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Issue 71 - Scotland's black diamonds

Scotland Magazine Issue 71
October 2013


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Scotland's black diamonds

?John Hannavy explores Scotland's coal-mining heritage

As a child in Scotland in the 1950s, the coal mine was an ever-present feature of the landscape. Driving back along the north bank of the Forth towards Stirling, past Clackmannan, Alloa and Tullibody, after visiting grandparents in Fife, the night sky was underlined by ‘bings’ – spoil heaps – burning and in places glowing bright red, the air filled with a noxious smell, the scene in places resembling the aftermath of some apocalyptic event.

Huge waste heaps stood as reminders both of the scale of the mining industry, and of Britain’s dependence on the ‘black diamonds’ brought up from hundreds, and in many cases thousands, of feet below ground.

A century ago, Scotland’s mining industry employed well over one hundred thousand people – a considerable percentage of the workforce – and the output of the country’s mines was prodigious. The port of Methil alone shipped nearly three million tons of coal from the Fife coalfield alone. Today, Methil’s huge No.3 dock – the main coal dock – is partially filled in, and the other two docks stand deserted, used only for the occasional small ship importing timber.

In these days of bland picture postcards, their subjects limited to scenic views of famous buildings and holiday resorts, it is hard to imagine a time when over 500 million postcards were sent in Britain each year, their subjects as diverse as the lifestyles of the people.

In the days before camera phones, the picture postcard was used as the text message of its day, and the images it carried defined the country, and defined people’s experiences. Amongst the many subjects featured on postcards were the working lives of those who drove Scotland’s industries – fishermen, soldiers, factory workers and, of course, colliers.

Amongst those postcards, one shows a couple of rather glum-looking men – George and James Dryburgh – posing for the camera. Their story – and the reason why they were celebrated on postcards – could equally have applied to many of the colliers who worked Scotland’s often-difficult mines.

‘As will be seen from the Court Circular’, The Times reported on July 22nd 1908, ‘the King yesterday at Buckingham Palace decorated nine miners and a seaman with medals for bravery. The miners who received the Edward Medal for Bravery in Mines were John Henry Thorne, Joseph Outram, Walter Clifford, James Cranswick, James Hopwood, James Whittingham, George Dryburgh, James Dryburgh, and Morgan Howells.’ George and James Dryburgh, who both worked at the Wemyss Colliery Company’s Lochhead Colliery in East Wemyss, became the first two Scottish miners to be awarded the Edward Medal, which the King had only just instituted.

The Times report continued ‘In respect of the two Dryburghs who although bearing the same name are not related, they are the first recipients from Scotland of Edward Medals. They were engaged at the Wemyss Collieries, East Fife, on December 29 last, when a fire broke out. The two men descended the shaft to rescue their comrades, several of whom perished in the disaster. George Dryburgh was overcome by the fumes and James Dryburgh dragged him along the passage and held him in the cage until the surface was reached. Subsequently other men went down the shaft, and the jury at the inquest recommended eight miners' names for the medal. The Home Secretary, in conference with the Inspector of Mines in the district, finally selected the two Dryburghs for the honour.’ Perhaps that is why the two men looked less than happy in their postcard photograph – for they believed that their actions were no more heroic than the others who had fought to rescue their stricken colleagues.

In its short existence, a further nineteen Scottish miners were awarded the Edward Medal, the last being Andrew Taylor a deputy at the Michael Colliery, who died while trying to locate some missing colleagues after an underground fire on September 9th 1968. As the London Gazette reported on July 16th 1968, Taylor ‘told the two other men who were with him that he was going back to search for them as he believed he could lead them safely out of the mine. The other men tried to dissuade him and warned him that if he went back he would lose his life. Deputy Taylor replied that he could not return to the surface if some of his men were missing. With complete disregard for his own safety, he went back into the smoke-laden return and was not seen again.’ Just three years later, in 1971, the Edward Medal – which lately had been awarded only posthumously – was discontinued, and holders were invited to exchange it for a George Cross. James Dryburgh’s Edward Medal was sold at auction recently for £3,600.

Mining was, for centuries, one of the most important industries in Scotland, but the speed, and the completeness, with which just about every trace of coal mining has been wiped out is little short of remarkable. As a historian, my photographic collection contains many striking photographs of this once great industry, but there is little evidence of that history to be seen on the ground today.

Coal mines dotted the landscape right across Scotland’s central belt, as well as throughout Ayrshire and the Kingdom of Fife. A century ago, Scotland’s coalfields produced forty-two million tons annually, one seventh of the total British output. Within five years of the end of the miners’ strike in 1985, only one deep mine remained – the last of a tradition which could trace its origins back at least to the 16th century, and Sir George Bruce’s pioneering mines at Culross on the River Forth. That last mine – feeding the power station at Longannet – carried on alone, although several other pits were mothballed for a time. Ironically, the first and last deep mines in Scotland were just a few miles apart, and both worked seams deep under the Forth. And when that last mine went, a major disaster was narrowly averted. As The Independent reported on Saturday March 30th 2002, ‘Centuries of mining tradition came to an end when 77m litres (17m gallons) of water flooded the Longannet pit in Fife last Saturday after a dam separating old workings from new seams under the river Forth collapsed. If the breach had occurred 24 hours earlier, hundreds of miners would have drowned. The water poured into the five-mile mineshafts 1,970ft (600m) below ground in less than 10 minutes.’ The fifteen men working underground at the time were in a part of the mine which escaped the flooding, and were all brought safely to the surface.

Fear of inundation was ever-present in the mines which cut coal deep under the Firth of Forth and can be traced back centuries, and that fear touched at least one important person – none other than King James V1 who, according to legend, was given a guided tour by Sir George Bruce of his mine workings – the first deep mines in Scotland to tunnel out beneath the river. Leading his monarch along underground passages, tradition has it that they ascended back up to the surface only for the king to find that, rather than on dry land where he had expected to be, he was in fact on a man-made structure some considerable distance out into the Firth of Forth – at the head of a shaft Bruce had designed to enable coal to be loaded directly into waiting ships. The king, horrified to discover that he had been walking not underground as he thought, but under water, was even less pleased to realise he very probably had to walk back again!

Tradition has it that he told Sir George he had committed an act of treason by endangering the monarch’s life, and it was only when Bruce pointed to a waiting boat, giving the King the choice of sailing back to shore, rather than returning by the tunnel, that the King withdrew his threat! He took the boat!

During the Edwardian years, with the picture postcard in its ascendancy, pioneering photographers took their cameras underground to capture for the first time the conditions under which miners work to cut the coal. By that time, many collieries were modernising and mechanising, and were introducing machinery powered by compressed air or electricity. With an electrical supply at or near the coal face, photographers could take powerful lamps down to illuminate the scenes. For most people, such postcards were their first glimpse of how difficult and unpleasant conditions in mines could be. Now, a century after such cards first appeared, of the country’s hundreds of coal mines, hardly a trace remains, and that represent a huge gap in our preserved history. Even the spoil heaps have all gone, used as foundations for most of Scotland’s motorways. The 1902 concrete headgear of the Mary Colliery at Ballingry stands alone in the middle of the Lochore Meadows Country Park created out of the former pit site, but such glimpses of the country’s great mining heritage are few and far between.

Standing alone, however, is the magnificent National Mining Museum of Scotland at Newtongrange near Dalkeith – – where the former Lady Victoria Colliery, mothballed after the miners’ strike, has been developed into an excellent museum to Scotland’s mining heritage. Still very much a work in progress, the museum has as its core, the most completely preserved group of Victorian mining buildings in Britain, and I have to say, a day’s visit is not enough to do justice to the place and its contents.

As your guide around the museum and the many colliery buidings, visitors now get to use an iPod with a guided tour voiced by Ian Rankin, celebrated author of the Rebus novels. Rankin comes from Bowhill in Fife, where generations of his family were miners. Perhaps they might have been amongst the Edwardian miners from Bowhill who were recorded for posterity when they were featured in a series of postcards of the mine’s underground workings around 1906.