Having grown up in East Lothian and refreshed my knowledge of its newer corners while campaigning over the last year, you’d think I’d be pretty comfortable anywhere in the county. But today I’d been asked to speak to the Tranent Probus Club, who meet regularly at the Brig. They are an affable and dignified crowd and did make me very welcome. But they had asked me to speak on a topic that made me feel like an upstart Daniel in the lions’ den—Mining in East Lothian.
There’s nothing wrong with the topic—our westernmost parishes have been steeped in mining for eight centuries—and Lothian miners were as proud and as doughty about their heritage as any from Ayrshire or Fife. But, as a fisherman’s grandson, whose entire contact with mines has been a visit to the Lady Vic museum, it felt nothing short of cheeky for me to be telling Belters about their heritage. I expected some form of roasting for it.
But, not a bit of it. Half an hour of Death by Powerpoint had me tracing the story from the monks of Newbattle eking out surface coal in 1200, through the despicable slavery that entire mining families were held in, to the Cockenzie Wagonway and the steam pumps that allowed deep pits to keep working. It’s a story of tough, flinty people wrestling with the nasty business of digging coal in dirt, heat and dark. The few pictures I had of them are all posed and give little away about the story of each.
In the presentation, I tried to portray what a hard scrabble of a life it was—long shifts and long before the NCB installed either pit-head baths or canteens, full of danger from collapse and splintering pit props or fire damp and explosions. Many were killed, although there was no great loss of life in a single incident like the 207 who died in the 1877 explosion at Blantyre in Lanarkshire. Despite all, each man was expected to bring a ton or more of coal to the surface each day.
Although the last East Lothian deep pit closed in 1965, some of my audience did have mine experience still—an engineer who oversaw winding machinery, a pump engineer who transferred to Bilston Glen when that super-mine opened in 1963. Many, as lads, had carried their dad’s lunch pail to him or met him coming home still blackened with dust. It was touching to see how my minor research triggered so many memories, in men who had now half-forgotten a great heritage.
Because, however grimy, hard or tricky the work might be, it was just those things that bound miners together, gave them their feisty outlook—the same feeling of difficulties overcome that binds soldiers who have survived together. And, however much all the new houses in Tranent may be improvements, because most Belters who went down the deep mines of Limeylands, Fleets or Tynemount have long died of emphysema or other lung ailments, that close sense of community they held on to is almost lost.
But for half a hour in the Brig this morning, they let me rummage through their heritage, share with them what little I know of those tough men and their resilient wives who, in one year, once brought 25m tonnes of coal out of the bowels of Scotland in one year and whose predecessors had been doing it with the same gritty skill for over 750 years.
Being allowed to share that (and not get run out of town for my impertinence) was a real privilege for me.