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Kirkcaldy and Coal

If Kirkcaldy's claim to have 'floored the world' dictated that we highlight the story of linoleum, the central role of coal mining to the town's industrial heritage also demanded a prominent retrospective.   

 

Without 'king coal', the economic, social, political and physical landscape of Kirkcaldy and the myriad mining communities around Fife would have been utterly different.  Mining the ''black diamond' had a huge impact on local employment, prosperity, industry, transport, culture, social life and so much more - and also a human and environmental cost. 

 

 

Chris Sparling's work on the history of Kirkcaldy and coal digs far into the past and deep underground to shed light on an important industry that has shaped many of our personal, family and community histories.

Kirkcaldy and Coal
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The Black Diamonds

Kirkcaldy and Coal

Not every resident of Kirkcaldy will be able to recall the mighty Seafield Colliery of the 20th century and even fewer will have a knowledge regarding the extensive mining of coal  in various parts of the district from the 17th century onwards.

 

How many residents, starting from the Chapel area then stretching eastwards, passing through Dunnikier Estate and ending just past the High School grounds, are aware that the land their homes are built on were once extensively mined for the 'black diamonds'?

 

Elsewhere in the town,  the areas close to the former Forth Park Maternity Hospital, the present Victoria Hospital, the harbour area and other spots in Kirkcaldy, all contained commercially successful coal mines although nothing on the scale of the  gigantic Seafield Colliery. This is the story of mining, now long gone, in the Lang Toun.

 

There is a very apt saying that “A man should know his limitations”. It is very appropriate as it comes from a Dirty Harry film, and certainly, working with coal was a dirty occupation. The reason for the quotation is that the 50 Objects Team recognise when a subject is so lengthy, detailed and complex, that it is better placed in the hands of an expert. This was certainly the case with this month's object. Any attempt to write a meaningful discourse  on coal would end well outwith the time available for the research and completion of each object. An expert was required for this task and a willing expert at that! The name which kept cropping up was Chris Sparling. We were delighted and relieved when Chris accepted our invitation to produce this article.

 

Chris Sparling, the son of a miner, was born in Glencraig which sits in what was the heart of the Fife coalfields. He did not follow in his father's footsteps but has always had an interest in mining and mining heritage. Over the last quarter of a century he has produced over 100 leaflets and publications on the subject. Two of these publications focus on mining in the Kirkcaldy area and they form the backbone of this object. Neither Chris nor the team saw any value in 'reinventing the wheel'. The story had already been written  and therefore both books have been used in their entirety to create the Object – Kirkcaldy and Coal.

 

Without question it is amongst the most comprehensive and detailed stories this project has produced. As with all of the narratives written by guest authors they smack of  knowledge, deep research and expertise. Please do not stop at the following short summary – make your way to the full story of Kirkcaldy and Coal  using the icon on this page – you will not be disappointed!

 

When walking on a number of beaches around Fife, you will encounter ‘black sand’, the remnants of coal that has been abraded by the action of the sea. This is one reminder of the former importance of the coal mining industry to the area, but it is less obvious that you are over former pits and mines when approaching the Chapel junction via the A92 from the east (Tough Engine Pit) or visiting Capshard Primary School (Lena/Lina Pit).

 

In two of his major publications, Chris Sparling provides a detailed description of several of the local collieries and mine workings in the Kirkcaldy area. The publications use similar techniques; compiling information, images and newspaper articles, that relate to the different workings; firstly on the Dunnikier, Begg and Kirkcaldy Pits, and then secondly and separately the mine workings at Seafield.

 

Turning initially to the Dunnikier, Begg and Kirkcaldy Pits, this commences with a brief overview of the general history of mining in the area, noting that various mining operations of varying scales had been evidenced for over 400 years. For each of the  collieries under review, the book provides information on the location of the  mine workings, and changes in the ownership, management and numbers of workers employed at the collieries throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

 

The characteristics of the coal workings, in terms of the depth and composition of the different seams and their geology are both reviewed and illustrated  giving the reader a better understanding of the size and composition of the pit infrastructure at different times.


This is further complemented by a comprehensive compilation of newspaper reports, from local and regional publications, relating to the workings under scrutiny. These are mainly short articles covering events such as changes in pricing of coal, adverts for  jobs and the development of railways to serve the coalfields, as well as less positive reports - such as an unfortunately long list of accidents and deaths at the pits plus some cruelty towards pit ponies.

 

There are also a number of more extended features, such as an article in the Fifeshire Advertiser describing a group visit to the Panny Coal Pit (currently located under the site of Jewsons, Smeaton Road)  which was owned by Mr Herd. Waiting at the top of  the No. 2 shaft the writer saw a cage full of ‘black and grimy’ miners come to the surface. The group who were to go down in the cage were a little alarmed that when it went down it was dry but it came up dripping wet, as if it had been ‘dipped in the sea’! The descent was three to four hundred feet below the level of the sea and  the impression was given that, despite the darkness, the experience was eye opening both above and below the surface.

 

There are a number of images at the end of the publication showing parts of the old workings,  revealed during more recent opencast works at the Begg Colliery in the early 2000s.

 

The second publication focuses purely on Mining at Seafield. It begins by summarising early mining work from 1914 onwards, prior to the major colliery development in the 1950s. These early mines were small and did not last long, owing to geological difficulties encountered when driving the shafts.

 

The Fife Coal Company, who developed these sites, also applied to sink shafts adjacent to the Beveridge Park and  also on the current site of Balwearie High School. These were rejected by the local authority on the grounds that they would interfere with the amenity.

 

The main focus of the  remainder of the publication is on more recent developments at the Seafield Colliery. The area was proposed for future development in the Twenty-Five Year Plan for Fife reported on in The Scotsman in January 1949. The plan focused on producing more coal from fewer pits resulting in the closure of a significant number of smaller older sites across Fife. However, Mr Mulligan, Depute Area General Manager for the National Coal Board, envisaged Kirkcaldy becoming the most famous mining centre in Scotland, working coal from under the Firth of Forth.


Seafield Colliery was officially opened on 12th May 1954. It was the first undersea coal drilling development undertaken by the National Coal Board. Coal from Seafield was a significant contributor to power production at the Longannet Generating Station, by using the smaller-sized coal that was less suitable for domestic use. Again, statistics and newspaper reports are compiled for Seafield, detailing management innovations such as the ‘teach-in’ where pitmen and engineers exchanged information and ideas to help improve the efficiency of the coal extraction, as well as the inevitable  reports of unfortunate accidents.

 

There is a strong focus on the Seafield Disaster of 10th May 1973 where five miners were killed and a number of others injured due to a large roof-fall, some 1600 feet under the Firth of Forth. Different aspects of this disaster were reported on in various newspapers and details from local sources are also included. The obituaries of  the men who died, condolences from various parties,  memories from those involved in the recovery teams, along with correspondence from one of the widows in relation to the support and cheque received from the National Union of Mineworkers Fatal Accident Fund makes for sobering and moving reading.

 

The subsequent decade saw the miner's strike impact on the Seafield site as well as on mining communities across the country. During the strike Seafield suffered a major fire, which affected the main production faces and there were significant financial concerns raised with regard to the productivity of the site.

 

Following resumption of production, despite high productivity and a more stable financial position being reported in 1987, the decision was taken in January 1988 to close the Seafield site. This final part of the publication is also accompanied by contemporary newspaper reports, as well as the poignant images of the demolition of the twin winding towers in September 1989.

 

Taken together, these two publications provide a detailed history of different mining production techniques in the Kirkcaldy area spanning the 19th and 20th centuries. Readers are encouraged to consult the original text (via the icon) to obtain the full details and discover more about the  history of mining in Kirkcaldy. It is  interesting to use the map pages of the National Library of Scotland to compare old and new maps and find the old mine works mentioned in these publications – this is the link to Panny Coal Pit https://maps.nls.uk/geo/explore/side-by-side/#zoom=17.3&lat=56.12497&lon=-3.15020&layers=6&right=osm.

 

 

However, do not stop there. Even those with only a passing interest should visit the Fife Pits and Memorial Book reached via fifepits.co.uk. Chris has been deeply involved with this site by contributing material and acting as its Webmaster since 2000. It is an awe inspiring compendium of pits, mines, people and events, relating to mining in Fife. The Memorial Book itself reveals the names, details and circumstances, surrounding the 2,406 men who lost their lives in the pursuit of coal – a dispiriting number!

 

We can only finish by offering our sincere thanks and appreciation to Chris in allowing us access to his material enabling the production of this object and also highlight the human cost in  an industry which has now all but vanished -  but was once the backbone of the County.

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