Scottish Mining Museum
Life at the coal face
The now-defunct Lady Victoria Colliery is home to the Scottish Mining Museum, a tribute to a once-great industry. Robin Lee mines its history.
There’s a yellow canary called Bev that lives in a well-appointed cage at the Scottish Mining Museum. He’s been there five years, and is named in honour of Ernest Bevin, Minister for Labour during World War II. Bevin’s the one who decided that 10% of all new conscripts had to work down the mines - Bevin Boys - to replace skilled miners who had gone to war. Bev the canary is lucky: if he’d been around when the Lady Victoria Colliery in Newtongrange was operational, before 1981, his life expectancy might have been a lot shorter.
There are no deep coal mines left in Scotland. Longannet, the last to close in 2002, ended the era of Scotland’s ‘black diamonds’. With the death of the industry came an uncertain future for the communities wedded to the pits. Thankfully (and unlike other, less fortunate coal mining sites) Newtongrange retains a community character, with neat rows of red-brick terraces built in the 1920s for mineworkers, and an annual brass band competition.
John Kane started work at the Lady Victoria aged 15, and now he’s a voluble ex-miner in late middle age. Leading me down through the ‘coal road’ to the museum’s recreation of the coal face, his stories evoke the age when you were born into a job and could expect to retire from that same job. He talks of the old days, when each man (women, children and boys under 10 were banned from going underground in 1842) tended to a 6-yard section, and the recent past, when mechanisation boosted productivity.
At the coal face sits one of the modern coal cutters, a great drum studded with gruesome fangs and backed by a roof jack that looks like the machine-age update of a classical colonnade. Wearing a helmet, ear defenders and a ‘battery’ (it’s actually an audio guide that plays into the ear defenders), it’s easy to imagine the bustle and buzz of harvesting the earth’s resources - a romantic notion that’s leavened by the grimy, gap-toothed smiles of miners past in the museum’s exhibition rooms.
The Story of Coal, and the story of its people, A Race Apart, trace a route from the swamps and dinosaurs of ancient coal creation, to the final closure in Scotland. Miners were practically slaves from 1606, when they were tied to their pits, and were only released from bondage in 1799. As well as death, disease and serious injury, pit workers had to put up with more mundane dangers - like having rats steal their lunches.
Working conditions and welfare only really improved in the second half of the 19th century, after a Royal Commission report, and an ex-miner from Lanarkshire, Keir Hardie, became the first MP of the Labour movement - which grew out of coal - in 1891. Production hit a peak of 42 million tons of coal in 1913, but was knocked by World War I. After recovery, the mines were nationalised and a plethora of new, modern pits and ‘super-pits’ were sunk in the optimism of the 1950s. Yet it was folly: oil and nuclear power made inroads, heavy industry declined, and the pits failed to deliver on the investment. The end was in sight.
The Scottish Mining Museum, Newtongrange, Midlothian is open daily, 10am-4pm (until 5pm Mar-Oct). See www.scottishminingmuseum.com for details. Lothian buses 3A and 29 and First buses X81, 86, 86A, X95 go to Newtongrange.