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The History of Stirlingshire
Chapter XXXIX – Mining


Coal, while one of the most valuable of our minerals, is also one of the most abundant. The output in Stirlingshire during 1879 was 967,855 tons – the collieries of the western district producing 257,539 tons, and those of the eastern 710,316. Of ironstone there was likewise raised in the western district 105,947 tons, and in the eastern 2,819; making a total of 108,766 tons. The amount of fire-clay raised, for the same period, was 8,219 tons; and of oil shale, 1,135. Throughout the county, there are at present 34 pits open, the principal of which are in the districts of Bannockburn, Auchenbowie, Denny, Lennoxtown, Kinnaird, Falkirk, Redding, and Slamannan; while the number of men engaged over-all is stated to be about 1,800. As regards the coal-fields of the world, although our own land does not contain the largest amount of fossil fuel, its output is greater than that of any other country. The extent of the coal-fields in Great Britain is said to be 4,251 square miles; while the annual weight raised is now usually estimated as equal to 35,000,000 of tons. The home consumption is stated to be 23,000,000 of tons per annum and if coal costs the consumer an average price of 7s. per ton, then 23,000,000 tons will be worth in all over 8,000,000 pounds sterling. The total number of persons engaged in the work of British collieries has been computed at from 160,000 to 180,000; and that the total capital thus employed is no less than 10,000,000 pounds.

The following short calculation will give the results of all that can be conjectured as to the amount of vegetation in coal: - Wood affords in general about 20 per cent, and coal about 80 per cent, of charcoal. Apart, therefore, from the oxygen and hydrogen, it must have required 4 tons of wood to yield the charcoal which we find in 1 ton of coal. Let us then suppose a forest composed of trees 60 feet high, that the trunk of each tree contains 80 cubic feet, and the branches 40, making 120; the weight of such a tree, at 700 specific gravity, will be 2 1/4 tons; and allowing 130 trees to an acre, we have 300 tons on that space. Further supposing the portion that falls annually, leaves and wood, to be equal to one-thirtieth, we have 10 tons of wood annually from an acre, which yields 2 tons of charcoal; and this charcoal, with the addition of bitumen, forms 2 1/2 tons of coal. Now a cubic yard of coal weighs almost exactly a ton; and a bed of coal, 1 acre in extent and 3 feet thick, will contain 4,840 tons. It follows, therefore, that 1 acre of coal is equal to the produce of 1,940 acres (i.e., 4,840 divided by 2 1/2) of forest; or, if the wood all grew on the spot where its remains exist, the coal bed 3 feet thick, and 1 acre in extent, must be the growth of 1,940 years.

It need not be said that the pit as a workroom is peculiarly dangerous. The collier, in fact, must be seen "holing," for the more than common difficulties and perils of his trade to be fully understood. Flat on his side, or down on his "hunkers," or knees, long and laboriously he pikes, working out the block of coal from the wall or seam.

When Bruce, the traveller, returned from Abyssinia to Kinnaird, he was greatly dissatisfied with the way in which his collieries had been wrought. After some stormy disputes with the lessees, he agreed to submit the matter to a committee of experienced coal engineers, who accordingly met at Kinnaird, inspected the mines, and made every endeavour to form an impartial judgment. Conversing one day with those gentlemen, he challenged something which one of them said respecting the condition of the mines; whereupon the engineer said, "If you are not afraid, Mr. Bruce, go down and satisfy yourself on the point by personal investigation." The word "afraid" startled Bruce. "Afraid!" said he in his own peculiarly commanding way; "Sir, do you think I should be afraid to go down into my own mines?" At once he engaged to descend with them, the following day, into the "Carse Pit;" and they as eagerly took him at his word, having secretly determined to punish him for the unreasonable way in which he had disputed many of their statements. "He speaks of Nubian sands," quoth one to another that evening; "We’ll show him something worse to-morrow, if I am not mistaken." Next day, accordingly, Bruce appeared at the mouth of the pit; and, after donning a suitable suit, went down with his corps of engineers. The strata were not very thick at the best, and many of the wastes were considerably crushed and fallen in. Walking underground was, consequently, anything but pleasant; nevertheless, as the engineers had arranged, in they went, up one waste and down another, leading the adventurer such a dance as traveller never danced before. All the while the engineers pretended to demonstrate to Bruce the conclusions at which they had arrived. Sometimes the party would be stooping in rectangular form; sometimes wading up to the ankles in wet coal mud; and at other times reduced to crawling on their hands and knees for a quarter of a mile. At one part, the engineers passed through an aperture barely wide enough for themselves, who were men of moderate size, and cruelly narrow for Bruce. He tried the passage, but stuck in it; and had to be extricated by the head and shoulders. Again reaching the bottom of the shaft, the figure which he presented is not to be described. Still, up to the last, he maintained his usual composure, and only remarked that he certainly was surprised at the dirtiness of the wastes.

The Snab pit at Kinneil, with a depth of 1200 feet, is one of the deepest shafts in Scotland. In that Bo’ness district, both coal and ironstone abound; there being some seven or eight principal seams of the former, one of which carried a thickness of 12 feet, and two seams of the latter which is black-band in character. One of the most remarkable collieries in the country was wrought here under water. The strata of coal being found to extend far out beneath the firth, the colliers had the courage to work half-way across the channel. A building, or moat as it was called, half-a mile from the shore, and taking the form of a round quay, afforded an entrance into the sea-pit, but, ultimately, an unusually high tide came which drowned the whole of the miners.

Pits are apt to become all the more fiery the deeper they are wrought; and, where the area excavated is extensive, special statutory attention should be given to upcast and downcast shafts. Never in the annals of our mining industry has there been havoc to equal the appalling destruction of human life of which the last few years have been witness. Colliers, considering the critical character of their calling, are careless beyond all credence. They may be reasoned with, fined, and even dismissed, for rashly flying in the face of rules specially framed with the object of protecting life and property, but all to no purpose. A manager of one of the largest of the Scotch collieries once caught a miner filling his flask from a barrel of gunpowder, while an oil-lamp with open flame hung from his bonnet. What, however, from the enlightened provisions of modern science, and stricter regard to the most ordinary chemical precautions, pit labour is ever getting less and less perilous to the health and life. The Davy lamp, no doubt, is in some measure to be thanked for the now comparative rarity of explosions, such catastrophes generally having occurred from the workman’s light coming into contact with inflammable air, or, in other words, hydrogen gas. And a word with respect to the collier’s general health. From his toil, so peculiarly chest-trying, it is easy to see why he so rarely shows the "auld grey frostit head." With an average life of only twenty-seven years, he is little short of a phenomenon at fifty; and when found at that "patriarchal age," is generally a crouching invalid, emaciated and breathless. And the diseases to which he is specially liable are those affecting the respiratory organs. "Housemaid’s knee" – an acute inflammation over the knee-pan – is a very painful and common sore throughout his class; but the great hydra of the pit is asthma, with the constant tendency to bronchitis in the winter season, and this ailment not unfrequently ends in enlargement of the liver and dropsy. "Black-spit" is another health-undermining, although not mortal disease comparatively, reaching to such intensity at times that a fluid like tar runs out of the throat. Yet this melanosis, strange to say, seems preventive of other affections of the lungs. Consumption, for example, is never heard of amongst colliers; and its absence from the Hebridean poor has also been observed – people who are continually inhaling a carbonaceous atmosphere from the peat-reek of their huts. The tissue of the miner’s lungs appears most tenacious of the charcoal deposits. Some years ago, on the occasion of a female body being dissected in the neighbourhood of Falkirk, the surgeon who performed the post-mortem operation could tell at once, from the blackness of the lungs, that the woman in early life had been engaged underground, although thirty years had elapsed from the day on which she left the pit. And we have the same baneful dust ruining the health of the moulders in our foundries. The late Dr. Graham, latterly master of the Mint, on analyzing the lungs of a workman who had wrought at Carron for about forty years, found even as much as a fourth of them pure charcoal.

When the oil lamp was abolished from the mine, asthma and black spit were thought to have received their death-blow. And the tallow now in use has certainly done away, to a great extent, with the lamp-black deposits that have hitherto proved so detrimental to collier vitality. It is, in fact, rare now to find any of the younger pitmen afflicted with asthma, except where the disease may be fairly considered hereditary; and further improvements in pit-lighting are at present being contemplated.

A great deal of nonsense has, of late, been written about the dusky heroes of the mine. Everywhere they have been represented as a brutal, illiterate, and godless class; and it cannot be denied that their conduct, so far from being the genuine embodiment of every virtue, is still in a great measure rude, and perhaps not quite up to the ordinary standard. Yet not so sweepingly can they be written down either barbarians or vagabonds. The great bulk of the men employed in our new collieries undoubtedly lead a most riotous life. Nor is it surprising that we should there find so much of the baser dross of humanity. To these young coal workings, all the unsettled Irish of the country flocked; and whatever wealth of wild goodness may be common to the hot-headed Hibernian, at his door assuredly lies, for the most part, the notorious blackguardism of our mining hamlets. That lower and degraded class too, are without exception itinerants. Never certain of steady employment, they keep themselves in readiness to take up their bed at any hour and walk. It would be well, therefore, if by some arrangement the miner could be made to feel sure of permanent work and a settled home. No doubt there are peculiar difficulties in the way. Colliers, of all the "sons of toil," are specially apt to get dissatisfied and restless. Many of the steadiest hands have to be frequently shifted in their workings; and even sent at times into a different pit. By-and-by their power of muscle fails them – their thews and sinews get weakened and worn, and the poor fellows go about, as it were, seeking their lost strength.

As we have already hinted, the general enlightenment and self-respect of the workmen connected with our older collieries are undisputable; while a growing intelligence throughout their ranks is ever raising them in the scale of moral being. From Garscadden, for example, sang David Wingate – himself "A weary bon’d miner," and a poet born. To read his songs, "The Deil in the Pit," "The Burn in the Glen," and "My Little Wife," is as refreshing as a norland breeze.

On some occasions, the pit must be wrought night and day; and this is managed by one set of men working the day-shift, and another set the night-shift. The night-shift is always regarded somewhat of a hardship by the men, but by a change of the sets it is fairly distributed amongst them all. The wages, which are paid according to piecework, vary considerably in different districts, and are liable to fluctuation. In some cases the quantity of coal a man may put out in a day is limited by mutual consent, or in accordance with a rule of the Union; in others, the working hours are limited, each man being allowed to put out as much as he can in the stated time and again, there are collieries at which there is no limitation either as to time or quantity. A century ago, the wages of miners, all serfs, was from 7s. to 8s 4d. a-week. In those days candles were used in the pit, which were supplied by the masters without charge. The average wage is at present 3s. 6d a-day. In 1851, the average was 2s. 6d.; and in 1854, it was 5s. A gradual decline took place; and in 1858 the average was 3s; below which sum it has not fallen, the figures for the six succeeding years being respectively 3s. 6d., 4s., 4s. 6d., 5s. 6d., and 4s. 9d. From these sums about 3d. a-day falls to be deducted for light, sharpening tools, &c. In 1871 and 1872, the wages rose to 10s. a day; and a man, with two boys, could then make as much as 20s. This was a rare and luxurious period for the colliers; but the times were too good to last. With the close of ’72 came a reverse; and wages gradually declined until they reached the present average rate above stated. The relations between the Stirlingshire miners and their employers have been little disturbed by disputes as to work or wages. In the west of Scotland the case has been different – strikes being of frequent occurrence.


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