Miners bitter but unbowed 30 years after strike

EVEN after 30 years, pride glows and resentment smoulders in what is left of the mining communities devastated by the strike to end all strikes.
John Kane, a former miner and now a guide at the Scottish National Mining Museum, Newcraighall. Picture: Jane BarlowJohn Kane, a former miner and now a guide at the Scottish National Mining Museum, Newcraighall. Picture: Jane Barlow
John Kane, a former miner and now a guide at the Scottish National Mining Museum, Newcraighall. Picture: Jane Barlow

The landlord stood on stage and faced the crowd packed into his pub. “We all know,” he began, “why we’re here.” A man of around 50, he wore a dark suit, black tie and an expression in which anger had the upper hand of triumph. Pinned to the wall behind him were a saltire and a string of plastic Union flags.

“Can we have a minute’s silence?” There were jeers at that, but he held up a hand to show he wasn’t finished. “A minute’s silence for every miner who died at his work; for every pit that bastard closed; for every job she took out of this area.”

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It was 17 April, 2013, the day of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, and Jim McMahon, landlord of the Glenmuir Arms in the Ayrshire village of Logan, had been waiting almost 30 years to say those words; ever since the bitter, battered days of the miners’ strike, in which he had played an active part as a picket. The strike had ended in defeat, the local pits had closed, and devastating poverty followed.

Still, Logan and the surrounding towns had never surrendered entirely; there was still a lingering community spirit, proof that, round these parts at least, there was such a thing as society. This was why McMahon had hosted a party to mark the former prime minister’s death – to celebrate not just the passing of an enemy, but also the survival of a people.

“Thatcher described us as ‘the enemy within’,” McMahon says now, when I visit his pub ten months later. “We weren’t the enemy within. All we wanted was the right to earn a wage.”

His father and grandfather had worked down the pit, and when he himself went underground at 18 it was with a sense of destiny fulfilled. He thought he would be a miner for the rest of his life. His voice grows soft, therefore, with the recollection of his disinheritance. “I’ll never forget what was there for me, and what was taken away.”

The miners’ strike, which is about to have its 30th anniversary, began on 12 March, 1984 and ended on 3 March, 1985. It was a dispute over planned pit closures which became a clash of ideologies. There has not been industrial action of the same length or vicious intensity since. It can be seen as the last stand of trade union power, the last expression of a certain sort of working class heroism, and the moment when traditional heavy industry contracted its final enfeebling illness. It was a brutalising civil war from which lowland Scotland’s towns and villages have still not recovered.

It does not feel like ancient history. Present anxieties over climate change and energy prices, mistrust of police and politicians, worries about jobs and the economy, and a general loss of faith in the whole idea of Britain as a great nation – all these feel connected to the strike, like a long faulty seam of the same coal.

“I’m glad the strike’s remembered,” says McMahon. “I’m glad I was part of it. If it was for the same cause I would do it again.”

There is a green hill in the village of New Cumnock with far away views of the Ayrshire countryside. There’s something strange about this hill. Set into it are concrete steps and electric street lights. Leading nowhere. Lighting nothing. There was a housing estate here once, and a primary school nearby, but both have been bulldozed. Forty years ago, the population was around 9,000; now it’s a third of that. This is what a pit village looks like when it no longer has a pit. “New Cumnock is a living monument to the miners’ strike and Thatcher,” says Rab Wilson, 53, a poet and former miner who grew up and still lives here.

Towns built on coal

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Literally and metaphorically, many settlements in this part of Scotland were built on coal. It is thought to have first been mined by monks in the late middle ages. But with the industrial revolution’s great guzzling appetite, Ayrshire grew pitted like a peach stone. By 1947, the year the industry was nationalised, there were around 50 mines in the region. All are gone and yet the coal remains. Former miners talk about the “Mauchline Basin” – a 20-square-mile section of the coalfield at a depth of 4,000 feet – as if it were the Treasure of the Sierra Madre. “It’s there!” they say in urgent whispers, as if they’d like nothing more than to stick a fist through the earth and haul it out by hand.

Locals are well aware that 40 per cent of Britain’s electricity comes from coal-fired power stations and that we import around three-quarters of the coal we need. If you worked for Scottish Coal, the open-cast mining company that went bust last year, you would be likely to find those statistics especially galling. Why buy it from America and Europe, Ayrshire miners wonder, when there are still tens of millions of tons beneath our feet?

There is little sign of the pits now, other than the preserved headgear of the Barony mine which towers, lofty and lonely, above the countryside outside Auchinleck. Unofficial, but in a way just as moving, are a number of ramblers’ shelters made from scrap wood, corrugated iron and dyke stones built along the side of the narrow road through Glen Afton. These were put up by miners during the strike, a way of using their manual skills and passing idle months. Unless Rab Wilson had pointed them out, I would never have known what they were. They are Ayrshire’s sorrowful mystery.

Wilson is mindful that as one of the younger men involved in the strike, he has a responsibility to carry forward in his poetry the story of the dispute and of the culture of the mines.

“The miners were always an ostracised part of society,” he says. “We’re a sort of Untermensch, a separate race to be looked down on. Up until the last years of the 18th century you were indentured to a mine. You were slaves. And that always stayed with the miners. They had their own principles and sense of honour, and stuck together because they’d no other choice. So they were always going to be a bolshy bunch that would protest. And that fighting spirit hasn’t been knocked out of people around here.”

“IT WAS hard. It was a struggle,” says Janet Connachan, “especially when you had young kids, because you felt they were getting deprived as well. We didn’t feel guilty, though. The cause was genuine. They weren’t fighting for money. It was for the communities.”

Connachan is 63 and comes from Prestonpans. Her late husband Thomas, who died in 2005, was a miner at Monktonhall. She was proud that he went on strike and took his turn as a picket – “I wouldn’t have wanted him sitting in the house” – and is well aware that they were lucky, in a way; the strike put huge pressure on relationships between husbands and wives, especially around that Christmas. “It hit a lot of people hard and lots of marriages broke up. Some families never got over it.”

Women were crucial to the strike. Most strike centres ran soup kitchens where the families of striking miners could get meals. This, though, was an extension of the traditional domestic role. What was new was that women found the strike empowering; for many, it was the first time they had played an active role in public life. Some even joined the picket lines. Connachan attended all the rallies and went to meetings of Women Against Pit Closures. When her husband returned to work, she and their children rose at 5am and marched with him, from Newton Village to Monktonhall. She remembers the sound of the band that piped them in through the colliery gates.

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“That morning was one of the most emotional I’ve ever had,” she says. “It was comradeship. It had been an achievement to stay out for such a long time. It didn’t feel like we had lost.”

‘The important thing was heart’

At the time of the strike, there were 12 Scottish pits employing 15,000 miners, but the last closed in 2002. There is a whole generation of young people who have no idea what it was like to do that job, to kneel at a three-foot high seam, breathing in stoor, and dig for coal with a shovel and pick. John Kane, 76, a miner who now works as a tour guide at the National Mining Museum in Newtongrange, digs his garden on his knees because it is how he is best at handling a spade. “The important thing,” he says, tapping his chest, “was to have heart.”

It was another world down there – aggressive, frightening, exhilarating. You’d hear the roof creaking like a frozen loch starting to thaw. At other times it was so silent and lonely you could hear your own heartbeat. The pit would hew you into new shapes. You’d become strong, physically and mentally, and broadened though piece-break talk of politics and poetry. There would always be someone reciting Burns or singing Sinatra; Tam O’ Shanter and Three Coins In A Fountain drifting through the dark. You could get killed all too easily, and in a variety of ways. “When men fell down the shaft,” one miner recalls, “a lot of times they never even got a body. A man falling 2,000 feet at 70 feet a second and hitting half the girders, by the time they got to the bottom there was nothing left.”

Those who could handle the depth and danger learned that the most important thing was to look out for your “neebor” and he would look out for you. There was respect and a hierarchy – the young miners in awe of the “supermen” who could howk coal fastest – but most of all there was solidarity, brotherhood. This sense of kinship was the psychological underpinning to the strike, and its breakdown was both the reason for the strike’s failure and its tragic legacy.

A decision by the NUM leadership not to hold a national ballot on whether to strike led to divisions between miners. The scorch marks left by burning tires, stacked and lit to prevent buses taking workers to the pits, took a long time to fade from the roads of Auchinleck – an apt symbol for the resentment still smouldering in the minds of some in the mining towns. Little wonder it has never quite been extinguished; the hatred was intense. There was even a murder in New Cumnock a few years after the strike had ended, following a quarrel harking back to the crossing of a picket line.

For Johnny Templeton, the 51-year-old curator of Ayrshire mining history at the website minersvoices.co.uk, there is a need now to acknowledge the violence and fear of the period and, through discussion and forgiveness, leave the resentment in the past. “This is the year to do it,” he says, “before it’s handed down to the next generation.”

He was out on strike until Valentine’s Day, 1985, though he grew increasingly troubled by the intimidatory tactics of pickets. Going back down to the pit was an act of solidarity with another miner, Big Jock, whose own return to work had led to his windows being smashed and the word “scab” daubed six feet high across his gable end.

“See, it wasn’t Thatcher that was running about our communities with baseball bats, it was union men,” says Templeton. “They turned miner against miner, family against family. They were that consumed by anger and hatred that they lost it at every level. Ideologically, spiritually, emotionally.”

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The pit after the strike was a much darker place, with no camaraderie left. It was the same above ground, throughout the whole area – a bitterness you could almost taste. There was a healing moment, though, with the victory of Auchinleck Talbot, the local football team, in the Scottish Junior Cup of 1986. The final took place at Hampden Park.

“All the communities sent buses, and families that had fallen out during the strike had to sit together,” Templeton recalls. “See when they won that cup? Everybody came together. It was cathartic. Our identity had been taken away – ‘We were miners, what are we now?’ – but that gave us it back. Scabs and Tuesday Boys cuddling each other. The release in the air that night was tangible. It gave us a victory we never had with the strike.”

‘Rogueish’ side to strike

THE Tuesday Boys is how they’re known and how they see themselves. They were the Ayrshire miners who stayed out till the end, refusing to return to work on Monday, 4 March, 1985, if it meant travelling in buses with “scabs”. They returned, instead, a day later, a date commemorated on the red enamel badges bearing a portrait of Robert Burns which are among the prized possessions of each strike veteran.

Jim McMahon, landlord of the Glenmuir Arms, is a Tuesday Boy. So is his friend Gordon Cossar, known as Wolfie. These men, now in their fifties, were flying pickets. They were at Orgreave and Hunterston, confronted the riot police and charging horses and snarling dogs. They remember the tribal boom of batons on shields and the bricks flying through the air.

They remember, too, another side to the strike – a rompish, rogueish aspect. With no wages or benefits for over a year, poaching was rife. Men would raid the fields for tatties, replacing the stalks in the earth so the farmer wouldn’t notice. One old miner, Rab, used to take his ferret with him when he went picketing, curled up beneath his coat; he’d disappear for an hour and come back with a rabbit for the brazier. Someone even stole a sheep once, butchering it in his bath, much to the displeasure of his wife.

What was it like, though, to return to work, having lost the strike? “It broke my heart,” says McMahon. “See when I think back, there’s just aboot a tear in my ee again.”

And how do they feel now about the way the “scabs” were treated, the broken windows and so on? “With 30 years’ hindsight, it’s not the proper way to conduct union business,” says Cossar. “I’m not saying it was right what was done, but when your livelihood felt threatened, when you felt betrayed, and maybe when you felt you were losing, you took your anger out on those folk.”

The Tuesday Boys and their equivalents across Scotland walked back through the pit gates with their heads held high, and in the years since have left the heat and hate of youth behind. Their feeling, now, is that they were privileged to have been part of a historic moment, a battle that has left them scarred but also honoured.

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“This is the centenary of the Great War,” says Cossar. “That was the war to end all wars. Well, maybe this was the strike to end all strikes.”

NATTY, you’d call him. He favours blazers and silk hankies. He is never without a fedora. He moves, despite two bad knees and a bad hip, with a certain hirpling grace. John McCormack is 80 years old. He lives in Fallin, across the road from the Polmaise pit which he first went down, aged 14, in 1947. He has not had a job since the strike ended. In his head, in his heart, he has never stopped being a miner. It’s what he is yet.

McCormack’s father was a miner, as were two of his brothers. A third brother, Gus, drowned as a boy in a pool of the warm waste water that ran off the pit, in which local children learned to swim. “When they brought my brother’s coffin home, they put it in the back room. At bedtime, my mother went ben there, lifted Gus and brought him into bed aside us. He’d be six, I’d maybe be about ten. Funny how things stick in your mind.”

Far from despising the pit as a result of this experience, McCormack couldn’t wait to get down there. His attitude to coal was that of a dog straining toward a rabbit. It was instinctual, an inherited collier gene. Even an offer from Falkirk FC to join them full time at four times his wages could not tempt him from the coal face. So he played part time, training before work. He was part of the squad that won the Scottish Cup in 1957.

By 1984, McCormack was a pit elder and NUM delegate. Polmaise came out on strike three weeks before the rest of the UK, and only went back one week later. They were, McCormack says, the match that started the fire. He is proud that there was no need for a picket line. Although his memory is not what it was, and at one point during our conversation he even forgets the reason for the strike, he has not forgotten that pride.

He was made redundant in 1985. Polmaise was shut two years later. He has remained a stalwart of Fallin’s Miners’ Welfare, and continues to represent former miners in compensation claims for industrial injuries and the like, never taking a penny for his trouble. All his pals from the pit are dead. He no longer knows the name of everyone from the village. “But I play the organ,” he says, “and that keeps me occupied a wee while.”

He walks over to the instrument, in a corner of the living room, and sits on the stool. He is reflected in the mirror above the organ, fedora bobbing, as he plays It’s Magic by Sammy Cahn, written in the year he started down the pit.

It’s a song about togetherness, but there’s an ache in it, too. I read the lyrics over his shoulder: “Why do I tell myself these things that happened are all really true?”