Alloway and Southern Ayrshire FAMILY HISTORY SOCIETY Robert Burns Cottage, Alloway, Ayr
| Home | Contact | Events | Publications | Resources | Links | Membership | Interests | Activities | Notices |

Sunday, 25 January 2015

20 January 2015 - "Ayrshire Mining"

Andrew Dick, an ex miner himself, gave 34 members and guests a fascinating picture of "Ayrshire Mining".  He brought along not only his slides, but also 2 items which were of great importance to the miners.  Firstly a "Piece Box" in which miners would have carried their food for their day underground and secondly a "Davy Lamp" which was vital to the safety of those in the mines.  Local dialects gave different names to these lamps - in Ayrshire it was referred to as a "Glennie" while in the North East of England it was a "Geordie".  Before these lamps were used to identify the presence of dangerous gases such as methane or carbon monoxide, canaries were carried as they would quickly pass-out before the gas affected the men.  Andrew recalled one occasion when it had saved his life and the lives of others when they were about to test a supply road and the lamp held up at the entrance had immediately gone out thereby stopping them from going further.  Another early safety change was to exchange the miner's cloth caps for helmets!

The "A" Frame used to carry the lift-cage cables at the Barony Colliery between Ochiltree and Auchinleck still stands.  Also on the site are illustrations showing details about the pit and a Memorial Stone for those whose bodies were never recovered from the 1960's disaster.  The mine was a very deep and dangerous one and although it re-opened after the disaster it closed in 1989.  

In 1879 Kier Hardie became a Trade Union organiser and a statue of the man who became the first Independent Labour Member of Parliament stands outside Cumnock town Hall in the heart of the area.

One of the most terrible mining disasters in the history of British coal mining took place at the Knochshinnoch Castle Mine at New Cumnock in 1950.  An early warning of trouble was given when a farmer came to the pit head to explain that one was his fields was "moving".  Those checking the mine to ensure there was an escape route found a barrier of gas.  In the event around 125 men were trapped, some for as long as 3 days.  We were told that the spirit of the miners was summed up in a memory to be found on the "Patter in the Pits" tape: The rescued man who declared that at least he would have been entitled to his bonus given the amount of time spent underground and did anyone know the winning horses for recent horse races!  Many heroic efforts were made to rescue the men and Andrew Houston and David Park were awarded the George Medal for their contribution.  Andrew organised the men underground, while David voluntarily left his place of safety to join the trapped men to instruct them in how to use the "breathing equipment" necessary to their escape through the dangerous gas.  For anyone interested in finding out more, Andrew recommended "Black Avalanche" a book written about the disaster by Arthur and Mary Selwood (available in the Carnegie Library in Ayr and from Amazon or other vendors). A film was also made in the 50s based on the disaster - "The Brave Don't Cry". (also available from Amazon or other vendors) At this time the population of New Cumnock was 7,000 whereas it is now around 2,000.  On the plus side the slag heaps are now nature reserves.

One sign of the tough life of the miners was that they were paid for the coal they produced identified by them putting their initials on the "Tubs" they had filled. There were so many disputes with the check weigh-man employed by the mine owners that the men collaborated to employ a "Justice Man" to stand by the weigh-man to ensure that they got the right wages. 

Another mining area was around Patna where there are a number of "lost villages" such as Lethan Hill where there are Memorials.  The Dunaskin Heritage Centre showed for a time the history of ironstone mining, which stopped in 1921 due to cheap imports from Spain, then the brick and coal industries which replaced it.  The "Waterside Rows" are left and current photographs show them as lovely small houses.  It is thought that they were always better houses than found in the typical miners' rows so were probably occupied by those in supervisory positions. A slide illustrated the "Pug" - the engine made by Andrew Barclay in Kilmarnock which was used in the coal industry.  The Dunaskin Centre also still houses the building which was the "Company Store".  The mine owners such as the Bairds of the Dalmellington Iron Company controlled everything in the area and were inclined to issue wages in "Company Tokens" which had to be spent in the Company Store rather than in cash until the practice was outlawed by Act of Parliament.

Andrew's slides of the countryside around the mining areas today show the signs of land contaminated by chemicals, totally unsuitable for growing crops. In addition, the East Ayrshire countryside now shows different scars as the company recently operating an Open Cast Mine was due to "restore the land" after working it but went bankrupt and has left the site in a very bad state.

Slides were shown of the still-existing Laigh Milton Viaduct, initially built to transport the coal in horse-drawn wagons to the docks, and of some of the pit ponies when they were brought up from the pits on retirement to live in the fields.  The power of the coal owners has been mentioned, but the landowners who owned the mineral rights occasionally overstepped themselves, such as those in Craig House when they decided that the Craig Pit was doing so well they would increase their charges, but this simply caused it to close as uneconomic.  Names of coal-masters are recorded in many names found in Kilmarnock, such as John Finnie Street.

One famous son of the mining area was Andrew Fisher who was born at Crosshouse.  He started working in the mines at a very young age, probably because of his father's ill health, and was active in the National Union of Mineworkers.  This led to him being blacklisted and eventually he emigrated with his brother to Australia.  He returned to Crosshouse for a visit when he was the first Labour Prime Minister of Australia!  He was then made a Freeman of the Burgh of Kilmarnock.

Other famous sons included Robert Burns, who mentions the river and walk from Glenbuck to Ayr, and John Loudon Macadam who build the first tarred road at Muirkirk, but sadly died bankrupt in spite of his name being used today to identify "Macadamised" road surfaces.  Glenbuck itself was famous for the football players it produced including 6 who played for Scotland and, of course, Bill Shankly of Liverpool fame.

We are all aware of the way that the coal seams were laid down millennia ago, and Andrew brought this home when he spoke of the fossils of sea shells and pine-cones which he used to find in the Sorn Mine and take home to his children.

To bring us up to date there was mention of the Ayrshire coal seam which is said to extend into the sea as far as Ailsa Craig and the new idea of fracking under the sea.  Going from 700 mines at one point to the total collapse of the industry was discussed, including the Miners' strike of 1984 and the bitterness of the aftermath.  Andrew gave great credit to the women at the time for the support they gave the miners.

For anyone with mining ancestors in the area, there are several websites worth a look, such as: and

Pat Weston

Older Postings