Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Roamin' in the Gloamin'

As TIME went on I tackled all sorts of jobs in the pit. You may be sure that if there was an extra shilling or two to be picked up anywhere, and at any work, hard or easy, I was well after the money! For months I acted as a water- drawer in the well-known Allenton Colliery. Some pits are wet and some dry. Allenton was a very wet pit in my time and the water was so bad in the lower workings that "drawers" were employed at night to remove it. This was done by baling the water into wagons; the ponies pulled these to the "top of the rise" where the plugs below the wagons were released. This water was afterwards pumped out by the great pumps at the pit bottom. Night after night I was the only boy on duty at Allenton. Forty or fifty tons of water had to be removed each night so there was no time to "dawdle"; it was hard graft for ten hours with only a brief "piece-time" interval. And wasn't it drear and lonely! I had to sing to keep my spirits up. I even made friends with the pit-rats-- great, grim, phosphorous-eyed creatures that gathered round you as you ate your piece and fought each other like miniature lions for the crusts.

One night I came across a thousand of these monstrous rats moving from one part of the colliery to another. I got it into my head that they had made up their minds to make a massed attack on me. Horror took possession of me and I ran shrieking to the place half a mile away where the only other living soul in the pit was working. This was Jamie McCulloch, the roadman. Jamie quietly stilled my fears by assuring me that the "rodents" were harmless, that they liked the companionship of man and that they never had been known to attack anybody in the mines.

"Come on, Harry," he finished up, "let's hae a sing-sang thegither. That'll keep us cheery!" And there, each seated on the ground or on a lump of coal, we sang whatever songs we knew. Jamie was a student of poetry and could quote long "screeds" of Burns, Walter Scott, Hogg, the Ettrick shepherd, and Tannahill, the weaver poet of Paisley. I learned to like these poets too, and not long afterwards I was delighted to get a loan of several of Jamie's books the con- tents of which I eagerly devoured.

To Jamie, and another extraordinary character whom I first met in the pits, Rab MacBeth, I think I owe my determination to keep up my singing. At least, both men encouraged me to sing to them and their evident enjoyment of it pleased me more than I can tell. Rab MacBeth was really a worthy—one of the most amusing and original fellows in Lanarkshire and he had the reputation of being just about the best all-round miner in the shire. Big and brawny, with a voice like a bull and a laugh like a peal of deep-toned bells, he added a most quaint touch of humour to his other faculties. He was one of my first "gaffers." While he hewed the coal I drew it back from the "face" and filled it into the empty hutches. We were working, I remember, in a very wet place and while Rab was comparatively dry, digging as he was on a sort of ledge above me, I was "plowtering" about all day up to my thighs in water. I must have complained about the discomfort and misery of it all—I forget how it came to arise—but Rab stopped his hewing, looked down at me and yelled out in his great booming voice, "Well, sing, ye wee devil! Singin' and whisky's the best things to mix wi' watter."

Rab MacBeth's father before him had been a character in Hamilton. The story is told about the old mart having wandered into the local "geggie" (any portable theatre thrown up on a waste piece of ground) when the play "Macbeth" was being produced. He had the idea that some of his own family were being portrayed in the play. For a long time he sat and watched the action without ever saying a word. Then when Macduff killed Macbeth, old Rab rose in his seat, pointed a scornful finger at the dead Macbeth lying on the stage and cried out "What a lot o' dam' nonsense! You're no a real Macbeth or you wouldna' let a man like that (pointing in turn to Macduff) kill you! Besides, yer accent's a wrang—I don't believe yer a Macbeth at a'." With that he stalked out of the theatre in high dudgeon.

His son was also a great admirer of the drama; at least he was very fond of going to see all the travelling companies that came round Hamilton way. He was also a singer of sorts and had there been prizes for the biggest voices, Rab, Junior, would have scooped the pool. Once he went down to the Broomilaw at Glasgow to see his brother "Wull" away to Australia. From the quay-side he kept on shouting good-byes in such an ear-splitting voice that the other spectators had to put their hands up to protect their aural organs from destruction. As the steamer moved away from the pier Rab's stentorious shoutings to his relative became louder and louder. "Good-bye, Wull, mind, an' write! DINNA FORGET TO WRITE, WULL! IF YE DINNA WRITE, WULL, I'LL NEVER SPEAK TO YE AGAIN!" And so on, every command to write getting louder and louder as the ship edged further and further down the Clyde. At last a man standing near turned to Rab and said, "There'll be nae need for Wull to write; just roar a bit louder, ye, and he'll hear you in Australia!"

Two or three years after I had been his boy at the coalface, Rab met me in the street one day and told me that he was giving a grand competition concert in one of the local halls and that if I would enter for the "comics" he would see that I won the first prize. By this time I had achieved a certain measure of fame in Hamilton and vicinity as a comedian and Rab's confident prediction that I would win the first prize encouraged me to put in my name for the contest. When the night came along the hail was packed. I heard afterwards that there was fifteen pounds "in the house" and that Rab had himself sold most of the tickets beforehand. He himself had entered for one of his own prizes in the "bass or baritone" section. In addition he acted as master of the ceremonies.

The first singer he announced was a tenor who started to sing, in a key an octave too high for him, an operatic solo entitled "When Other Lips." He had not completed the first line of the song when his voice cracked and there was such a torrent of jeers and sneers that the poor devil was glad to rush off the stage. After a girl had struggled through a sentimental song another male vocalist took her place almost before the few half-hearted cheers for the previous competitor had died away. This fellow was a baritone and his song began with the assertion that he was a soldier and a man. As he was a weedy individual in a solemn black suit with a sixpenny tie attached by a hook to his collar-stud and was wearing steel-framed spectacles, the audience simply refused to accept his statement.

He, too, got no further than the opening bars of his song and was glad to beat a speedy retreat to the safety of the anteroom. By this time the audience was in high fettle. They settled down to a regular feast of bear-baiting. But the effect upon the waiting competitors was calamitous. They all had the wind up. Rab, as boss of the concert, ordered another man to "go on and paralyse 'em." He refused—being already half-paralysed himself—and ran out of the hall.

The same thing happened with the next competitor. In his extremity Rab asked inc to take the platform, and, shaking in every limb, I did so. The most I can say is that I got through my song, a burlesque ditty about a man who had bought a grand new coat for ninepence, without anything being thrown at me and that I was glad to get away from the footlights minus personal injury.

By this time there were only about five contestants left in the wings. All the others had packed up and slunk away. So Rab decided to go on himself and sing a song. He was even less successful than the opening "artistes" for whenever he showed face he was received with a chorus of moans, groans, and rude noises. But Rab was brave. He stood his ground. Three times he tried to start his vocal performance; each time he had to stop. My own "turn" over I stood in the wings convulsed with merriment as I watched Rah getting angrier and angrier. He began to harangue the audience and so powerful was his voice that its tones rang out above and beyond the combined din of the now thoroughly delighted audience. At first he accused some of the "auld toon" men of causing the disturbance, then he went on to state that the people in front were missing some of the finest talent ever assembled in Hamilton—a statement which was received with screams of derision!—and finally, losing his rag completely, he extended his fingers to his nose and challenged any three men in the audience to come up on the platform and fight him! As a matter of fact, one or two groups of miners showed rather a willingness to accept his invitation when the lights in the hail suddenly went out. The concert terminated in chaos and some free fights. Not until several weeks afterwards did I hear that Rab himself had given secret orders to the hallkeeper to turn out the lights soon after he went on the platform. The wily rascal had seen how the wind was blowing and thought this was the best end to a venture which had earned him a nice bit of "ready" but which was a dire failure as a singing competition!

Many, many years later I was performing at the Odean Theatre, St. Louis, and immediately I danced on to the platform to sing "Tobermory," a terrific voice cried out, "Come on, Harry, let them see what the wee collier laddie frae Hamilton can dae! Harry, ma cock—up an' at them!"

I couldn't see the speaker. But I could never mistake the voice.

"A' richt, Rab," I shouted up to the gallery, "I'll dae ma best. See you round in the dressing-room after the show!"

Of course it proved to be my old gaffer Rab, settled down and doin' well, like so many of his compatriots, in a great American city. Whenever he entered my room, he rushed at me, lifted me as if I had been a baby and shed tears of delight over our romantic meeting after twenty years! On recovering his composure he solemnly presented me with a pair of "galloses"—braces! Poor Rab! He died some years ago.

The mining industry in Lanarkshire has been almost completely transformed since I worked in the pits there. Coal-cutting machinery has done away with what might be called the individual touch in the industry. It is quite true that we had Unions in the early days. I was a member of the Lanarkshire Union of Miners, a strong supporter of men like Bob Smillie and Kier Hardie. But politics were not mixed up in industrial affairs as they are today. Besides, there seemed to be a far greater measure of freedom for a man to work as hard as he liked and as long as he liked for the benefit of his own pay-roll and the increased comfort of himself and his family which the fat pay-roll represented. With few exceptions every man in the pit in these days was a hard, conscientious worker. He worked hard and he played hard. I would not go the length of saying that we were all contented with our lowly lot, but we seemed to believe in the old Scriptural injunction that only by the sweat of our brows could we eat bread. And, by God, we sweated right enough.

As each of my brothers reached twelve years of age they left the school and went down below. Matt was the first for whom I found a job, and then Jock, Alec, and George followed in due time. Matt was a chap like myself, as strong as a lion and a keen willing worker. He and I teamed up together by and by. And didn't we make the coal fly from the seam when we specially wanted to have a good week's pay. As I have said, those were the days—believe me, the happy days—when a miner was only proud of getting what he had worked for. Take all you can get and give as little as you feel inclined seems to be the motto of too many people all over the world today.

It's wrong! It's all wrong! It is demoralizing in every direction. It is unjust to the good, honest workman; it has a softening, deadening influence on the boy or man whose heart is the slightest bit out of its natural position-,' Recently, both in Britain and America, I have been preaching the gospel of "free trade" in brawn and brains, the creed of letting a man earn as much as he wants to within reasonable limitations. In America the system has been adopted very widely. But in this country trade and industry are being hampered, and initiative and ambition stifled by "Ca' canny, take everything and give as little as possible!"

Matt and I worked so hard that we came to be known as the "Coal Mawks"--the coal worms that bored away and bored away, ceaselessly and persistently. If there was a difficult or dangerous job we were "on it like a cock at a gooseberry"—always granted that the money was all right, mind you! The two brothers put up some amazing records in coal-getting. I have myself cut from five to six tons of coal in a shift. That was at the soft coal, while at the poyt-shaw coal, twenty-nine or thirty inches in thickness, and with little room to swing your pick, I have reckoned a ton and a half an excellent day's work.

While still in my teens I became a contractor. You have to be a responsible and experienced miner before you are allowed to take on a job by contract. It was at Barncleuth and Silverton Collieries that I got my first contract to drive a level from Will Frew, the underground manager. The system adopted in fixing a contract is simplicity itself. The manager takes you along to a certain working in the mine and says, "Gie me an offer?" You examine the coal-face, the quality of the coal, the depth of the seam, the arrange ments for haulage and wooding, etc., and on these facts you make a quick mental calculation. On this occasion I offered Frew to take on the job at six-and-sixpence a fathom. "Done!" said he, and we shook hands—as binding an agree ment as if the deed had been drawn up by a dozen lawyers and witnessed before the Court of Sessi " "A spittle in the loof an' a shak' o' the hand," as the old Scottish phrase has it, has sealed more honourably kept bargains in Scotland than were ever attested on parchment in any other country in the world.

In my day a miner's word was his bond. It may still be. I hope so, anyhow. I suppose there are still "contractors" in the Scottish mines, but, as I have said, the machines have altered everything and coal-cutting is not now the real man's work that it used to be. Incidentally, I learned long after leaving the pits for the stage that in several of the Lanark shire collieries there were "still places" below known as "Lauder headings" and "Lauder levels," a tribute to my reputation and industry as a miner which I value very much indeed.


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus