Miners & Quarrymen

For miners, life has always been hard. Roof collapse, exploding gases and heavy machinery, running out of control in confined spaces, are just a few of the risks which accompany the process of extracting coal. By the middle of the 19th Century the need for government regulation of this dangerous industry was recognised. Despite increasing awareness of safety issues, new developments in mining technology brought with them new hazards. 1972 was the first year recorded in Scotland without a fatality in coal mining.

Coal Miners 

Coal mining on the west coast of Scotland developed later than in the Lothians and Fife. There is little evidence that the tied status of serfdom associated with earlier, east coast  coal mining traditions ever applied in Ayrshire. But, in privately owned mines, management has always attempted to exert control over the lives of the workforce. In the 19th Century this could take benevolent forms such as the subsidised provision of schools. The running of company owned shops could be less benevolent. Credit was extended to mining families. The resulting debt could leave them unable ever, to release themselves from their employer. Houses were built by the mine owners for the workforce but this then enabled them to counter strike action by threatened eviction. When strikes did occur, they were frequently attempts to resist wage cuts. 

After 1842, women and young children were banned from underground work. Increasing leisure time allowed miners to indulge in favourite pursuits such whippet racing and quoiting. Mining villages were scattered widely across the Ayrshire countryside. They were at the heart of the nation's industry but surrounded by braes and streams. By the middle of the 20th Century these 'miner's rows' were officially described as unfit for habitation. For many of those brought up, in these overcrowded houses, within cohesive communities, it was a rural existence whose passing they view with regret. 

Metal Miners & Quarrymen 

Most metal miners worked a 'bargain system.' This meant they reached an agreement with the mining company and were paid by the amount and quality of ore mined. It was a gamble, but if a miner was lucky enough to work a rich part of the mine he could earn a decent wage. 'Bargains' were taken out by a group of men and could last from three months to a year. At the end of a bargain the miners were charged by the company for the costs of tools, candles and explosives.  Quarrymen, by contrast, were generally employed directly by the company. 

Miners and quarrymen were skilled workers and came from all over Britain. Many of the  lead miners at  Wanlockhead  were from the North Pennines and the Galloway mines attracted men from Cornwall, Ireland and Wales. Welshmen also worked in the Galloway granite quarries. 

Many of the metal mines were in isolated areas and the mining companies had to provide a system of social support for the miners and their families. In the 1830s the owner of the Woodhead lead mines, Colonel Cathcart, constructed a village for his workers complete with a library and school and paid a 'liberal salary' to the school-master and his assistant. At Wanlockhead the village school was supported by the owner and operator of the mines, the Duke of Buccleuch. 

Hard physical work, shared dangers and occasional poverty fostered a strong community spirit. Most of the region's mining and quarrying communities had quoiting, curling and football clubs and their own brass and silver bands. At Wanlockhead the miners also set up and paid for their own subscription library. Metal miners and quarrymen were strong supporters of friendly societies like the Oddfellows and Foresters, organisations that could help a worker and his family in the event of injury and provide funeral costs. Trade unionism was never particularly popular. 

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