The National Mining Museum Scotland represents a place to celebrate an important part of Scotland’s past and its future. I’ll come back to the future aspect towards the end of the post, but we’ll first need to take a step back into history.
We recently visited the Mining Museum as it is quite close to our home. Located on the outskirts of Edinburgh in Newtongrange, the Museum is part of an old mining colliery- Lady Victoria Colliery. Lady Victoria opened in 1895 and is a beautiful example of a Victorian-era mine.
When you pull into the car park, the lovely brick work draws the eye and piques one’s curiosity- at least it did for me. According to the Museum, it “is one of the best preserved Victorian Collieries in Europe”. My immediate reaction was surprise at the scale of the site which covers 4 acres. There is much to see and do at the Museum, but this article will focus on some of the highlights we experienced.
The entrance and reception for the National Mining Museum is in the old Power House. A few important tips when you visit- first, if you have Historic Scotland membership, make sure you take advantage of the 2-for-1 ticket deal. Second, we highly recommend that you do the guided tour. It’s part of the ‘Guided/Self-Guided/Audio Tour’ admission ticket and well worth it. The tour guides are all former miners, so it’s great to be given a tour by someone who can speak with authority about the subject. Our guide, Jim, was excellent, and his tour was the absolute highlight of our visit!
To further help orientate you before you start your guided or self-guided tour- right next to the reception you can find a fantastic café, a wee gift shop, and the toilets. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, lets head upstairs to the Gantry to meet our guide and start our tour of the facilities.
As I said above, it was wonderful to have a guided tour done by a former miner. Our guide, Jim, also came from a mining family as his father was also a miner. Therefore, he spoke with authority, but also from the perspective of personal and family experience. We started off our guided tour learning about the equipment that miners used in the past. For example, we saw variations of the Davy lamp (which is how it is known around the world) or a glennie (as it is known in Scotland) and how it helped miners identify different types of ‘damp’ (or gases).
We eventually made our way into the pithead, and then down into the coalface. Both places provided a better feeling or understanding of what it must have been like to work in the mines. When looking at history and the stories we are telling, we always try to bring it back to the people. Otherwise, our stories don’t have meaning or a sense of context. While touring the Mining Museum, there were a few themes that popped out to me. First, was the undeniable fact that mining work was dangerous and difficult. This is an apparent fact you can see demonstrated throughout the Museum. Secondly, it is apparent that strong women also played a part in the story of mining throughout Scotland. Let’s explore both themes a little more below.
Difficulties of Mining Work
As most of you know, or can imagine, working below ground in the mines (before and after mechanisation of the work) was incredibly gruelling work- literally back breaking. When you go on the guided tour, you can get a somewhat better understanding of what it must have been like to be a miner in the late 1800s up through the end of the 20th century.
For example, when you tour the pithead, and see the shaft and cage that the men had to take go underground- you can envision the dark, cramped conditions. However, reality really sinks in when you enter the recreated underground roadway and coalface. I can’t imagine working hours on end, underground, in confined and dangerous conditions. Daily life was filled with the high possibility of accidents such as broken bones, burns, or being overcome with gas.
Prior to the Royal Commission Report of 1842, women, children, and men could work in the mines. When the Report came out, women were banned from working in the mines, but not everywhere (we’ll come back to this). The irony of the situation is that it wasn’t because of the horrific conditions that led to the prevention of women working underground. Rather, it was because they were…. wait for it…. wearing trousers! Apparently, the men inspecting for the Royal Commission Report thought it thoroughly indecent that the women working in the mines wore trousers. I can’t make this stuff up. However, banning them from working in the mines wasn’t such a clear-cut situation for the better. Many men had to take on more hours in the mines to cover the deficit in income they now faced. Further, the women lost a sense of independence. Regarding children, the Report changed the law to say that boys under age 10 could no longer work in the mines- somehow that doesn’t make me feel better.
Strong and Independent Scottish Women
While the Royal Commission Report of 1842 banned women from working in the mines, they were still allowed to work above ground as pickers at the picking tables. The women would work long hours at the colliery at conveyor belts where they would pick debris and stones from the coal. However, their workday didn’t end when leaving the mines because they were also expected to cook and clean at home. These women were incredible and their role in the mines and what they did for their families should be recognised alongside the men. Scottish women have a long history of being strong and independent women. If you want to read another example of amazing Scottish women in history, be sure to check out our article on Newhaven and the Fishwives.
The Galleries & The Future
In addition to the guided tour, be sure to take the time to thoroughly explore the exhibition galleries of the National Mining Museum Scotland. They provide a more in-depth look at the historical breakdown of mining life and the technicalities of how it was done. There are various artefacts on display, and much to see and learn about.
The galleries close with some important ways to think about energy for the future. The last deep coal mine in Scotland closed in 2002. With our current climate crisis, it is prudent that Scotland has focused on ways we can create energy in a more sustainable, cleaner way. Wind, wave, and solar energy are important sources, but the Museum also points out the work done around geothermal energy “(harnessing the thermal energy stored in the earth itself).
We highly recommend you visit the National Mining Museum Scotland as it is a place where you can learn about important Scottish history, while also looking towards the future. It is an excellent tourist attraction for visitors, but for locals as well. If you plan on visiting the National Mining Museum, be sure to check their website for important information and updates. The latest update- current at the time of publication- is that Museum will be closed from 13-23 March 2020.
Until next time- Explore & Discover!