Coal can be found throughout most of Ayrshire and in the Sanquar and Canonbie districts of Dumfriesshire. 300 million years ago these part of the earth's surface were occupied by tropical swampland. Over many years dying vegetation sunk beneath water level into oxygen-free conditions which ensured its survival. Trapped within this fossilised material was the energy which the plants had absorbed from the sun while they had formed a living part of the ancient forest.

Coal comes in many different forms and releases its trapped energy in different ways. 'Cannel' coal burns brightly and was used as a source of light as well as heat. By the middle of the 19th Century many of Scotland's towns were lit by gas derived from coal. Dumfries's gasworks used cannel coal mined at New Cumnock in Ayrshire. 'Anthracite' burns with great heat but without flame or smoke. It was suitable for grain and malt drying and was exported for this purpose from Kilmarnock to Ireland. 

Coal has been valued as a domestic fuel for several centuries. From the late18th Century, a wide range of industries increasingly relied on coal as a source of energy. The Rowanburn pit at Canonbie, sunk in the middle of the 19th Century, supplied fuel for local limekilns, pottery kilns, distilleries and a tweed mill. 

The spectacular industrial success story which unfolded in the west of Scotland during 18th and 19th Centuries was not due simply to the presence of coal. Where coal was mined, other important materials emerged. Ironstone was discovered, from which iron could be extracted. Limestone was abundant and was essential to the iron smelting process. Clays were found which were suitable for lining blast furnaces and producing bricks. This landscape yielded all the basic ingredients for rapid industrial development. 


Massive deposits of coal are buried at great depth below the surface in a number of parts of Scotland. Powerful forces, over millions of years have twisted and folded the earth. As a result, in places, seams of coal have been brought to the surface. Coal would have first been found where it outcropped on eroded river banks and valley sides. Here, it could be easily dug out. In Scotland, the first evidence we have for the use of coal as a fuel for the fire, occurs in written documents from more than 900 years ago in the reign of Malcolm 1V. 

A hundred years later, a charter of 1415 indicates that the monks of Crossraguel Abbey had the rights to coal pits at Dailly in South Ayrshire. It is likely that these were 'bell pits' - simple excavations to depths of up to 80 feet, expanding outwards into the coal seam as they descended. 

In the closing decades of the 17th Century, Sir Robert Cunningham of Auchenharvie, began to exploit the coal on his estate, on a scale which had not been seen before in this part of Scotland. He built a harbour at Saltcoats for the export of his coal and set up coal-fuelled salt pans for the production of salt. 

For the next two centuries, coal mining provided the mainspring for industrial development in the west of Scotland. At the outset, mining depended on human physical effort alone. Over time, horse-power and steam power were applied to the process of hauling coal from the coal face and hoisting men and coal from the pit bottom. In the final days of the mining in this part of Scotland, electrically powered machinery, performed all the essential functions in the colliery - coal cutting, haulage, drainage, ventilation and lighting.


Scottish Coal Collections Project 

Coal-mining collections are held in museums, libraries and archives throughout Scotland. After a survey in 2005 established the existence and the extent of these collections, a cross-sectoral partnership was established to gather information on as many of the collections as possible. The resulting website provides a single point of reference for the many researchers interested in this important aspect of Scotland's industrial past, as well as for professionals working with coal-mining collections, and can be found at 

You must enable javascript to view this website