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Sketches of Tranent in the Olden Times
Chapter II. Colliers and Collieries


IN all probability coals were worked in Tranent for many centuries before any document was written to commemorate the fact. Probably it was the excellent fuel cropping from the surface that attracted the ancient inhabitants to the spot, and very likely the holes they dug in the seam formed their habitations. That coals were worked in Tranent as early as the year 1200, a charter granted by Seyer de Quincy, the lord of the manor of Tranent, to the monks of Newbattle remains to prove, and this is the earliest notice, by ninety years, of the working of coal in Scotland. Fordun, under the year 1322, states familiarly the collieries of Tranent when he speaks of the invasion of Edward the 2d, who remained some time in East Lothian. From the age of Robert the Bruce there is a series of charters granting collieries in East Lothian.

In the middle of the 16th century, 1547, the workings seem to have extended to a considerable distance under ground, as Patton, the narrator of Protector Somerset’s invasion of Scotland, gives an account of many inhabitants of the district taking refuge in the coal pits a few days before the disastrous battle of Pinkie. The English, finding it impossible to dislodge them, closed up the pits, which gave air to the workings, and placing fires at the entrance endeavoured either to drive them out by other apertures, or to suffocate the miserable creatures within.

Tranent sits upon the edge of a shattered basin of coal, or a basin within basins, the bottom of which is under Carlaverock farm-house, about a mile to the south of the town, where it is about thirty-seven fathoms from the surface. The coals were wrought in ancient times, as now, with picks and wedges, but ‘stoops,’ or massive pillars of coal, were left to support the roof, which is now done by props, until the seam is exhausted, when they are removed. The workings in the olden time were cleared of water by a process called ‘ damming and laving,’ that is by forming banks over which the water was ladled into dams above, whence it was ladled over the other banks into other dams, and so on until it was got out of the pit. Buckets with long handles are sometimes found in the ancient workings that appear to be quite sound until exposed to the light of day, when they drop into dust. These had been used in ‘laving.’ A more efficient method of drainage was adopted in course of time, although the precise date is unknown. This was by means of day-levels, that is mines bored through the rocks, regardless of the stratification, to some place on the surface, which is lower than the workings, to which the water is carried by gravitation. One of these day-levels, the mouth of which is near Stiell’s Charity School, must be a mile and a half in length. The author had an opportunity (thanks to Mr. Stewart, the Manager of the Carlaverock Colliery) of seeing that level, and also an ancient coal waste in the same pit, which was discovered in the course of modern excavations, and the existence of which was previously unknown. Miners frequently stumble on these ancient works, which extend for miles in all directions, and force the mind to the conclusion that coal must have been worked in Tranent far back in pre-historic times.

Where the seam was only a few fathoms deep the coals were carried on women’s backs up crazy spiral stairs to the surface. The women were called ‘bearers,’ and a hundred weight and a half was considered a fair burden. The bearers generally carried a small cudgel to help them in the ascent.

In deep pits the coals were carried to the bottom of the shaft by women, and then raised in wooden tubs by means of a gin moved by horses. The coals were almost invariably carried to market in creels slung across horses’ backs, the roads being wretched and unfit for vehicles.

The condition of the colliers in Scotland, from time immemorial down to a very recent date, now excites astonishment, although it does not seem to have caused any surprise whilst it continued. Colliers, until the year 1775, were slaves, and were bought and sold along with the pits. They were excluded by law from all the rights enjoyed by other subjects. In 1775 it was enacted that those who, after the 1st of July shall begin to work as colliers and salters, shall be free; but those who were already at work shall only be liberated gradually, those under twenty-one in seven years, those between twenty-one and thirty-five in ten years, and those who were emancipated were allowed the benefit of the act, which was passed in 1701, to protect others from wrongous imprisonment and undue delays in trials.

As the reader may feel some curiosity to know what could have been said in defence of such an iniquitous institution by those living at that time, a few extracts from a letter written by some one in Glasgow, and published in the Edinburgh Weekly Magazine of March 18, 1772, may not here be out of place. These will show to what an incredible degree selfinterest can blind a man to all sense of justice. He says— ‘I may readily agree with the promoters of the bill, that at first sight it must appear a reproach upon us that a state of slavery should exist in a free country; but if we look around us in the same country, in what better situation is a private soldier in the army, who never can get clear of his service until he is superannuated or unfit for it? From some other cause, it may be alleged that the soldier is only a servant to the public, while the collier is a slave to some individual. Be that as it may, it makes no great difference as to the personal situation of the one or the other. They are both slaves for life. The great difference is, that the soldier is provided for in old age, and the collier is not; and if some provision were made for the latter, it would be all the freedom that ought to be applied for to the legislature for him. The great advantage of slavery is, that whilst the wages of labourers above ground have risen within fifteen years from sevenpence or eightpence a day to one shilling or one shilling and sixpence sterling, the wages of colliers have remained the same for twenty-five years, and that none can clear more than ten shillings a week, which enables the masters to undertake works, which if wages were higher, they would be obliged to abandon, and consequently coal would rise in price, and surely this will never serve the public, and the export of the commodity would fall off. From all which it is clear and evident to me, that it would be extremely dangerous to emancipate the Scots Colliers, while labourers are paid so high for their work above ground, as it would have a direct tendency to raise their wages, to raise the price of coals, and shut up many coal works.’

The Act of 1775, says Lord Cockburn, although effective in checking new slavery, was made very nearly useless in its application to the existing slaves by one of its conditions. Instead of becoming free by mere lapse of time, no slave obtained his liberty unless he instituted a legal proceeding in the Sheriff Court, and incurred all the cost, delay, and trouble of a law suit; his capacity to do which was extinguished by the invariable system of masters always having their workmen in their debt. The result was that in general the existing slave was only liberated by death.

‘But this last link,’ continues Lord Cockburn ‘ was broken in June 1799, by the 39th George the 3d, chap. 56, which enacted that from and after its date “all the colliers in Scotland who were bound colliers at the passing of the 15th George 3d, chap. 28, shall be free from their servitude.” This annihilated the relic.


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