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The Basic Industries of Great Britain by Aberconway: Chapter XIV

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The Scottish coalfield extends over five counties, and its output is about 15 per cent of that of the United Kingdom. Many varieties of coal are produced, and the trade embraces the Scottish and certain foreign markets as well. The district which contains the principal source of output is Lanarkshire, and the adjoining counties of Linlithgow, Stirling, Renfrew and Dumbarton, which together produce about half of the total. But in late years Lanarkshire has not shown a relative increase alongside the Fifeshire district. In comparison with the developments of the English and Welsh coalfields it cannot be said that Scotland as a whole has taken a place commensurate with her enterprise in shipbuilding and engineering. The following table shows the output in tons of the various districts in the years 1913, 1916 and 1925.

  1913 1916 1935
Fife and Clackmannan, Kinross and Sutherland 10,130,000 7,730,000 7,662,000
Lothians (Mid and East) 4,320,000 3,540,000 4,253,000
Lanarkshire, Linlithgow, Stirling, Renfrew and Dumbarton 23,310,000 20,490,000 16,994,000
Ayrshire, Dumfries and Argyll 4,690,000 4,340,000 4,120,000
Total: Scotland 42,450,000 36,100,000 33,029,000
Great Britain 287,348,000 256,286,000 243,178,000

A great part of the output is produced by limited companies, some of which are referred to in these pages as makers of iron and steel.

The number of persons employed below ground is as follows:

  1913 1916 1925
Fife and Clackmannan, Kinross and Sutherland 25,200 18,900 22,400
Lothians (Mid and East) 11,200 8,600 11,800
Lanarkshire, Linlithgow, Stirling, Renfrew and Dumbarton 63,200 56,300 52,300
Ayrshire, Dumfries and Argyll 12,600 11,400 12,000
Total: Scotland 112,200 95,200 98,500
Great Britain 891,000 778,000 871,110

Although many of the Scottish colliery companies have paid high and steady dividends, these have varied to a considerable extent. Among the most profitable are the Bowhill Coal Co, the Fife Coal Co, Watson John, the Wemyss Coal Co and Wilsons and Clyde Coal Co. On the other hand, the United Collieries combine was floated with too large a capital to compete successfully as a dividend producer with those above mentioned. The ordinary capital of the best-paying companies is relatively small, with the exception of the Fife Coal Co., with its daily output of 9,000 tons. As compared with the different English coalfields, the chances of profit or loss in a trade the success of which depends upon so many unforeseen contingencies, such as depth of sinking, amount of water, condition of roof and floor, and the inclination or the continuity of the seams, are probably about the same.

The most valuable seam is the "Splint." This coal is raised in Lanarkshire for blast furnaces and iron and steel works. The Slamannan, Stirling and Kilsyth steam coals are sold for bunkers. The Fife Coal Co. and Wilsons and Clyde produce a smokeless bunker coal which is nearly as good as some of the Welsh best qualities, and is on the Admiralty list. Stirlingshire pits turn out a coking coal in connection with their by-product ovens. The Midlothian collieries produce, with other qualities, some cannel coal. This is of less value to-day than at the time when gas was not used with incandescent burners or enriched with mineral oil. The anthracite coal of the Central Field, which includes the Lanarkshire group, is shipped to Canada and the Continent. Of the total colliery output, over 6o per cent is consumed in Scotland, 12 per cent is shipped as bunkers, and the residue is exported to European countries.

The quantity of coal shipped from the Scottish ports for cargoes or for bunkers during the last thirteen years is as follows:

Year Exported (Tons) Shipped as bunkers (Tons)
1913 10,437,000 2,915,000
1914 8,378,000 2,472,000
1915 6,448,000 1,705,000
1916 5,302,000 1,596,000
1917 2,475,000 949,000
1918 2,411,000 787,000
1919 2,651,000 1,331,000
1920 1,336,000 1,678,000
1921 2,421,000 1,326,000
1922 8,916,000 2,392,000
1923 11,401,000 2,501,000
1924 7,687,000 2,481,000
1925 6,547,000 2,410,000

Germany, followed by Denmark and Sweden, has been the largest customer for Scottish coal, while, outside Europe, Egypt and some of the South American States take a certain quantity.

Large sums have been spent during the last thirty years on modern appliances for screening and sorting coal at the pit bank. Washeries have been erected at nearly every colliery, and slack, or dross as it is called in Scotland, is no longer sent away in its crude state, but is sorted into "trebles," "doubles," "single nuts" and "pearls." These trade names correspond very much with the washed small, peas and nuts of the English coalfields. The growth of electric generating stations has largely increased the demand for washed smalls and nuts as a clean and handy type of fuel for use with mechanical stokers.

Great energy is shown in the development of the Fifeshire, the Stirlingshire and the Lothian coalfields. Deep pits have been sunk in many districts, though, with the exception of the Niddrie Colliery near Edinburgh, where, to work the almost vertical seam, a depth of nearly 2,600 feet has been reached, few of the Scottish pits have gone lower than 600 yards. The upper seams in Lanarkshire, which contain the best coal, are in course of exhaustion, and the lower seams are being taken in hand and are usually worked by electric coal-cutters. Some of these seams are not more than 18 in. thick. The Midlothian basin covers an area of nearly 60 square miles, and extends from under the Firth of Forth in the north over the greater part of the county. There is a good deal of dislocation in this area, much water is met with and the working expenses are high. In some places 12 per cent of the colliery output is used for pumping and haulage. The average for Scotland is probably 7 per cent, which is higher than the rate prevalent in England. The Fifeshire coalfield is composed of the same seams as those worked in Midlothian. Some of the collieries extend their workings under the Firth of Forth, and the coal there is cheaply got.

Coal-getting in Scotland is not a thing merely of to-day. Outcrop mines have been worked for centuries. At Pittencrieff in Fife a charter was granted in 1291 to the abbot and monks of Dunfermline to open a "coal heugh" "in such a way that they may get from there sufficiency of coal for their own use"; but on no account were they to presume to sell the fuel to others. In the sixteenth century, coal was shipped from the Forth harbours in exchange for imports of wine from abroad. In 1375 Culross Abbey granted to Sir George Bruce, ancestor of the Earls of Elgin, a lease of the Culross Colliery then in existence "for his great knowledge and skill in machinery such like as no other man has in these days; and for his being the likeliest person to re-establish again the colliery of Culross which has been long in desuetude, insomuch that we have neither large nor small coal for our own house fire." In 1606 the charter of "Keltie-heugh Colliery " was confirmed to William, sixth Earl of Morton, Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, son of Sir William Douglas of Lochleven, who in 1588 had become Earl of Morton and was afterwards the custodian of Mary of Scotland during her imprisonment in Lochleven Castle. A century later, the Earl of Dundonald worked coal at Valleyfield, established a tar works and discovered the illuminating properties of coal gas.

Wemyss Coal Co

The Wemyss Coal Co represents one of the oldest collieries in Great Britain. Coal on the Wemyss estate was worked in the sixteenth century, and by a charter dated July 22, 1661, Charles II made a grant to the owner, the second Earl of Wemyss, of all the coal lying under the Firth of Forth. This grant was disallowed by the House of Lords in the action of the Lord Advocate v. Wemyss raised in 1900 to test its validity. The mines were originally sunk, and have been continuously owned, by the Wemyss family till the present Company was formed, of which Captain M. G. Wemyss is Chairman and Admiral of the Fleet the Right Hon. Lord Wester Wemyss is a Director.

Fife Coal Co

The firms with the largest output in Scotland are the Fife Coal Co and William Baird and Co. The output of the Fife Coal Co. in 1913 was 4,343,644 tons, as compared with 9,680,206 for the whole county of Fife. The Fife Coal Co. was established in 1872, with an output of 60,000 tons. The late Charles Carlow was the General Manager. After his death in 1923, he was succeeded by Mr. C. Augustus Carlow, under whom, with twenty-two separate collieries now owned by that firm, all in the Fife coalfield, an output exceeding that of 1913 has been attained. This Company, of which Sir Adam Nimmo is Chairman and Field-Marshal Earl Haig a Director, has always paid high dividends. The other leading Fifeshire Colliery Companies are (after the Wemyss Coal Co.) the Lochgelly Iron and Coal Co (whose chairman is Lord Glenarthur), owning five collieries in operation, working ten seams and employing 3,000 men; Wilsons and Clyde, and (in Clackmannanshire) the Alloa Coal Co, the two latter each producing about 500,000 tons.

The Lothian coalfield, near Edinburgh, was known and worked in early days. The monks of Newbattle Abbey got outcrop coal at Tranent in the thirteenth century. To-day the Edinburgh Collieries Co produces annually 1,000,000 tons, the Lothian Coal Co. and the Niddrie Benhar Coal Co about 700,000 tons each. The Summerlee Iron Co, Shotts Iron Co and A. G. Moore and Co have important collieries in Midlothian, but with a less output.

In the Central coalfield the United Collieries (of which Lord Invernairn is a Director), with twenty-two collieries employing many thousand men, produces 2,000,000 tons, W. Baird and Co from thirty-eight collieries employing more than 13,000 men produces probably about 3,000,000 tons, Wilsons and Clyde, with 3,800 men employed in eight collieries, produces 1,500,000 tons, James Nimmo and Co, with nine collieries, produces 1,750,000 tons, and the Summerlee Iron Co, with eight collieries, and Archibald Russell produce 1,000,000 each yearly. The last-named Company is a private one. It belongs to the steel-making firm of David Colville and Sons of Motherwell. Mr. John Craig is Chairman of both, and Lord Kylsant, representing Harland and Wolff, a large shareholder, is a Director. John Brown and Co of Sheffield is also a large shareholder. The firm works nine collieries and employs 5,700 men. The firms of W. Dixon and John Watson produce each 750,000 tons, and other collieries in the district have smaller outputs.

In Ayrshire the output of the Dalmellington Co is 500,000 tons. This Company had a large iron and steel plant, which it has recently dismantled owing to the conditions of trade, but its financial position has been scarcely affected by this change. Other collieries in the district produce under 200,000 tons each. Coal from the Central area is shipped at Ardrossan. From Fife and Clackmannan it is shipped at Grangemouth, Burntisland and at Methil, which last-named port was created by the Wemyss family.

To those familiar with the great South Yorkshire collieries, sunk to a depth of 800 to 900 yards and turning out 20,000 tons and more a week from the Barnsley hard coal seam, a Scottish colliery company, with its numerous pits, each working a comparatively small tonnage from a variety of thin seams and producing nevertheless a large aggregate output, presents an unfamiliar picture. The list of mines worked and men employed by one large Scottish firm, William Baird and Co, as given in the "Colliery Year Book," illustrates this difference (see Table below).

Name of Mine and Locality Employees underground Employees above ground
Gartshore, 1, 3, 4 and 12, Kirkintilloch 252 84
Gartshore, 2, 9 and 11, 217 54
Gartshore, 10, Twechar - 4
Twechar, Twechar 350 121
St. Flannans, Kirkintilloch 305 90
Auchincruive 1, 2 and 3, Prestwick 701 146
Auchincruive 4 and 5, Monkton 309 63
Ayr 1, Annbank 253 52
Ayr 9 and 10 379 89
Barony 1 and 2, Auchinleck 533 121
Bartonholm Irvine 100 16
Berryhill 2, Auchinleck 111 22
Blair 7, Dalry 105 19
Burnockhill, Ochiltree 144 30
Common 16 and 16 ½, Auchinleck 103 33
Craig 1 and 2, Dreghorn 146 33
Cranberry Moor, Auchinleck 220 40
Eglington 1, Irvine and Redburn 1, Irvine 150 48
Gilminscroft 6, Auchinleck 83 22
Grasshill 1 and 2, Muirkirk 209 42
Highhouse 1 and 2, Auchinleck 334 62
Hindsward, Cumnock 3 2
Kames 1 and 2, Muirkirk 531 89
Ladyha and Bogend, Kilwinning 115 18
Misk 1, Stevenston 0 1
Moncur 4, Kilwinning 32 8
Tofts 1 and 2, Prestwick 353 70
Whitehill 1 and 2, Cumnock 327 75
Bedlay, Glenboig 283 67
Bothwell Castle 1 and 2, Bothwell 745 100
Bothwell Castle 3 and 4 768 145
Bothwell Park, Bothwell 767 174
Hopetoun, Bathgate 323 129
Riddochhill, Bathgate 183 69
Auchinreoch, Twechar 287 93
Dumbreck, Twechar 502 192
Haugh, Twechar 183 62

Seams Worked: Ayr Hard, Diamond, Jewel, Ell, Crawfordstone, Major, Low Maid, Claud, Main Bonanza, Maid, Ell, Turf, Smithy, Parrot, Stone, Upper Parrot, Ladyha, Lower Wee, Thirty Inch, Three, Four, Six and Nine Feet, Seven Feet, Haughrig and Coking, Twecher, Wee Coal, Pyotshaw, Splint, Upper, Kiltongue, Virtue, Ladygrange, Musselband, Humph, Balbardie, Woodmuir, Cloven, Nackerty.

Class of Coal: Household, Manufacturing, Coking, Steam, Gas, and Anthracite.

The Scottish miners are an intelligent and industrious class of men, and the trade has on the whole been free from serious accidents. The death-rate compares very favourably with some other districts, and does not exceed 1.4 per thousand of the persons employed above and below ground. It cannot be said that Scottish miners have enjoyed as favourable conditions with regard to housing as those at the disposal of miners in the English districts, other than Northumberland and Durham. Those in the Western area of Scotland have been perhaps in the past the worst-lodged of any miners in the United Kingdom, probably because many of the collieries are old, and, as they were situated near urban centres, the owners did not find it necessary to provide any houses for their workers. In the middle of last century large numbers of Irish and even Polish subjects were employed in the Lanarkshire mines, where their descendants still survive. They probably were not so keen about good housing as persons native to this country. What the surroundings of the mining population of Scotland were over a hundred and twenty years ago is difficult to visualise to-day. But, having regard to the universal poverty of the country and the lack of manufacturing enterprises to afford employment, the social conditions of these workers must have been of the most primitive kind. Different opinions, however, existed as to this at the close of the eighteenth century, when the Earl of Dundonald in 1793 wrote of his Valleyfield Colliery in Fife, "The miners carried a taste for the elegantiorum (sic) of life farther than may be thought necessary. Most of them had silver watches, clocks in all their houses; several of them on Sunday wore silk stockings, tambour embroidered silk vests with their hair well dressed and powdered." This description hardly accords with what is generally believed to have been the social position of coal miners at that period.

Before 1775 colliers were, by the common law of Scotland, in a state of slavery. With their wives and children they were the property of their masters, and on the sale of an estate were transferred with the colliery in which they worked. At that date the conditions were changed by statute, but so many legal regulations remained in force that in 1799 another Act of Parliament was necessary, enacting that all colliers in Scotland should be free from their servitude. The women, of course, worked in the pits, and continued to do so for many years after their emancipation. The following description of their condition was published in 1834:

"A group of such females, in working garb, at the pit, formed a most uncouth picture. Their feet encased in heavy tacketed shoes; legs covered with a species of stockings termed 'huggers'; petticoats of the shortest description and coarsest material, in many of which the original had disappeared under a mass of patchwork, the front part of the garment scarcely covering the knees (the style being considered necessary to prevent the wearer from treading on the front part while bending forward to the load when drawing the large corves or wicker baskets, then in use, for conveying the coal from the working face to the bottom of the shaft); the upper part of the dress consisted of either short gowns, jackets, or old coats of every variety and shape, caps or mutches, for the head, of all dimensions, and equally free from uniformity; the whole of their strange apparel bedaubed with the mud of the mine, from which a peculiar damp smell arose."

Until quite recent years women worked at the pit brow in Lancashire and also in South Wales, where, by an unwritten social law, as rigorous as any trade union rule, they appeared daily in dirt-begrimed ostrich-feathered hats and costumes of sacking to spend eight or nine hours in the strenuous, dirty but not unhealthy work of shoving tubs or corves of coal as they came up from the pit on to the sorting screens. The appearance of these girls at the pit head was forbidding in the extreme, but the writer has seen the same girls in an evening in the public hall of Tredegar taking their soprano and contralto parts in an oratorio with bright rosy faces, white muslin dresses, and blue and pink silk sashes. Lancashire pit girls strenuously opposed the efforts that were made to prevent them working on the pit bank.

The following list comprises most of the best-known Scottish colliery companies, with the names of their Chairmen and their capitalisation. A few have additional capital secured by Debentures.

  Registered capital Paid
Fife Coal Co (Sir A. Nimmo, K.B.E.), Leven £1,642,206 Fully
William Dixon (T. Warren), Lanarkshire £1,000,000 Fully
United Collieries (M. F. Maclean), Lanarkshire £1,000,000 £533,200
Lochgelly Iron and Coal Co (Lord Glenarthur), Fife £953,750 Fully
Wilsons and Clyde Coal Co (R. M. Wilson), Lanarkshire £850,000 £455,000
Lothian Coal Co (J. A. Hood), Midlothian £700,000 £588,000
Edinburgh Collieries (A. Nimmo), Midlothian £650,000 £448,910
James Nimmo and Co (Sir A. Nimmo), Lanarkshire £625,000 £375,000
Wemyss Coal Co (Captain M. J. Wemyss), Fife £300,000 Fully
Niddrie and Benhar Co (R. T. Moore), Midlothian £300,000 £200,000
Robert Addie and Sons (R. M. Wilson), Lanarkshire £275,000 Fully
Merry and Cunninghame (H. Shaw Dunn), Lanarkshire £250,000 Fully
Armiston Coal Co (R. N. Dundas), Midlothian £115,000 Fully
William Baird and Co (J. T. Forgie), Ayrshire Privately Held

As showing the course of trade the following figures are interesting:


  1914 1924 1925
Best Steam 13.3 17.0 16.0
Best Splint 13.3 20.6 20.0


Year Tons
1913 8,256,476
1920 1,335,864
1921 2,419,592
1922 8,916,096
1923 11,355,894
1934 7,743,480
1925 7,018,956

Compared with the total tonnage of coal exports from the United Kingdom in 1925 at 50,817,118 tons.

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