They call it black gold, dirty and dangerous to get to, it fuelled the nation and in return meant work and wages for those brave enough to mine it.
And when it was under threat, those men, their wives, families and neighbours – in fact whole communities and beyond – stood shoulder to shoulder in a desperate, although eventually doomed, bid to save it.
Thirty years ago today, miners across the country joined forces at the start of a strike which would evolve into one of the most bitter industrial disputes the nation has ever witnessed.
Soon there would be dreadful scenes: miner against miner, police with truncheons raised and men – desperate to save the only livelihood they, their fathers and grandfathers had ever known – locked in handcuffs.
For a long and painful year, pits such as Monktonhall, Bilston Glen and Polkemmet in West Lothian were the focus of fiery picket lines and angry scenes as men fought tooth and nail and sometimes each other to save their jobs.
On the surface, the strike was rooted in a bid by the National Coal Board to rationalise the industry and make it more efficient. But at its heart was a vicious political divide, and a dispute orchestrated by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher which would dramatically alter the face of British industry forever.
The morning of Monday, March 12 had dawned with mass pickets at the gates of Monktonhall and Bilston Glen determined to prevent men who they’d just worked with side by side from entering the pit. It was a scene that would be repeated – some days more violently than others – for the next 12 months.
The strike spread to the privately owned pits, including Blinkbonny mine at Gorebridge. And places where coal was vital – power stations such as Cockenzie – became the scene for desperate attempts by the coal board to ramrod through supplies while the miners tried to stop them.
Community halls and miners’ welfare clubs became strike centres for union officials who co-ordinated picket duty rotas, managed money which poured into the strike fund from across the land and accepted, often with mild surprise, parcels of food and warm clothes from mining comrades in Russia, France and Eastern Europe.
And at the heart of the strike were loyal and formidable wives who stood by their men, shaking collection tins outside supermarkets across the country and running soup kitchens to help feed families whose income had suddenly dropped to absolutely nothing. While striking miners drew strength from each other, those who opted to work – perhaps for financial reasons or perhaps because they just believed the strike was wrong – found themselves not only alone, but sometimes under furious attack. The strike finally ended on March 3, 1985. The death of Scotland’s mining industry, however, had well and truly begun.
‘BILSTON GLEN WAS ONE OF THE FLASHPOINTS’
Evening News Political Editor Ian Swanson looks back 30 years to tumultuous times in Midlothian and the fate of one pit.
Bilston Glen, near Loanhead, was one of the flashpoints of the miners’ strike.
As the biggest and most modern of the Scottish pits, employing around 1800 men, it was a focus of attention for the union, the management – and the Evening News.
I remember driving out early in the morning to be there for the change of shift, when any confrontation was most likely to occur.
The road to the colliery would be closed off and you would have to park in the lay-by at the end of the road and walk down to where the lines of police were ready and waiting, anticipating a clash between the strikers and any pit workers intent on going inside.
There would be tension in the air but nothing happening to start with. Then some “scabs” might be spotted being bussed in through the gate, a group of miners would advance from further down the road and there would be a counter surge from the police. There was some violence, arrests were made, and the crowd would subside until the shift change in the afternoon.
These were the days before mobile phones and although there was a public telephone box up the road, it was some distance away and also in demand by other media, so phoning in a story for the next edition of the News often meant speaking nicely to the people in the lemonade factory just across the road from the
colliery and borrowing their phone.
During the quiet times of the day, a handful of pickets would be left as a token presence at the pit entrance, watched carefully by police.
This was when local union leader Jackie Aitchison was famously sacked for crossing a white line – he later won an industrial tribunal case for unfair dismissal, but the pettiness which that incident illustrated on the part of the coal board went a long way to explain the bitterness felt by the miners.
There was strong support from large sections of the community for the miners. I remember going to solidarity marches, including one in Prestonpans in September 1984 when the then leader of the seamen’s union, Sam McCluskie, boasted that not a drop of coal had been carried in a British-flagged ship during the strike.
Coal working at Bilston Glen ended with the strike and the pit finally closed in 1989. The site now houses an industrial estate – and, ironically, a police communi-cations centre.
A year of anger, violence and camaraderie
March 12, 1984: National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) leader Arthur Scargill, right, declares that disputes in various coalfields were to become a national strike. In Bilston Glen, Midlothian, there were violent scenes when flying pickets from other pits turned up. More than 90,000 miners went on strike, including all 12 pits in Scotland.
April: East Lothian’s 1000 striking miners were given the backing of the district council, which set up advice centres to help with housing finance problems. Most miners’ clubs had set up strike centres and soup kitchens to feed first the children, then eventually the strikers. The Blinkbonny private mine company at Gore-bridge also came out on strike. One of the most disturbing incidents of the strike came when Bilston Glen miner Abraham Moffat, 53, the son of former Scots miners leader Alex Moffat, nailed himself to the floor of his Dalkeith home and refused treatment until he had spoken to NUM vice-president Mick McGahey.
May: Prestonpans miners were arrested outside the Hunterston iron ore terminal as mounted police charged pickets. The miners accused the police of trying to run them down. Police claimed their actions prevented someone from dying under the wheels of a lorry. East Lothian Constituency Labour Party give its full backing to the miners, and John Home Robertson accused the government of daylight robbery for withholding strikers’ cash.
July: Margaret Thatcher calls the miners the “enemy within”. In her memoirs, she wrote that she was “enormously relieved” that the negotiations with the NUM broke down because it denied Scargill the chance to “claim victory”. Her tactic was to get striking miners to realise “they had no hope of winning”.
October-January 1985: Mining communities suffered in hardship as the strike continued. By February, many miners drifted back to work, though support for strike north of the Border remained strong.
March 3, 1985: Strike ends. During the year-long dispute, three people were said to have died – two on the picketline and a taxi driver who was taking a non-striking miner to work.