The earliest historic record of coal mining in Scotland was in the 13th century near Blairadam, which became a renowned mining area.
Commonly people preferred wood and peat to heat their homes. Coal was not popular because of its disagreeable black smoke and lack of availability. The smoke was so disagreeable that in London during the 14th century, the burning of coal was a capital offence and at least one man was executed as punishment for this crime.
In the 18th century, however, the invention of the steam engine and the move towards industrialisation saw a rise in the use of coal as a cheap fuel source. Opened in 1779, Wilsontown Ironworks was one of the first Scottish blast furnaces to use coal.
The coal industry grew rapidly and spread across Scotland’s central belt over the 19th century. In the parish of Slamannan, for example, many mines opened, including Balquhatson and Limerigg Collieries.
In the search for coal, mines became deeper and spread further underground. Safety was a low consideration and the industry was infamous for poor and dangerous working conditions.
Post World War 2
After World War 2, the government decided to nationalise all large mines to control production better as well as improve working conditions. The first major mine sunk by the newly formed National Coal Board (NCB) was near Carluke, called Kingshill No.3, in 1951.
In the 1960s, however, the industry went into fast decline as competition grew from other fuel sources such as petroleum, natural gas, nuclear power and hydro-electric. At the same time, the government’s Clean Air legislation dramatically reduced the use of coal.
In 2002, the last deep mine in Scotland, Longannet in Fife, was closed.
Working conditions in the mines
Until the late eighteenth century, working conditions for coal miners in Scotland were notoriously poor, and some people, including criminals, were forced into working in the mines.
"...many colliers [miners], coal bearers and salters in Scotland are in a state of slavery, bound to the collieries and salt-works, where they work for life, and are sold with the mines..." D. Bremner (1869) in The Industries of Scotland: Their Rise, Progress and Present Condition.
Colliers and Salters (Scotland) Act 1775
Attempts were made to improve the situation and in 1775 the government passed an Act improving working conditions, though the industry still had a long way to go.
Mines will always be dangerous places to work, but the 19th century rush to meet the demand for coal meant that safety was often overlooked; there were no health and safety regulations like we have today.
Accidents were a regular occurrence, including mines collapsing, flooding, and gas explosions due to poor ventilation. In 1840, the government led an investigation into the employment of children. They discovered young children working long hours in the coal mines, under difficult conditions.
"I get up at 3am in the morning and gang to work at 4, return at 4 and 5 at night. The ladder pit in which I work is gai drippie and the air is kind of bad as lamps do not burn so bright as in guid air. Accidents frequently happen from the tugs breaking and loads falling on those behind." Testimony of Jane Kerr aged 12 in 1840 recorded by G. Hutton (2001) in Scotland’s Black Diamonds: Coal Mining in Scotland.
Mines Act (1842)
The resulting Mines Act in 1842 prevented young children and women from working in the mines. In 1850, the government appointed a Coal Mine Inspector, who kept an eye on the industry and improved working conditions.
After World War 2, one of the aims of nationalising the coal industry was to improve the working conditions of the miners.