The Miners of Scotland: Some Historical Facts

"The Scotsman"
Saturday, 23rd October 1920

In these present times, when many people find it difficult to understand the miners, it may be helpful if some historical facts are stated - facts which will undoubtedly throw a great deal of light on many aspects of the industrial situation today. It is not so much the historian's business to express an opinion as to record impartially the true evolution of authenticated facts in a particular case. I shall therefore content myself with setting down a few of the many interesting things known to every reader of Scots history about the miners of our country.
Coal mining is a very old industry in Scotland - for, somewhere about 1210, a charter was granted by Seyer de Quincy to the monks of Newbattle, in which coal mining at Tranent is mentioned as an occupation of the monks - "In super carbonarium et quararium in territoria de Tranernent." Early in the fifteenth century Aeneas Sylvius, a distinguished traveller in Scotland, who afterwards became Pope Pius II., speaks of coal mining in Scotland in these words:- "A sulphurous stone dug from the earth is used by the people for fuel." This was the "oily, diligent Aeneas" of Carlyle, and it is interesting to know that he attributed his rheumatism to a pilgrimage which he made to Whitekirk in 1435, walking all the way from Dunbar on frosty ground with bare feet.
But few people living in Scotland today realise that, before other two centuries had passed, the coal miners of Scotland had become slaves, and remained in virtual slavery until the year 1799. Hugh Miller tells us that, in 1842, "when Parliament issued a Commission to inquire into the nature and results of female labour in the coal pits of Scotland, there was a collier still living that had never been twenty miles from the Scottish capital, who could state to the Commissioners that both his father and grandfather had been slaves - that he himself had been born a slave - and that he had wrought for years in a pit in the neighbourhood of Musselburgh ere the colliers got their freedom. ... I regard it as one of the more singular circumstances of my life that I should have conversed with Scotsmen who had been born slaves."
And I myself might add that it is just as singular a circumstance that I know intimately, an old woman of over 90 years of age in a mining district of the Lothians whose father worked along with Scots colliers who had been slaves. What then is the real history of the serfdom of these Scots miners?
There is, so far as I know, no definite account of how the slavery of the miners of Scotland in olden times began. But we know that for long colliers, fishermen, and salters (or workers in salt pans) were singled out particularly from their fellow Scotsmen for a species of slavery. For example, in 1684 two fishermen on the estate of the Earl of Errol left his lands "without leave to his damage and prejudice." He immediately made application to the Privy Council to compel their return, on the ground that it was the universal custom of the North Country to thire "the servitude and service" of fishermen to the particular estate that bred them - and he held that it was contrary to all law, "for any man whatsoever to reset, harbour, or entertain the fishers and boatmen who belong to another." The Council ordered the men to return immediately.
Twelve years later, in 1696, this custom was questioned in the Court of Session, when some fishermen entered the service of the Laird of Udny and a claim was made for their custody by Forbes of Foveran. The Lords took two years to deliberate, and then gave their verdict against Forbes. They "condemned it as a corruptela and unlawful, and tending to introduce slavery contrary to the principles of the Christian religion and the mildness of our Government."
But, in this case several references were made to the conditions of the colliers and workers in the salt pans, in regard to whose slavery no doubt seemed to exist. For as far back as 1606 they had been either placed or confirmed in slavery by Act of Parliament. In that year it was ordained by the Scottish estates that no one should fee or hire any salters, colliers, or coal-bearers without receiving a testimonial from their former employer, signed by him in the presence of a Magistrate that they were free to do so. Should any proprietor engage a salter or a collier, and the labourer was claimed within a year and a day, the new proprietor was to be liable to a fine of £100 Scots, and the worker was to be returned to his proper owner at once. This Act gave "power and commission to all masters and owners of coal-heughs and pans to apprehend all vagabonds and sturdy beggars to be put to labour." So there can be no doubt that in 1606, according to this Act, all men and women who worked in the coal heughs and salt pans were slaves in the eyes of the law.
Then, in 1701, came an Act of Freedom, which forbade the arrest of Scots subjects - but, when it came to colliers and salters there was an exception made; "the present Act in no ways to be extended to colliers and salters." Why this exception was made in the case of colliers and salters I cannot say; but an example will show how hard the law was on colliers.
A colliery proprietor, Sir Thomas Wallace Craigie, had given up working his coalfield for seven or eight years, and his colliers had naturally sought and found employment elsewhere. They were engaged by William Cunningham of Brownhill, and when Sir Thomas Wallace Craigie resumed work in 1708 he raised an action against William Cunningham for their restitution. In the course of the case it was urged that Craigie was "by law empowered to lend or sell them," and the whole question was "whether they be slaves to Cunningham or Craigie." The verdict was given in favour of Craigie, and the judge maintained that "coal, being a great casuality, our law wisely considered that rent could never be secured without such a severity, none being capable of learning the art but such as are trained up to it from their infancy."
Even collier women were treated in the same way. One woman - Kate Thomson - who was a coal-carrier to Lockhart of Carnwath, ran off and took service in a colliery at Saltcoats. On her whereabouts being discovered she was compelled to return by law. Her new employer maintained that as a year and a day had expired since her removal, Lockhart had forfeited his rights to her. But the Court decided that, although on that plea no fine could be enacted, property in the woman was not affected. So Kate had to return - and, when she pleaded that she had been cruelly treated at Carnwath, the judge answered that if severity had been practised it was because she had run away before.
In 1752, when an estate was sold, the law laid it down that the colliers on it went by purchase with the land. Two years later, in 1754, a slightly better condition was attached to the old, grim law of 1606; for it was decreed that if colliers were bound to work, the owner of the estate was bound to find work for them. It may be said that these colliers were not slaves in the strict sense of the word, but serfs, for they received wages which were paid partly in money and partly in produce.
"Their wages," said Henry Grey Graham, "were not mean, being 1s.1d. a day in early years of the century, and by 1763, according to Adam Smith, 2s.6d. a day, when day labourers had from 8d. to 10d., and the earnings of free colliers at Newcastle were only 10d. or 1s. a day. Still, the price of an estate depended on the value of the colliers on it; for, as late as 1771, an illustration has been cited in the "History of Borrowstounness," where "the value of forty good colliers, with their wives and children, was estimated to be worth £4000, or £100 for each family." If the son or the daughter of a collier, or coal hewer, once went to work he or she was "thirled" to it for life. A collier could actually steal himself. For Forbes tells us in his "Institutes of Law of Scotland" (1730) that "some servants are reckoned and punished as thieves for stealing themselves and their services from their masters, as coal hewers, coal bearers, and salt makers, receiving wages and fees, who leave their master without a testimonial from him." So, servitude made colliers a kind of hereditary caste, quite aloof from their fellows. Their infants were often bound over to the master of the colliery at baptism, in presence of the minister and neighbours. When a collier was in need of money he sometimes sold the freedom of his child to his employer, who then gave "arles", or earnest money, to the father, promising to provide house and garden for the baby-serf, and protection in sickness and old age. So the "arled" child was bound to the pit.
It is recorded in the papers of the last Earl of Winton, whose estate was forfeited, that James Forrest, chirurgeon of Tranent, received in 1720 a salary of £300 (Scots) for his attendance on the earl's colliers - and doubtless Chirurgeon Forrest tended many an "arled" pit baby in Tranent.
Women and children acted as bearers of coal in the pits or coal heughs. There were circular stairways by which the workers descended into the pits, and long before underground tramways were instituted the coal was carried to the pit bottom in creels fastened to the women's backs. Strange to say, women and girls were preferred to men and boys for this work, for it was found that they could carry about double the weight.
In McNeill's local "History of Tranent" there is a woodcut of a woman crawling along a low gallery on her hands and knees yoked to a wooden tub (without wheels) full of coals, which she is dragging along the wooden "duckboards" of the pit.
Mr Robert Bald, of Edinburgh, who took a leading part in agitating for better conditions for female labour in mines in the year 1808, tells of one married woman who came forward to him groaning under a great weight of coals and trembling in every limb, with the remark - "Oh, sir, this is sair work - I wish to God that the first woman who tried to bear coals had broken her back, and none would have tried it again."
The last of the East Lothian pitwomen died only in September 1912, at Musselburgh, at the age of 85, and the last in Bo'ness district died at Newtown in 1907, at an advanced age.
It was in the year 1775 that the scandal of the colliers' serfdom began to touch the national conscience, and in that year, the first attempt at a remedy was made in Parliament.
Let Lord Cockburn continue our story in his own words:- "There are few people who now know that so recently as 1799 there were slaves in this country. Twenty-five years before - that is, in 1775 - there must have been thousands of them. ... The completeness of their degradation is disclosed by one public fact. The statute passed in 1701, which has been extolled as the Scotch Habeas Corpus Act, proceeds on the preamble that 'Our Sovereign Lord, considering it is the interest of all his good subjects that the liberty of their persons be duly secured.' Yet, while introducing regulations against 'wrongous imprisonment and undue delays in trials,' the statute contains these words:- 'And sicklike it is hereby provided and declared that this present Act is noways to be extended to colliers and salters.' That is, being slaves, they had no personal liberty to protect. ... The first link of their chain was broken in 1775 by the fifteenth Act of George Third, chap. 23. It sets out in the preamble that 'many colliers and salters are in a state of slavery and bondage.' It emancipates future ones entirely - that is, those who, after the 1st of July 1775, 'shall begin to work as colliers and salters.' But the existing ones were only liberated gradually - those under twenty-one in seven years; those between twenty-one and thirty-five in ten years.
The liberation of the father was declared to liberate his family, and the freed were put under the Act of 1701.
But this measure, though 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 debt. The result was that in general the existing slave was only liberated by death.
But this last link was broken in June 1799 by the Thirty-ninth George Third, chap. 56, which enacted that from and after its date 'all the colliers in Scotland who were bound colliers at the passing of the Fifteenth George Third, chap. 23, shall be free from their servitude.' This annihilated the relic."

Such is a very brief account of the freeing of the colliers in Scotland from slavery. Many of the annual fairs, or ridings, or walks of the miners originated in that June day of 1799; and although to ordinary eyes these rather rowdy ridings often seem poor affairs, yet to the eye of the historian each marks the anniversary of the Great Day of Freedom. In reading a story like this, it strikes one how very slow the processes of history sometimes are. It is only 120 years since the Scottish miners or colliers were freed from virtual slavery. The pendulum of history often takes 100 years to swing to its full extreme in the opposite direction. Therefore, in this year of grace 1920, let us mix our indignation with knowledge and add to our knowledge patience.