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The Annals of Penicuik
Chapter XI - Various Incidents

IN the memorable Year 1745, when for about three weeks Prince Charles was holding Court at Holyrood, and investing Edinburgh Castle, parties of his troops were scouring the country round, and levyirig contributions of food for man and beast. Notwithstanding its remoteness from any main road leading from the metropolis, Penicuik did not upon that occasion escape the attentions of those predatory sections of the Highland host. Baron Clerk, the chief heritor, was not a sympathiser with the Jacobite cause, and he found it convenient to absent himself from home during the invasion. His house was, notwithstanding, made a convenient rendezvous of the chieftains, and his family were frequently compelled to entertain as many as twenty of them at a time. These gentry conducted themselves as if they were masters of the establishment, calling for everything they thought fit, and living on the best that the place could produce in the shape of meat and drink. They further made a levy upon the Baron of 6000 stones of hay and 26 bolls of oats for the use of the horses. The tenants upon the estate had also to contribute their share of the necessary provisions. Mrs. William Simpson, of West Street, for example, tells how the sisters of her grandfather, Mr. Abernethy, then occupying the farm of Ravensneuk, were kept a whole Sunday afternoon baking scones, to satisfy a party of the hungry caterans who had taken up their quarters with them. They left behind them, by mistake, an Andrea Ferrara sword and a pistol, and these were for a long period treasured by the family as valuable relics of the Rebellion. They have since unfortunately disappeared, and it is not now known in whose possession they may be.

Happily the exciting and tragic events which for the moment have disturbed the continuous calm of our parish life have been few. Sanguinary encounters there may have been within its borders in olden times, when might was right, and when law was disregarded and authority defied; but history has not required to complete its stores by telling of these, and so they have passed by unrecorded. In times more recent, however, once and again there have occurred distressing events which at the time produced horror and excitement in the parish. About sixty-four years ago there lived at Loanstone a roan named Cleahorn. He was a tailor by trade, and during his frequent visits to Penicuik he had occasionally met the daughter of Mr. Dodds, lessee of the hotel, and had formed for her a most romantic attachment. The feeling was not reciprocated, for a young fellow named Henderson appeared to be the object of her affections. Cleghorn was of a jealous and excitable temperament, and, feeling himself neglected, lie vowed revenge upon his rival. On a Penicuik fair-clay, accordingly, he started, gun in hand, with the avowed purpose of shooting him. In those days there was no regular policeman in the village ; but an active and intelligent citizen named James Nevison, who acted in the dual capacity of constable and sheriff' officer, hearing of Cleghorn's mission, intercepted him at the foot of the plantation brae. Trying first in a friendly way to dissuade the infuriated man from his purpose, but without success, Nevison finally threatened to arrest him. This seems to have roused Cleghorn to a pitch of frenzy, for, hastily raising his gun to his shoulder, he shot poor Nevison dead upon the spot, and then made off' across the fields, pursued by several of the inhabitants. lie escaped from them, however, and was never captured, although diligently sought for in all parts of the country. At that time the plantation was very thick on both sides of the road, at the spot where this sad event happened; and for many years afterwards young and superstitious people would not venture to or from Kirkhill after darkness had set in.

About Sixteen years after this occurrence another tragedy, arising from similar causes, took place at Sillerburn. A sweet maiden, named Helen Laing, lived at that little hamlet with her parents. A young man in Penicuik had for a time been paying his addresses to her, and for some reason or another he had fancied her affection for him was cooling. Resolving that no other should have her, and acting from some insane impulse, lie one night watched his sweetheart's louse, gun in Band, until he saw her shadow cast upon the blind. Firing through the window at that moment he shot the poor girl dead. Making oft; her murderer hid all night in a plantation in the vicinity; but, venturing out in the morning, he learned that his aim had been only too true, and that all was over. Immediately afterwards he turned the muzzle of the gun against himself, and ended his miserable life before any one could interfere. This tragic occurrence cast a great gloom over the entire neighbourhood for many days.

A murder also took place about thirty years ago in the wood above the Free Church, known at that time as Birkiside. A young gamekeeper, in the service of Sir George Clerk, was watching in it a gang of poachers in the exercise of their nefarious calling, and seeing that they were making off, and would soon be beyond his reach, he pluckily approached them, and attempted to effect a capture. The debased wretches, notwithstanding that they were three to one, and might easily have overpowered him, cruelly shot the poor fellow, and left hire writhing in his agony while they made off in different directions. Wounded and dying, he managed to crawl home, but only survived this painful journey a few hours, and was never able to tell who his murderers had been. They were well known; but sufficient evidence was not forthcoming to convict them, and they unfortunately escaped the doom which they deserved.

There is yet another tale of blood to relate. Between twenty and thirty years ago a fine young man named Robb, son of a travelling jeweller, who lived in Thorburn Terrace, was foully murdered while making his usual round of calls for the purpose of disposing of his trinkets. The deed was witnessed by people in the neighbouring fields; but they, thinking it was only a quarrel between two tramps, did not see their way to interfere, and so the murderer escaped, and was never more heard of. A rumour, indeed, was afloat some years ago that a soldier in America, believing himself to be dying, had confessed to the deed; but the story as yet lacks confirmation. These sad though isolated tragedies all brought sorrow and sadness to the surviving relatives of those who were thus cruelly deprived of life, and upon each occasion cast a gloom over the district. In no respect, however, did they compare with the terrible and tragic event which happened last year a few yards beyond the borders of our parish, a description of «hick no one can think out of place in this volume.


On the forenoon of 5th September 1889 occurred the memorable Mauricewood pit accident, which caused the death of sixty-three mein and boys. The workings of the colliers are in Glencorse, but with one or two exceptions, those who perished resided in Penicuik parish; and it is fitting that an event which brought such suffering to many homes in our district should be included in this history.

None who heard the dread news on that September forenoon, that Mauricewood pit was on fire, and that the miners were entombed, will ever forget the moments of intense excitement which they caused, and the terrible time of suspense and anxiety which followed. When the fire was first observed there were seventy persons underground. Of this number only seven survived ; two of them escaping death in an almost miraculous manner. The fire, which originated in an engine-house at the 160-fathom level, was tint observed about twelve o'clock noon by a pony boy, named Mitchell Hamilton, who had come from the east side of the workings to the foot of time main incline. He at once called the attention of Robb, the bottomer, to it. The latter went into the engine-house, and saw that the door leading into the return upset was on fire. Alarmed by the sight, he immediately despatched some boys at the foot of the incline, to run and warn the miners of their danger. A signal had meanwhile come to him to send up the carriage for men at the 80-fathom level, and as it moved away he stepped on to it. Before reaching the place he met smoke, and when the carriage stopped he found quantities of it pouring out at the door leading to the engine-house at the 80-fathom level. Thee carriage was eventually drawn to the dook-head, and Robb was the only survivor from the 160-fathom level. About the same time that the fire was observed by him, William Gall, John Walker, and Hugh M`Pherson, at the 80-fathom level engine, were surprised and alarmed by bad air and smoke coming to them. This caused them to leave the engine and make for the main incline, where they signalled for the carriage. Smoke followed them in dense volumes. Walker and M'Pherson both lay down, waiting its arrival; but they were speedily overcome by the noxious fumes. Gall, who was a younger and more active man than his companions, afraid to linger, commenced to climb the incline—an operation which, though difficult and dangerous, he successfully accomplished, reaching the look-head level in safety. After it became known above what had occurred, Mr. Love, the manager, at once gave orders to run the carriage rapidly back and forward, and, in one of the ascents, four persons, an old man and three boys, were drawn up; but two were dead, and the other two dying, when they reached the top. Every effort was subsequently made to reach the fatal 80-fathom level, so as to stop the smoke. Many deeds of heroism were performed by the noble band of rescuers, led by Mr. Love and his son—the latter an underground manager at the Greenlaw pit, also belonging to the Shotts Company. The speed of the fan was increased, and the area of the incline was with immense labour reduced by brattice cloth to half its size, in the hope that the increased velocity of the air in the other half would sweep away the smoke. Meanwhile thousands were congregated at a little distance from the shaft's mouth, and sad were the scenes to be witnessed there. Many of the poor women and children, whose husbands and fathers were below, could be seen moving to and fro, mute with suspense and agony. Managers from neighbouring collieries, including Mr. John Anderson of Lochgelly, formerly in charge of the Mauricewood and Greenlaw pits, arrived in quick succession to render aid by advice or active service; while Mr. A. W. Turnbull, the able secretary and commercial manager of the Shotts Company, hardly ever left the ground. The 80-fathom level was reached about midnight of the 5th, and the bodies of Walker and M'Pherson recovered. About one o'clock P.M. on the following day, or 25 hours after the fire broke out, the 120-fathom was reached, and about an hour afterwards the heroic rescue party arrived at the bottom. It was found that the fire had extended from the engine-house along the east-side level, and the road along which it had passed was nearly closed with heavy falls of debris. Near the foot of the incline, and between it and the level working on the west side, the bodies of nineteen workers were found, who had succumbed to the fatal smoke. These were sent to the surface, and taken in carts and other conveyances to the homes which they had left in health and strength in the morning. The fire-engine hose was then brought to bear upon the flames, and every effort made to recover all the bodies; but the rising of the water stopped further operations at that level. An endeavour was then made to reach the east-side workings, where the majority of the workers were entombed by the door or the air-crossing at the 120-fathom level. On opening it smoke again came on to the main incline, and the effort was abandoned with great reluctance, and, in the full assurance that there could be no living man below, it was then decided to close the mine, and an air-tight scaffold was placed upon the top of the pit.

The funeral services, in connection with the interment of twenty-four of the deceased miners on Sabbath, the 8th September, brought multitudes of visitors to the village. It was reckoned that about ten thousand spectators and mourners witnessed the sad spectacle. Services were conducted for the Presbyterians in the U.P. Church, in the Fieldsend Mission Hall for Episcopalians, and at the Roman Catholic Chapel for members of that communion. Outside the churches the procession was formed in the following order:—Volunteers, under command of Captain Craster, Presbyterian funerals, Episcopalian funerals, and a Roman Catholic funeral, public bodies, general mourners, Boys' Brigade, and military. Eloquent allusions to the sad disaster were made in all the churches by the local clergymen. Temporary relief and tender help had been rendered to the distressed widows and children in Shottstown by the Fieldsend Mission workers, organised by the Rev. S. R. Crockett, of the Free Church, and by many others, whose hearts were stirred to aid the poor sufferers.

In response to a meeting summoned by Mr. Cowan of Bees-lack, a representative gathering met in Mr. M'Kerrow's church on Monday evening, the 9th September, to organise relief and solicit subscriptions for those whose breadwinners had perished in the disaster. Sir Charles Dalrymple, Bart., M.P., Messrs. John Cowan of Beeslack, C. W. Cowan of Loganhouse, A. W. Inglis of Loganbank, John J. Wilson, banker, and the Reverends S. H. Crockett, R. Thomson, J. M'Kerrow of Penicuik, and J. Thomson, of Roslyn Chapel, took part in the proceedings. An influential general committee of county gentlemen was formed, and a large local committee appointed, with Rev. J. M'Kerrow as convener, to administer such funds as might be collected for the sufferers. On the 11th September a meeting of Edinburgh citizens was also held in the Council Chambers for the purpose of appointing a committee to co-operate with the Lord Provost's Committee in collecting subscriptions. The result of the appeals by the county and city committees was that about £20,000 was contributed by a generous public; and this sum was finally placed under the control of a joint aggregate committee, with a secretary and treasurer in Edinburgh, and a local secretary and treasurer in Penicuik. It is satisfactory to record that about £1200 of the total amount collected was contributed by the parishes of Penicuik and Glencorse.

On the 4th October the mine was re-opened; but three days afterwards smoke was again observed ascending the pipe upcast at the 80-fathom level. Toppings were afterwards placed on the roads leading downwards, and the fire was finally overcome. A weary time was, however, to ensue before the water which had accumulated in the mine could he got rid of. It was not until about the 16th of March 1890 that the 160-fathom Ievel was reached, and it was the end of the month before the thirty-six bodies left in the mine were recovered. Three were found in the sump at the bottom of the main incline, twenty-nine were found in the eastern workings, including George Muir, the oversman. The remaining four bodies were found in the west side return airway. With the exception of a few words of comfort, addressed to his wife and children, scratched upon his flask by good Thomas Meikle, no other message from the dead was discovered. That the poor fellows had lived for a little while is evident from the fact that two barricades had been erected by them in the intake air-ways to keep back the smoke. The power of man, however, could not save them, for it was the will of Providence that they should be taken from this life while busy toiling for the dear ones whom they were never again to see upon the earth.

The usual inquiries by the Procurator-Fiscal and by the Inspector of Mines were made after the accident. A special inquiry, under section 45 of the Coal Mines Regulation Act, 1887, was also held by direction of her Majesty's Secretary of State. Evidence was then led at considerable length, and it was satisfactorily proved that there was no cause for any serious reflection upon the owners of the mine.

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