Miners’ strike Lothian legacy 30 years on

John Kane is now a guide at the National Mining Museum in Newtongrange. Picture: Jane Barlow

John Kane is now a guide at the National Mining Museum in Newtongrange. Picture: Jane Barlow

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THE irony of the matter is not lost at all on former Bilston Glen miner John Kane.

Thirty years ago he was among the few to brave the picket line and head to work at the Midlothian pit. Not a strikebreaker, he quickly points out, but as mine deputy in charge of ensuring the pit’s safety – a task in everyone’s interests.

On one side were the miners, every fibre of their being focussed on trying to save their pit, their livelihoods and their future.

And between them and those who opted for whatever reasons to ignore the strike call, stood an equally determined blue line of police.

“Aye, it is a bit like they planned it all,” quips John, reflecting on how the massive Bilston Glen site – a flashpoint during the miners’ strike 30 years ago – has changed. “There’s a police communications centre there now. You wouldn’t believe it.”

Indeed where once miners clashed with police in violent scenes that are difficult to imagine today, now stands an £8.3m communications hub, opened in 2004 on land finally cleared of all remnants of a once thriving pit which was sunk in 1952 and at its peak kept 2367 people in employment.

For men not unlike John – and the likes of one Abe Moffat, so passionate that his colliery should be saved, that in April 1984 he nailed himself to the floor of his Dalkeith home in protest – the pit’s demise not only brought to a poignant end a historic chapter in Britain’s industrial heritage, it meant unemployment and uncertainty.

And for the businesses and shops that relied on the miners’ significant spending power, the colliery’s demise was a bitter blow from which many would not recover.

Part of the pit’s former site is now Bilston Glen Industrial Estate, a mere 20 minutes or so from the centre of Edinburgh and a mile from the city bypass, it’s a prime spot for the likes of craft brewery Stewarts and haggis producers MacSween’s.

Yet while no physical trace of what was once one of the deepest mines in Europe remains, Loanhead still proudly carries reminders of its mining heritage: the thriving Loanhead Miners Club, the football team Loanhead Miners AFC and a brass band which now bears the name of one of the few major engineering firms left in the area, MacTaggart Scott.

The men, says John, now 76, of Penicuik, often did find other work once the pit gates closed. “A lot of guys thought they’d won the pools with their redundancy money,” he adds. “Though for some, it didn’t last very long. A few moved down south to pits there which were still open, some went on the oil rigs. I wasn’t too bad, I had a good payment, so I worked for a bit as a driver.”

These days he’s a part-time guide at the National Mining Museum in Newtongrange where young visitors are a constant reminder of how the coal industry is a mystery to a new generation. “Children are interested,” he nods, “but it’s clear they don’t know very much at all about it.”

Midlothian MP David Hamilton, one of the NUM leaders in Midlothian during the strike who was jailed for two months and later blacklisted from working for two years, agrees. “You talk to youngsters and you have to describe to them what a pit is, coal is nearly three generations away now,” says the ex-Monktonhall miner.

He reels off the figures: “Two hundred and six men sacked, 46 at Monktonhall, 36 at Bilston Glen, five at Newbattle workshops . . . there were more men sacked at Monktonhall than any other pit, the area suffered more than most.

“Three branch officials sacked, eight out of 12 committee officials sacked. There was hardship and divisions that had to be overcome before the communities could move on. Now in Midlothian, a place that employed 3500 miners, 55 per cent of the population work in Edinburgh in the financial sector. Midlothian has completely changed.”

Where men used to go down pits, today they might end up working in supermarkets or in small businesses, he adds. “But we adapted well, partly because the closures didn’t come as one, it was a sliding scale. And Edinburgh nearby was the key to Midlothian’s prosperity.”

After the strike, miners at 
Monktonhall made a spirited bid to keep their colliery alive. They formed Britain’s only miners’ co-operative and 130 of them sank £10,000 of redundancy cash into a plan to lease and reopen the colliery in 1992.

The dream, however, was doomed. When it became clear the pit, with massive reserves and which at its peak employed 1700 workers, would need £3m of investment to open two new seams in order to become remotely viable – the end was inevitable. It was abandoned in 1997.

The land was left to the forces of nature, with a few crumbling buildings and old rail lines until 2001 when ambitious proposals to transform the site into a new community of over 3500 houses, with shops, school, businesses and leisure 
facilities – to be called Shawfair – were on the table.

However by 2010, the £500m plans were on hold, crippled by financial meltdown and recession. Instead part of the Monktonhall site was earmarked for a “construction camp base” for managers and storage of machinery and materials linked to work on the revived Borders Railway.

Today, while miners and their families pause to reflect on the bitterest of disputes 30 years ago, others are looking to the future. And, still, Monktonhall’s mining legacy is never far away.

The first of 800 homes planned for a scaled down Shawfair community, along with business and medical parks, are due to be built soon. And the construction of the new Shawfair railway station to serve the new line is under way.

The station will open the area to new opportunities for many. But the long dead pit has had the final word: dozens of unfilled mine shafts have had to be filled, at the cost of millions of pounds.

sdick@edinburghnews.com