The white rows of Letham, (Greater Falkirk) stand proud on the carse lands south of the River Forth, visible from both the M876 and the A905. Located in a setting described by Jacques in his architectural guide to Falkirk and District ‘as Dutch or East Anglian in character…’. ‘Hedgeless fields and uninterrupted views across flat landscape…’ For some 12 years now, one way or the other, I have passed them by on my way to and from work. They are only just over two and half miles from home, around an hours walk and if wasn’t for my neighbours cherry tree I could probably see them from the bedroom windows. They piqued my interest, but given that all spare time was taken up with exploring landscape legacies of coal extraction, and my erroneous assumption that they were probably associated with agricultural or the adjacent peat works at Letham Moss, a wander round the village seemed to always get postponed for another day.
It was whilst working on the ‘Ash Way’ route for the Coal App which begins and ends in Kincardine on the northern bank of the Forth that eventually both revealed my mistake and Letham’s coal mining history. I had download the wrong historic map and centre top almost off the page was an intriguing colliery site and mineral railway that I knew nothing about.
Work on the ‘Ash Way’ was temporarily abandoned and the later, and adjacent map, south revealed the full story; Letham was a colliery village with the houses and mine manager’s’ house built around the pit, and I had to all extents and purposes ignored it.
The wander round got pushed to the top of the agenda, but this was March 2020 and lockdown. The archives were shut and even more frustratingly Letham was just too far to count as local exercise. Why hadn’t I delved a bit deeper when the settlement had first aroused curiosity? Evan a brief web search and Wikipedia would have revealed that Letham was described as ‘a small former mining village in the Falkirk District’.
I finally visited in May 2020 and it was well worth the wait. Letham had been designated a conversation area in 1978 on the grounds that it represented one of only a few examples of a model industrial village built around a colliery within the Falkirk district in the early 20th century.
The properties were constructed by the Carron Company to house the miners at the adjacent colliery and the neighbouring William pit located roughly 2 miles east of Letham. They consisted of 3 rows of single story cottages with some dormers built in 1913 around 3 sides of a square with drying greens, rear gardens and a central courtyard.
The rear gardens would originally have had iron railings to separate them from the green and the miners would dry their work clothes over them.
Letham Terrace, is a single row of two storey, four in a block, semi-detached houses, constructed in 1915. Electricity to both types of property (and the pit) was originally provided by the Carron Company from their generating station at Stenhousemuir.
The original mine managers’ house, now a private residence ‘Crooklandsgate Cottage’, is located on Letham Terrace.
The colliery was located between the rows and terraces ( see map image above) and worked from 1913 through to 1925 when it was partially abandoned, closing fully in 1930. Letham colliery was being developed as the Grangemouth Colliery pits (five in total) at Bothkennar were closing and many men simply transferred from one colliery to the other. In its early days of operation Letham was a fairly substantial employer, with over 700 men on the books. By 1919, this had reduced to around 170 men raising an average daily output of around 400 tons. The coal served the Carron Iron Works via a private mineral branch line to Carronshore.
The pit was a fairly wet working environment and in March 1919, there was a substantial inundation of water during coal cutting operations that eventually flooded the pit bottom and rose up the shaft. At which time there were 70 men underground. Four men failed to heed the alarm and were subsequently rescued by James Wightman who waded through chest deep water to bring them to safety. No lives were lost in this instance but the mine was out of action for several months.
Nothing remains of the surface buildings today and the bing was remediated and returned to agricultural land in the early 1990s.
The track bed of the mineral branch line has survived and provides a footpath between the cottages and the terraces.
Given its long standing conservation status Letham is largely unspoilt, a small row of new houses built in the 1980s on the site of an old tarpaulin works fits neatly into the village landscape.
Letham is also clearly proud of its past. Located start of the village is an interpretation board and map detailing the history and key points of interest together with a memorial commemorating the lives lost in the two World Wars but also the colliery.
The community hub that stands on the location of the Miners’ Welfare Hall depicts a mural celebrating 100 years of village history.
Despite the short distances, a wander round the village will make a great route on the Coal App once lockdown is finally over and work can begin in the archives. There is a car park and its flat terrain makes it accessible by wheel chair and with a buggy. It will also link well to the walk around the Grangemouth Colliery sites at Bothkennar that is currently under construction.
Suffice to say maps are simply wonderful, not only do they tell you where you are going but also where you have been, and thanks to the National Library of Scotland they have been digitised and free to view (see https://maps.nls.uk/). They have always provide the starting point for research on new routes for the coal app, but since Letham and lockdown they have become a ‘must’ for walking. Many hours have been spent exploring cultural and natural landscape changes, and with the recent availability of the OS geology series an equal amount of time was spent locating sites of long abandoned mine shafts. Thank you National Library of Scotland you kept me sane during the pandemic.
Sources: Falkirk Council Development Services, ‘Letham Conservation Area Appraisal’ (March 2010); Guthrie Hutton, Mining from Kirkintilloch to Clackmannan and Stirling to Slamannan, (2000); R. Jacques, Falkirk and District: An Architectural Guide (2001); National Library of Scotland https://maps.nls.uk/ and Scottish Mining Website: http://scottishmining.co.uk/