We launched the Coal App in April 2019 and looking back over the past 18 months of operation, the extent to which it has evolved and developed has been remarkable. It began as a self-contained project commissioned by the Macrobert Art Centre at the University of Stirling to support their community heritage initiative based around the theme of coal. The aim of the app was to provide two curated walking routes and tell the story of coal mining through both the landscape legacies and the surviving physical remains of the industry. The emphasis was narrowly based on coal in two local mining communities north and south of the river Forth, Sauchie/Fishcross (Devonside Route) in Clackmannanshire and Fallin (Polmaise Route) in Stirlingshire paralleling the two areas selected by ‘Macrobert’ for their focused engagements.
Today there are 12 routes live on the App, with a further 8 in varying degrees of construction. The focus has been expanded to embrace not just coal but the wider social context, the associated industries, such as brick making, power sources, particularly water and transport networks. With the help of retired miner Royston our first cycle route ‘Royston’s Way’ is in development. This will link the collieries in the ‘Longannet Complex, tracing the route of the 5 mile underground conveyor belt (the longest in the world at the time of its construction) that brought coal to the power station at Longannet. It is inspired by Royston’s time spent cycling the route underground to service the belt. The geographical coverage of the routes has also been well extended beyond Clackmannan and Stirlingshire into Fife, Midlothian and East Dunbartonshire, with a long term plan to provide curated walks across the Scottish coalfields in their entirety (see https://stir.ac.uk/2aj). From the launch to December 2019 there have been around 500 downloads of the app, including in Canada, US, Australia, China and Russia.
This development beyond the original remit was driven by strong community engagement. ‘Macrobert’ had been keen that the Devonside and Polmaise routes were undertaken ‘in conversation’ with the two respective communities. This began as a ‘slow burn’ in spite of an active social media presence, ‘flyers’ placed in local community hubs, and calls for involvement in the local media. Initially, a few individuals, such as Dan, creator of the Polmaise Face Book page and Sheila, (Fishcross Residents’ Association) and the Sauchie Community Group came forward to share their photographs, memorabilia and importantly ‘nuggets of information’, personal knowledge and recollected experience that could not be found in the archives but brought the history alive.
One feature that is particularly good about the app is that you can expand both the number of routes and their contents on a continual basis. So we encouraged users to contribute to the two walks by adding information, suggesting their own points on interest for inclusion, reporting changes to the landscape/buildings or to suggest and/or create their own routes. It was this ‘collaborative feature’ that captured the public imagination and highlighted the potential to expand the number of routes and content which the app offered. Two local community groups, the Clackmannan Heritage Group (CHG) who had devised and created four walking routes based not just on coal mining history but on wider industrial history and cultural heritage, and the Clackmannanshire Field Studies Society (CFSS) http://cfss.org.uk/ who had just completed fieldwork and research on their local network of historic colliery waggon ways, were the first to bring their own ideas to the project and open up its primary focus and direction. A variety of both individuals, such as retired miners Royston and John, and local and national organisations have subsequently engaged, including the Dollar Museum https://dollarmuseum.org.uk/ and the National Mining Museum Scotland https://nationalminingmuseum.com/ and have actively worked with students, researching, mapping and creating their own routes.
‘Stirling’ Students, were involved from the early days of the project Some tackled archive work, some the field work, such as James and Leia (the Labrador and project mascot), and others have been involved with specific community groups, Kat an under-graduate history student, has worked with the CHG over the past year on their Linn Mill and Kennet walks. Volunteering was formalised, early in 2019 and researching and creating a route was offered as an MSc Environment, Heritage and Policy work-related dissertation. The first student route ‘Gartmorn Dam’, designed by Rebekah with the support of CFSS, emphasised the role of water power to pump the local mines dry, and her route went live on the App in August the same year.
The strong community engagement prompted a re-evaluation of the project aims and the transfer of the intellectual property rights by Macrobert to the university allowed this to happen The app has become much more than simply telling the story of the industry through the medium of landscape, it also provides a co-produced dynamic record of the rapidly disappearing landscape legacies and industrial archaeology; promotes increased local cultural understanding of mining heritage, and of the wider social and economic significance of the coal industry to the nation.
So to the future and the next 12 months, mobile phone apps have a finite life span, and the ‘coal app’ has around two years remaining, it is also not without design flaws. These include an inability to expand the maps and images, no screen rotation and no facility to download and print if required. The plan is to apply for funding for a new web based multi-platform application which will address its design faults and also permit the use of video as well as audio. We have a much wider and more ambitious aim, to create a national eco-museum of Scottish coal; a sustainable museum without walls and shelving, based both on the identity of place, and on strong community participation.
The ‘Coal App’ is free to download, just search Landscape Legacies of Coal on your mobile, or visit our website.