The Fourth Statistical Account of East Lothian

The Coal Industry - An Overview

George Archibald

Coalfield Structure

The Lothian Coalfield lies in the form of an elongated deep trough extending from around Carlops to an undefined area under the sea beyond Musselburgh. Broadly, the coal seams outcrop steeply on the west boundary along the base of the Pentlands, but to the east the structure flattens and its seams lie at relatively shallow depths beneath East Lothian. This part of the coalfield underlying the county covers roughly 30 square miles with its boundary running from the coast at Longniddry to Gladsmuir, to Pencaitland, then across to Pathhead. The workable seams are mainly part of the Limestone Coal Group and, while there are considerable variations in thickness and quality, around twelve of the seams have been exploited.

Early Mining History

The fortuitous situation of easily accessible coal gave East Lothian a claim to fame in mining history. The first official record of coal working in Britain is in the charter granted by a Norman noble, Sieur de Quincy of Fa'side, to the monks of Newbattle Abbey around 1210, giving them the right to work his coal heugh at Whytrigg near Prestonpans. The monks used the coal to fuel their saltpans and indeed part of the road from Newbattle through Wallyford to the coast is still called Salters Road. From this early start, the coal-bearing area was continuously worked to the extent that there are recorded around 350 entries into coal in East Lothian by means of shaft, mine or adit.

Period of Major Mining Development

The most intensive mining of the county's coal, however, was mainly confined to the post-industrial revolution period of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and was concentrated in the districts around Musselburgh, Wallyford, Prestonpans, Tranent, Ormiston and Pencaitland. While coal mining was never carried out on a scale to match neighbouring Midlothian, it was nevertheless an important factor in East Lothian's economic and social development. The early Statistical Accounts contain many references to the industry.

Although coal made a very significant contribution to East Lothian prosperity, the county was arguably lucky in that coal did not dominate its economy. There was always more of a balanced situation among the various industries than in other parts of Scotland. East Lothian was never so heavily dependent on coal as say Lanarkshire that for a long time was the major provider of the fuel which powered Scotland's heavy industries and consequently suffered severely when its coal was virtually worked out. To put this in perspective, in 1900 for example, East Lothian produced around 500,000 tons of coal with the collieries employing some 1,500 miners, but this only represented 1% of Scotland's coal production. The peak output of over 1 million tons was reached in 1913, but this was still only 2.5% of the Scottish total.

Various reasons could be put forward for coal extraction being kept on a relatively small scale, but basically the general distribution and shallowness of the seams meant that in most cases it made more sense to stick to small profitable short-term mines than to go for the high capital cost of creating large collieries. Notable exceptions to this were, of course, the coastal pits of Prestongrange and Prestonlinks sunk in the latter part of the nineteenth century with the potential to extract the deep undersea reserves, and to a lesser extent, perhaps, Wallyford Colliery which became a fair-sized, long-term enterprise.

A significant social consequence of what might be termed the small mine philosophy was that when in the early nineteenth century the larger and deeper collieries in Scotland had embraced the mechanical advantages available as a result of the Industrial Revolution, most of East Lothian's mines seem to have continued to rely on the presumably cheaper option of manual labour. That this was probably the case is indicated in the report by a Royal Commission in 1842 on the employment of women and children where a large and disproportionate amount of evidence on the, sometimes, appalling working conditions was given by East Lothian witnesses. The report resulted in Parliament banning the employment, underground, of all females and boys under ten.

The coal industry in the county, particularly in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, provided steady and stable employment that led to the development of several largely mining-based communities. Tranent and Prestonpans grew to considerable size mainly due to coal and its allied industries. As such they came to be regarded as traditional mining towns. The smaller places such as Ormiston and Pencaitland and other villages tended to retain rural connections giving an easy relationship between industry and agriculture.

Recent Mining History

The foregoing is a broad view of the historical development of coal mining prior to 1945: we can now look at the period after the Second World War and in particular the changes brought about by the nationalisation of the coal industry in 1947. It was a time of optimism, when mineworkers expected radical change after a war weary country elected a socialist government. To some extent this optimism was justified and conditions in the mines did improve. The existing mines were upgraded and new mines with higher standards of construction and equipment were driven to replace run down and frequently less safe mines.

Arguably, post-war changes had a down side in mining community life. The widely available distractions of modern life such as television, motoring, and outside entertainment facilities meant that shift work at the pits was more anti-social. The villages formed round the earlier colliery locations became largely dormitory places when miners had to commute to the new or extended distant collieries and to some extent this altered the former close community spirit. Nevertheless, traditional basic mining activities such as 'dugs and doos' (respectively, racing greyhounds and homing pigeons), football, gardening, bowls, etc., continued to be pursued if perhaps to a lesser extent.

The shortage of coal supplies in the early years of nationalisation and the knowledge that East Lothian had, on paper, vast reserves to be exploited, particularly off-shore, indicated a great future for the industry. Plans were prepared for further major developments but by the late 1950s, the demand for coal started to decline. By the 1960s the competition from other energy sources was building up. The railways were converted to diesel power, and ships to oil. The discovery of North Sea oil and gas also saw the conversion of the industrial and domestic markets to these cleaner and more convenient fuels. Even the supposedly secure market for coal of electricity generation was affected by the development of atomic power. When Torness nuclear power station in East Lothian came into operation, the quantity of coal used in Cockenzie station was cut back considerably. So, although the NCB had set up new collieries at Bellyford and Meadowmill, by 1964 they and all the pre-nationalisation collieries had closed. Those East Lothian miners who wished to stay in the industry were transferred to Midlothian collieries but they too had all shut down by the end of the 1980s, although Monktonhall did re-open as a private enterprise for a short period.

No review of mining would be complete without a reference to a major event in the recent history of the coal industry, viz the national strike of 1984/85 (see Rab Amos, this volume). By this time all the collieries in East Lothian had closed and so the mining communities in the county were spared the direct and frequently violent confrontations that took place elsewhere between the police and the miners' union pickets. Nevertheless, those miners who had elected to travel to Bilston Glen and Monktonhall Collieries for employment were involved and their families had to endure the problems and deprivations of a yearlong strike. It has been estimated that, prior to the strike, over 1,000 miners from East Lothian worked in the Midlothian super-pits; at Monktonhall there were over 700 which constituted around 40% of the colliery workforce, whilst at Bilston Glen the figure was over 300, or 16%.

The only remaining coal extraction in the county was that carried on at the large opencast site of Blindwells which supplied Cockenzie Power Station. By 2000, coaling ended here also and restoration of the site was under way. It seemed that this was the end of an industry that had existed for 800 years.


On the credit side, the demise of the coal industry did not result in devastated communities. As previously mentioned, the mix of other employment sources and the development of new industrial estates cushioned the blow for East Lothian. Rail and road access to Edinburgh made many of the former mining villages desirable residential locations for the commuting generation. The stock of miners' houses, a lot of them good quality, remained as an attraction and an asset. In addition, many local improvements and amenities exist thanks largely to the Miners' Welfare Fund, established 1920 (see Ian McAlpine, this volume). This led to the building, amongst many other things, of institutes, clubs, pubs, rest homes, parks, bowling greens, etc. The fund was also used to set up and support football teams, brass and pipe bands and, uniquely to East Lothian, to acquire a golf club, the Royal Musselburgh at Prestongrange House.

On the environment plus side, pit bings, once visually and atmospherically polluting, have largely disappeared. The local authority must be credited with the physical removal of, the reshaping, landscaping or otherwise redeveloping these eyesores. Perhaps the most striking result of such action was the 'pyramid' at the Meadowmill Sports Centre, which was in fact, a small dry ski slope atop an old bing, first proposed in 1967. Another remarkable transformation undertaken was that of the coastal strip from Musselburgh to Prestonpans. The long period of dumping waste from collieries, brickworks and from other sources straight into the sea ended, and the coastal devastation this caused has largely been dealt with. Cockenzie power station's early fly ash lagoons have been turned into splendid parkland with a boating pond, a picnic area, and a bird sanctuary all linked to a further restored green area along a coastal path. It is probable that the final restoration of the Blindwells opencast site, judging by recent examples elsewhere, will also be aesthetically pleasing. If so it will be some reward to those who have had to endure many years of its industrial effects.

There is inevitably, however, an environmental downside to the end of coal extraction. The early working in the shallow mines was largely by the 'stoop and room' method that left a checkerboard pattern of coal pillars to support the roof strata. Over the years, the stability of these old workings can be affected by change due to water erosion, chemical alteration and surface loading, etc. This can result in localised collapse or lowering of the surface causing damage to structures and utilities. A number of these suspect areas will no doubt continue to create problems and inhibit surface development. Another common problem in old mining areas is the discharge of polluted mine water into rivers and streams. The old workings fill up and the water table, kept down for so long by mine pumps, rebounds in land lowered by subsidence. This occurred in the 1960s when a major new drainage system had to be constructed to conduct the water issuing from the closed coastal mines to the sea. Major civil engineering work has also had to be undertaken on the east coast main railway line to deal with the effects of past mining.

Postscript - December 2001

There remain considerable quantities of coal under the East Lothian countryside and its seaward area. By the end of 2000, possible exploitation of some of it by opencasting was being pursued, but there is an understandable resistance to this because of the adverse environmental impact it would have. It would be unrealistic, however, to imagine that anyone would consider that any large deep mining enterprise in the future would be worthwhile. Equally, the old practice of driving a small drift mine to be worked by a handful of miners is another unlikely prospect.

Perhaps, when the non-renewable energy sources of oil and gas run out and if nuclear power goes out of favour, then extracting the energy in coal from boreholes by underground gasification may become a feasible proposition. Hopefully that possibility will not need to be considered for a very long time.

So, we have the situation, where for 800 years coal in East Lothian heated homes and drove many of its industries from salt making, brick making and brewing through to transport and electric power generation. By 2000, the stage had virtually been reached where the only visible evidence of this once all-important industry was the beam engine, the headframe and a small scatter of some mine buildings at the Prestongrange Industrial Heritage Centre.


The main sources used to compile this overview are to be found in the Library of the Scottish National Mining Museum at Newtongrange, near Dalkeith.

Appendix 1: East Lothian Collieries during Nationalisation - i.e. from 1947

It should be noted that a slight confusion arises when looking at the records for this period. The East Lothian pits were organised by the National Coal Board into two groups with offices at Wallyford and Ormiston. However, the Wallyford group took in Carberry Colliery, which lay just outside the county boundary and into Midlothian. The Ormiston group included the mines of Castle, Oxenford No 3 and Cowdenfoot, which were also in Midlothian.

Colliery Sinking Production Start Production Cease Abandoned Employed - underground Employed - Surface Notes
Bellyford Apr 1949 Jan 1954 Nov 1961 Dec 1962 180 155 Latterly used as an airway mine
Bankton Pre-vesting Production -- Pumping ceased pre Pit only vesting
3 34 Pumping ceased May 1962
1866 Mar 1959 Jan 1961 710 144 Latterly a pumping station. 2 shafts 240', 502'
Glencairn 1936 1948 Jan 1962 Dec 1962 50 15 Transferred to NCB in 1948. 2 mines
1895 Jan 1954
231 66 2 shafts 150'
Meadowmill Feb 1952 June 1953 June 1960 Dec 1962 107 13
1830 Dec 1962 Aug 1963 570 130 3 shafts 546'; 738'; 378'
1899 Feb 1964 Mar 1964 660 160 2 shafts; 396'; 378'
Tynemount & Oxenford No 3
1924 Jan 1952 Dec 1962 244 74 Latterly a pumping station. 1 shaft; 300'; 1 mine
Winton May 1949 Mar 1950 Apr 1962 Dec 1962 70 15 2 surface mines

The following small mines operated under Licence from the NCB.

Colliery Licensee Opened Closed Notes
Chancellorsville Gunn/Beattie July 1971 May 1979
Glencairn Glencairn Coal Co. 1936 March 1948 Licence terminated; taken over by NCB
Penkaet Alex Gordon Pre-vesting August 1965
Policies D Beattie August 1983 July 1987 Mine located in Buccleuch Estate, Dalkeith.

Appendix 2: East Lothian Collieries in 1914

Extracted from 'List of Mines Under the Coal Mines Act, in the Scotland Division, during the year 1914.The initial letters attached to the word 'Coal' in the column ' Minerals Worked' indicates the kind of Coal produced, viz C - Coking; G - Gas; H - Household; M - Manufacturing; S - Steam.

Owner & Postal Address Name of Mine Situation Persons Employed - Underground Persons Employed - Surface Minerals Worked Remarks (Seams worked etc.)
Bankpark Coal Co. Tranent Bankpark Tranent 106 17 Coal H&S Tranent, 4', lower 4', Jewel, 3'. Splint Seam abandoned 31 Oct 1913
Edinburgh Collieries Co. Ltd. Wallyford, Musselburgh Bankton Tranent 294 60 Coal H, M, & S Splint, 3', 4', Jewel
Ditto Elphinstone Tranent 260 70 Coal H, M & S 3', 4', 5', Splint. Howden Pit discontinued
Ditto Bellyford Tranent 38 24
4', 5'
Ditto Preston Links Tranent 532 153 Coal H, M & S Great Seam, 4', 5', Jewel
Ormiston Coal Co. Ltd. Ormiston Limeylands Ormiston 161 54 Coal H, M & S 5', 4'
Ditto Meadow Ormiston 35 10 Coal H, M & S Splint, 4'. Parrot abandoned 16 Sept 1914
Summerlee Iron Co. Ltd. Coatbridge Prestongrange Prestonpans 756 161 Coal H, M & S & Fireclay Beggar, jewel, Clay, 5', No 1 Diamond, 3'
Udston Colliery Co. Ltd. 75 Bothwell Street, Glasg Penston Nos 1 & 2 Pits Macmerry 88 21 Coal H, M & S Upper Diamond. J. Gavin
Ditto St Germains Macmerry 224 85 Coal H, M & S 4', Upper Diamond
White & Co. Ormiston Tyneside Ormiston 45 9 Coal H, M & S Upper Diamond, Lower Diamond
Woodhall Coal Co. Ltd Pencaitland Pencaitland 190 39 Coal H, M & S Diamond, Jewel, Gas. Great Seam abandoned 23 Nov 1911

Appendix 3: East Lothian Collieries in 1874

In 1872 the owners of mines were required by law to keep records of their operations and submit these to the HM Inspectorate of Mines. The following data is extracted from the 1874 HMI Annual List of Mines.

Owner Name of Colliery Parish Name of Pit or Mine Persons Employed Underground Persons Employed on Surface Notes
Deans & Moore Penston Gladsmuir 102 12 2 shafts 162'; 84'
Ditto Elphinstone Tower Tranent 115 9 1 shaft 120' 1 mine
Ditto Pencaitland Pencaitland Valley 91 17 2 shafts 130'
Durie & Nisbet Elphinstone Tranent Fleets Catherine 67 62 21 10 2 shafts 216' 2 shafts 144'; 37'
Grieve J & C Prestonlinks Prestonpans Prestonlinks 15 23 9 Great Seam. 2 shafts 400' Fireclay 240'
Prestongrange Iron & Coal Co. Ltd. Prestongrange Prestonpans No. 2 Dolphingston Birslie 79 15 25 9 3 4 2 shafts 432'; 360'
Snowdowe & Co. Tranent Tranent Ormiston Road Carlaverock 44 59 13 16 2 shafts 105'; 78'
White, Elizabeth Ormiston Hall Ormiston No. 2 35 4 2 shafts 123'; 81'
Whitelaw, John Fountainhall Pencaitland Nos. 3 & 4 27 4 2 shafts 58'; 68'

The list also showed that Deans & Moore worked ironstone at Penston Mine, Gladsmuir. The two shafts' depths are given as 30' and 18' and that implies a separate shallow operation.

It is also of interest to note that the report shows the Coltness Iron Co. as having a haematite (iron ore) mine at Garleton near Haddington at that time.

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