I am a PhD student exploring how miners, and their families, represented their landscape (predominantly) through poetry. I will investigate depictions of the place of mining, the site itself, its situation within the local landscape and how it has changed in response to progression and decline of the industry. I intend to invite former miners and their families to participate in a series of interviews as I want to understand their experiences of living in these communities.
18th Century Colliers in Scotland were indentured to their masters and could not leave employment without written consent. If they absconded, they could be hunted down, criminally charged and face corporal punishment. Mineworking is reputed as dangerous and gruelling. Remarkably, in the 18th Century it was often considered to be the work of paupers and criminals. Owing to Scotland’s Poor Law (1574-1845) vagabonds and able-bodied unemployed men could be conscripted into a lifetime of minework (see also, record of Serf’s Collar at National Museum of Scotland http://nms.scran.ac.uk/database/record.php?usi=000-100-001-337-C).
Unsurprisingly, no 18th Century miners-poetry has been identified. This lack of material raises issues of illiteracy, access to education, publications and libraries, especially given the mineworkers limited free time and the disdainful attitude towards them. I am hopeful, however, that oral tradition and song may serve as an access point to understanding the view of the miners for this period. Collier Laddie written by Robert Burns, and recorded by Ewan MacColl (https://youtu.be/O2VivU2ecW0) may offer as an example. By consulting works such as John Hassell’s “Industrial Picturesque”, discussed in connection with philosophical writing on the ideas of beauty, the sublime and the picturesque, I aim to develop an understanding of the concept of landscape to 18th Century society.
Working-class poetry is, however, plentiful throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries. Poets such as Robert Tait (1919) in his publication Rustic Songs of Nature compiles numerous poems that present pastoral landscapes. He includes a poem titled David Wingate. Collier Poet that celebrates an earlier successful poet and fellow miner and his approach to the genre.
Excerpt from David Wingate. Collier Poet by Robert Tait in Rustic Songs of Nature (1919).
When beauty robbed the banks and braes,
He sought the pleasant woodland ways,
In joyous haunts of nature fair
He found sweet inspiration there.
Alone he wandered forth to hear
The throstle’s music swelling clear,
As through the glades the echoes rang
He tuned his harp and sweetly sang.
This genre omits the Scottish Mining Landscape – the pit head, the village, the cottages, the noise, the air – in favour of a pastoral view. This absence is fascinating to me, the poet makes a choice to avoid the place of the mine and we can see that Tait hints at how the ‘natural’ landscape has been ‘robbed’ of its beauty. As this poetry is written with the intent to publish, my questions are do the poets ‘conform’ to the expected norms of the publishing houses and newspapers of the time? What does this then really tell us about their lived experience in a mining community?
Progressing throughout the 20th century the poetry changes to scenes of real-life depictions of mining places, people and working conditions. Emphasis is most definitely placed on hardship and toil. Mining landscapes appear as bleak and merciless. Why the change? I would offer that the development of unions, collective action, newspapers and publications written for working-class people provide platforms for labouring folk to discuss their environment and their experiences, with less concern about retribution. Poets such as Joe Corrie often writes about his ‘hate’. One of the earliest poems I read in this short PhD journey was the Miner-Minor Poet:
Excerpt from The Miner-Minor Poet by Joe Corrie in Plays, Poems and Theatre Writings (1985)
While the major poets,
those of the nightingale tongue
and the milk-white hands,
go out to the sunlit places
to sing little songs of the birds,
and the flowers and the goodness of God,
I stay behind in this cage of brick and steel,
where my hands have been case-hardened
to sing songs of hate.
Although this may not be a ‘landscape poem’, I would argue that it does challenge the picturesque/pastoral poetry of the previous century. This poem for me emphasises the transformation from the picturesque to a harsh reality. Are Colliers, for Corrie, supposed to talk about landscape and nature when their lives are filled with toil and hardship and unfairness?
In the aftermath of the decline, Coal written by Brian McCabe (1999) explores a memory of talking with his father sparked by retrieving some coal for the fire. McCabe’s work is quite the poignant expression of the coal industry post-abandonment in Scotland.
Excerpt from Coal by Brian McCabe (1999)
And what is there to show for it?
Flattened sites, non-places, absences
Surrounded by meaningless villages
I look forward to exploring more poetry, mining history, issues of sense of place and meaning attributed to remediated coalfields, memorials and preservation of sites with former miners and their families over the course of the next couple of years. If you or someone you know would like to participate in any interviews and share your experience of mining landscapes in Scotland, please get in touch with me firstname.lastname@example.org.
Julieann McHale, July 2020