Mining Conditions in Fife (pre-1800)

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The Scottish coal belt runs from South Ayrshire, through the central region, into Fife, and it was in Fife that it was first exploited. The monks of Dunfermline Abbey had servants winning coal for them as early as the thirteenth century. By the sixteenth there were a number of lay lairds developing mines on their lands, usually in connection with salt pans, and burghs such as Culross, Wemyss and Methil were all exporting both coal and salt. It was at Culross that Sir George Bruce took James VI along a mine under the sea which emerged on a caisson; surrounded by water and always ready to suspect a plot against his life, he shouted out "Treason" and was not easily reassured.

So unpleasant was the work involved that, in order to obtain a sufficient labour force, a number of Acts were passed by the Privy Council (on which the Fife lairds were well represented) which reduced to serfdom all those who worked in mines or salt pans. They were not technically slaves, in that they received wages, but, once they had accepted employment, they could not leave it. The miner "became a piece of mining equipment that could be bought or sold and inherited by his master, with the sole proviso that he might not be separated from the works at which he started his bondage".* Furthermore, in practice, the serfdom extended to the whole family; the miner's wife was needed to carry to the surface the coal that he hewed; and his children were solemnly bound at the time of their christenings to follow the calling of their parents in return for an 'arles' - a payment to their father from his master. Thus a child's work underground would often start as early as the age of six or seven, and, at a time when serfdom had long vanished in England, it was rife in Scotland. There was not even a Habeas Corpus Act to protect the miners.

In the growing humanitarianism of the late eighteenth century, such a state of affairs could not continue indefinitely. Indeed the famous Mansfield judgement of 1772 which declared that no man could be a slave on English soil might have been anticipated in Scotland in 1770 when the Fife colliers collected money to challenge the detention of a negro slave who had been brought to the country, but, owing to the death of the slave-owner, the case was not decided. It may have been just as well; the Court of Session of those days might not have been as farseeing as Lord Mansfield - or as the Earl of Dundonald who ended two of the worst abuses in his Culross mines in 1793 - underground work by women, and payment by truck.

Even when an Act of Parliament abolished serfdom in the same year, these two abuses (and child labour) continued in many other places with the result that mining families too often went on living in squalor; the wives had no time to clean their houses or to cook food or to care for their children and "no man wanted to marry a collier's daughter, so little did they know of domestic duty. So degraded did they become," declared Hugh Miller, "that they were marked by a peculiar type of mouth, that I learnt to distinguish them from all other females of the country. It was wide open, thick-lipped, projecting equal above and below, and exactly resembled that which we find in prints of savages at their lowest and most brutal state, in such narratives of our modern voyagers as, for instance, the narrative of Captain Fitzroy's Second Voyage of the Beagle." So much looked down on were they by their neighbours that, in parts of Fife there was opposition to their being buried in consecrated ground.

* T. C. Smout, History of the Scottish People [pp.403-412]

Source: "Portrait of Perth, Angus and Fife", David Graham-Campbell, London 1979

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