25th September Brian Murray: Scottish coal-mining


Coal mining has dominated mining in Scotland certainly since the industrial revolution although arguably the most significant evidence of any mining could be said to be the remnants of oil mining in the shale bings of West Lothian.

Coal is essentially vegetation which has been subjected to immense pressure over hundreds of millions of years. The main coalfields in Scotland are in Fife, Clackmannanshire/Stirling, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire, and the Lothians. Other smaller coalfields exist at Douglas, Sanquhar, Girvan, Canonbie, Brora, and Machrihanish. It is primarily found in the Carboniferous strata and is mainly found in two layers: the Upper and Lower Carboniferous rocks. The Upper Carboniferous is termed the Productive Coal Measures and the Lower Carboniferous ,-the Limestone Coal Group.

Earliest workings took place along coal outcrops in river valleys such as the River Esk in the Lothians. Away from these valleys coal was mined by digging Bell Pits. As the demand increased coal mining methods became more efficient such as pillar and stall or stoop and room where coal was worked out in galleries with pillars left in to support the roof. The longwall method of coal working allowed for a more efficient method of mining with total extraction of the coal seam between two tunnels.

The coal industry in the east of Scotland developed earlier than that in the west. The industrial revolution generated a dramatic increase in coal mining in mid and west Scotland to supply the ever expanding iron and shipbuilding in that part of the country.

Women and children worked down the coal mines, particularly in the east, until 1842 when an Act of Parliament barred women and children under 10 from working underground. From 1606 until 1799 miners and salters were treated as serfs. In some recorded instances they were not allowed to be buried in consecrated ground and were restricted in their attendance in the kirk. Early conditions were primitive with basic safety procedures and with much loss of life.

The coal industry declined after World War 1 and it was difficult to suddenly increase coal production to meet the demands of the war effort in World War 2. Various Acts of Parliament designed to increase production culminated in the Direction Order in December 1943 which gave rise to the ‘Bevin Boys’. They were randomly selected from military conscripts and were sent down the mines to serve their country. The training pit in Scotland was Muircockhall at Townhill near Dunfermline. After basic training they were sent to a production pit where hostels were provided for those away from home. They had no uniform and were sometimes viewed with suspicion by members of the public. It is debatable whether the scheme was a success or not!

The coal industry was nationalised in 1947 and although the previous high casualty rate reduced – in 1914, in the UK, one miner was killed every six hours--- there were still mining disasters. At Knockshinnoch in Ayrshire, in 1950, an inrush of water and mud trapped 100 miners with all but 13 being rescued. The National Coal Board embarked on a strategy of super pits such as Monktonhall and Bilston Glen in Midlothian. They came into production in the 1960s and were planned to produce 1 million tonnes of coal per year. They survived for some time after the miners strike but were both abandoned by 2000.

On the social side, mining communities evolved into distinctive societies with community pubs called ‘Goths’--- after the town of Gothenberg in Sweden where the idea of community pubs originated--- and various local organisations based around the mining villages such as football clubs, and pipe and brass bands. Prior to Nationalisation, there were instances whgere private coal companies attempted to monopolise the local shops and goods which the mining communities would use. Acts of Parliament were introduced to prevent wages being paid as credit notes which could be redeemed at the company shops and also prohibiting the payment of wages in licensed premises.

During the 19th century, the larger coal companies began to take a more enlightened approach to the living conditions of the mining communities. Model villages such as Coaltown of Wemyss and Newtongrange were planned and built. The houses belonged to the coal company however and if you lost your job, you lost your home!

In the peak year for coal production in the UK –1913—60% of the UK coal was used for domestic and industry, with less than 5% used as a source for electricity generation. By contrast, in 2000, 10% of coal produced was used for domestic and industry and over 80% for electricity generation. Since 1980, UK coal consumption has exceeded home coal production with imports making up the difference.  In 2011, in Scotland, coal was the source of 21% of the electricity produced mostly imported! The last deep mine in Scotland –Longannet—flooded and closed in 2002 and Scottish Coal the company which took over the National Coal Board assets in Scotland at the privatisation of the industry in 1995 ceased trading in 2013.

The National Mining Museum Scotland located at the old Lady Victoria Colliery at Newtongrange, is a 5 star visitor attraction and is a Recognised Collection of National Significance. In addition to being a museum, the staff, including volunteers, help people to research their family history, assist schools in mining projects, and is creating an oral archive of those who have been connected with the coal mining industry, including policemen involved in the 1984 miners’ strike.