At the coalface - Museums Association

At the coalface

Sharon Heal makes a pit stop at the Scottish Mining Museum, which shows what life was like for those working in this unforgiving industry
Devotees of the multitude of home-buying programmes that currently abound on TV will tell you that one of the most important factors to consider when deciding where to move is location (location, location).

The Scottish Mining Museum in Newtowngrange has this key ingredient in spades. It is housed in the former Lady Victoria Colliery in the heart of the Scottish coalfield. So the pit and all the machinery and buildings that go with it are an integral part of the collection.

The tour starts with two floors of exhibitions. The first deals with the history of mining and coal in Scotland. For any visitors labouring under the misapprehension that only role coal has is to be chucked on an open fire, the objects and display tell a different story. Jewellery, for example, sits alongside a telephone and a packet of 'nylons' - all made from coal or its by-products.

Ventilation and safety are covered in a display about the miner's familiar Davy Lamp. Although the rest of the world may know the lamp by the name of its inventor, Humphry Davy, in Scotland it is stubbornly known as the Glennie, a derivation of Dr Clanny, the name of the first and original inventor of the safety lamp.

The collection is not all picks, shovels and safety equipment. A few quirky oddities sneak in, such as the National Coal Board flip flops for use in the pit-head baths; the giant safety pin used to close the laundry bags; and the Co-op 'piece' tins (sandwich boxes) made to fit the shape of the bread bought in-store.

The latter are on display in the social history galleries that form the second floor of the exhibition. In 1606 the Scottish Parliament passed an act regulating the coal and salt industries, which in effect turned miners into slaves. They weren't allowed to leave their jobs without written permission from the mine owners (which they were unlikely to get) and attempts to escape were punishable by confinement in leg or neck irons - a polished neck iron in the display vividly illustrates this point.

After the two galleries, visitors can join the Magic Helmets tour. You don't get to go underground (although there is a reconstructed coalface) but ex-miners are on hand for questions and commentary.

The real stuff is the shaft, headgear, tub circuit and washer - the centre of operations on the surface. Here miners descended 530 metres to the coalface and coal was brought back up in tubs to be sorted, washed and dispatched.

The cold draughty buildings betray little of the heat and motion that must have been present when the machinery was in action, but you do get a sense of the scale of an operation that at the height of production in 1953 dug out 570,000 tons of coal.

Last year the museum introduced an added attraction, the Big Stuff tour, where visitors can view some of the impressive bits of engineering kit from the museum's collection. The objects are housed in the pit's cavernous and chilly former workshop and range from huge shearers and cutters to the entire control desk from Fife's Longannet Colliery. A former miner guides visitors around the objects bringing to life the huge chunks of metal.

The workshop is basically a massive warehouse with missing windows and a dripping roof. This is one of the reasons behind the museum's strategic development plan, which was unveiled earlier this year. The idea is to secure the financial future of the museum by stabilising the buildings and developing new audiences.

According to Fergus Waters, the director of the museum, they will need £2.5m for the buildings alone and additional funding for education projects and collections care.

It would be easy to dismiss the museum as portraying a dead industry and of being of little interest to the general public (there are no working coalmines left in Scotland). But the visitor comments book shows a healthy spread of international visitors and a high level of satisfaction.

The museum is in Newtongrange village, which was built by the Lothian Coal Company to house the workforce and their families. At the time it was considered a model village, providing relatively modern accommodation. The downside was that the company ruled: if your garden wasn't up to scratch you could be fined; and if a miner died underground his family had only six months' grace before eviction.

Rumour has it that city-dwellers wanting a second home in the re-landscaped countryside are now snapping up former miner's cottages. It would be encouraging if the Scottish Executive proved just as willing to invest in the country's industrial heritage.

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