Streetwise: Scourin Burn

Name Plate

You will not find this name on any modern map of Dundee, but it is so central to the city’s industrial history that it must be discussed. You may have heard the name from your grandparents, as that of a thoroughfare, before it was replaced by the inappropriate and uninspiring name of Brook Street.

People used sometimes to ask how it came about that the burgh of Dundee developed on its present site and not, for example, on the south side of the river or further down nearer the mouth of the estuary. Surely the answers are obvious – a south-facing slope, a rocky outcrop for a castle, and a Law with a fort for protection. But the early development of manufacturing industry in Dundee is due not to these factors but to the ready supply of water from the streams that drained into the Tay basin in the vicinity of the first settlement.

There is now little evidence of these watercourses, which have long since been converted; but they included the Tod’s Burn (‘tod’ being Scots for fox) and the more sizeable Dens Burn and its tributary the Wallace Burn. The old name Scourin Burn, or ‘cleansing burn’ probably referred to the process of waulking and scouring yarn; the burn apparently had in pre-industrial days the alternative names of the Friars Burn and the Mausie Burn. It rose somewhere to the west of the Law, flowed down the line of Brook Street and Guthrie Street and along Ward Road to Meadowside where it was apparently dammed so as to increase its head of water.

The Burnhead, at the top of what is now Commercial Street, was the point where the Dens Burn and the Scourin Burn met, both having taken a wide sweep from different sides of the Law; and the combined stream flowed to the river on a line parallel to Commercial Street ‘… down the slopes of the Castle Rock, driving the Malt Mills, which were common property’; the stream also powered a thread mill until around 1790. The overworked little stream joined the estuary at a creek situated at the intersection of Gellatly Street and the Seagate.

Maps of nineteenth-century Dundee show concentration of manufacturing industry along the courses of the Scourin Burn and its companion streams. Housing was run up nearby to accommodate the workers; and it could be said that Dundee’s early urban development was dictated by the presence of these little watercourses. Most of the factories have now gone, or have been adapted for non-industrial use, and the substandard housing has been cleared. A small section of the culverted Scourin Burn can still be seen running under the floorboards of Verdant Works, built in 1833 and situated between Milne Street and Guthrie Street; but is many a long year since the burn did any serious scouring.

Source: ‘Dundee Names, People and Places’ – David Dorward