, head pressed hard against a cart, eyes closed tight,
her face contorted. She moaned, clutched both arms
round her knees and pulled them towards her body. It
wasn’t until the contractions became unbearable that she
screamed for help.
The steam was nearly impenetrable that day. It was
a while before her workmates found her, there in the
wet, behind the cart. They told her sisters who informed
the overseer that he was about to lose at least one of his
workers for the rest of the day. The man growled and
grudgingly gave one of them permission to take Janet
home. He’d have to answer to his superior.
There was no other transport than a rag cart, so in
that rough vehicle, Janet Gilliland was wheeled over the
railway tracks and over the cobblestones to her tenement
home. Neighbours helped carry her up the stairs and
put her on the bed.
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