Free Colliers

On the first Saturday of August each year for as long as people can remember, close on a hundred men of all ages, many dressed in tail coats and top hats and linking pinkies with their neighbours, walk behind marching bands and flags for over ten miles through the Stirlingshire villages of Redding, Shieldhill, Westquarter and Laurieston. Nearly fifty years after the last coal was drawn from the land deep beneath their feet the Sir William Wallace Grand Lodge of Scotland, Free Colliers, the first and last of their kind, continue the time honoured tradition of marching to demonstrate their forefathers rights as free men. And what better symbol of their hard won and cherished freedom, than that of William Wallace whose campaign against oppression had been waged in part over the very lands on which, they lived and worked.

Until the end of the 18th century the Scottish collier was a serf, bound in servitude to his master, the coal owner, almost as tightly as any slave on the cotton plantations of the Americas. Although he could not actually be sold as an individual, he and his family were ranked with any other article attached to the colliery to be bought and sold along with lengths of rail or stacks of timber. Once bound to a pit they had no right to move to another place of work and could be brought back to face severe punishment if they tried. Many did just that and were returned in manacles to face the wrath of the owners. Convicted criminals, beggars and other homeless people were gifted as ‘perpetual servants’ to the masters and, children born to collier families were, on payment by the owner of a small sum of money, bound like their fathers to the owner and his pit for life. No surprise then that few outsiders would volunteer to join the ranks to labour in Scotland’s dangerous pits even when the industrial revolution increased demand for coal and pushed up wages. Only by loosening the legal ties could the owners hope to cash in on the boom and it was with a good deal of reluctance that the colliers were granted their freedom in grudging stages, first the new recruits in 1775 and twenty four years later the whole workforce.

It was an appropriate moment to win freedom at last, for Scotland was in the late 1700s celebrating the 500th anniversary of the other great struggle, the Wars of Independence, in which William Wallace had played such a heroic part. The connection was not lost on the colliers of Redding and the villages. Soon after the anniversary of the Battle of Falkirk fought near their homes in 1298 they began an annual march from colliery to colliery under the banner of their hero to the spot near their village, the Wallace Stone, where legend said the great man had surveyed the battlefield and where an inscribed store had lain since time immemorial.. Here amid declarations of loyalty to Scotland and to Wallace they reaffirmed their own freedom from serfdom. Such associations or brotherhoods among the miners were not unusual at the time but the annual demonstration and the association with Wallace marked out the Redding colliers from the rest. In 1810 the ancient stone of Wallace was replaced by a ten foot high stone pillar underlining the new importance of the place in the lives of the people, standing proudly as a reminder to all that this was the place of freemen.

But their new found freedom did not bring justice. In the early decades of the 19th century conditions in Scotland’s mines were deplorable with women and small children working long hours alongside the men in dark, cramped and dangerous conditions. Attempts by the colliers across the country to organise into trade unions were strenuously opposed by the authorities and the owners and even the repeal of the laws forbidding union activity did not protect workers and their families from the threat of dismissal for taking action or encouraging others to do the same. In 1856 the coal owners combined to reduce the colliers’ wages from five to four shillings per day and a widespread strike followed. In the Falkirk area the Redding colliers took the lead and on more than one occasion troops and special constables were sent to the area to disperse marches and demonstrations. Amid great hardship the strike dragged on for twelve weeks before the defeated colliers returned to work for the lower rate. Similarly, in the early 1860s, the establishment of a General Association of the Operative Coal and Ironstone Miners, Reddsmen and Drawers in Lanarkshire was crushed by an employers’ lockout which lasted for six weeks and ended in a humiliating return to work and reduced wages.

It was obvious that a new defence was needed to mobilise the colliers and reassert their rights and this came about the following year. In 1863, at Redding, James Simpson who had been a trade union activist in the area before and during the 1856 strike, realised that he had in the annual William Wallace marchers a ready made army of volunteers, and on February 3rd he and his colleagues constituted themselves as the first Lodge of Free Colliers pledged to take up the struggle. They were, he claimed, the natural successors of those ancient brotherhoods whose traditions had been kept alive in Redding and the villages of east Stirlingshire. It was an idea whose time had come. Within nine months there were lodges in Slamannan and Bo’ness each bearing the name of a Scottish hero from those legendary days – John de Graeme and Robert Bruce – and the movement had spread to the Lanarkshire and Ayrshire coalfields. By the end of the following year there were sixty-five lodges in a network covering the whole Scottish coalfield and uniting miners by the thousand. There were the Baillieston Reformers, the Lord Andrew Moray and the Young Boswell from Lanarkshire, the Duke of Gordon from Fife and the Sir William Baillie from West Lothian. Some areas like Stirlingshire and Lanarkshire were more enthusiastic than Fife and Midlothian but no area was without its lodge.

One of the weaknesses of previous union activity had been its openness, which the masters had exploited. Many miners claimed they were frightened to speak out at open meetings for fear of their employers. Simpson wanted to ensure that the actions of the Free Colliers remained secret and the new lodges adopted many of the trappings of freemasonry, binding each to the other by oaths of loyalty and using coded signs and language to preserve their unity and secrecy. Simpson himself became Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Scotland.  For that vital period in the 1860s the Free Colliers kept the flame of hope and independence burning in the hearts of many of Scotland’s least rewarded groups of workers. They worked in close association with the hard pressed unions activists and were able to deliver support for strikes to combat wage reduction and the use of blackleg labour in the Scottish coalfields. Interestingly enough they also tried to bring masters and men together for the first time in the hope that by working together they would improve the lot of the miners and at the same time make sure the mines were a financial success. Eventually however these far-sighted ideas came to grief when hard times forced both sides back to their traditional positions of hostility. The actions of some of the Free Collier lodges especially in the west of Scotland led to considerable internal argument and many union members outside the movement felt that the secrecy associated with the lodges could be counter productive.

Their very Scottishness was seen by many as potentially divisive in an industry where a growing number of the colliers were immigrant Irishmen and where solidarity of all workers was essential. The Free Colliers insisted that their ranks were open to all miners but hostility and suspicion remained. Just four years after their birth Free Collier membership began to decline and many of the lodges which had bloomed so quickly began to wither away. In east Stirlingshire the annual demonstration marches continued even as the political importance of the movement declined and the role of representation passed to the Miners Mutual Protection Society and other groups, and eventually to the National Union of Mineworkers.

By the end of the century only the original lodge survived to carry on its defiant declaration of freedom and to commemorate Wallace and all things Scottish. Throughout this century membership waxed and waned and sometimes only a handful of stalwarts turned up to remember and to demonstrate. But by the 1970s with the Scottish mining industry in steep decline and most of the local collieries already gone, a renewed interest in the Free Colliers brought a growth in membership. Each year the marches attracted bigger crowds and distinguished speakers including Members of Parliament addressed the marchers at Wallacestone. The people of the district, well aware of their debt to their mining ancestors, showed their support for the marchers and all the good causes they now supported with their activities. Indeed the first Saturday in August in ‘the Reddin’ as the locals call it has all the feel of a Spanish or Italian religious pilgrimage with considerable rivalry as to who has the honour of carrying the famous old flags round the punishing ten mile route. Bidding for that right takes place on the morning of the march and the highest offer of a charitable donation wins the cherished spot in front of each contingent of colliers as they wend their way up and down the hilly streets of the district. To the strains of Scots Wha Hae or Stirling Bridge on Pipes and Drums, or Cornets and Flutes, the marchers leave Shieldhill at around midday and make their way passed cheering crowds to Redding. Here at the memorial to the forty colliers who lost their lives in the Redding Pit Disaster in 1923 a wreath in the form of the Saltire is laid before the march resumes through Laurieston, Westquarter and Brightons. Several stops for food and refreshments keep body and soul together for marchers and musicians until, in the early evening they climb to highest point of the march – the ridge of Wallacestone. Here where their fathers and grandfathers and great grandfathers once stood the men of the villages, strangers to both mine and coal these days, remember Wallace and his struggle, recall their own origins in serfdom and the battles of the first Free Colliers and dedicate themselves to fight in their communities for fairness and justice for all.

Way back in 1851 one commentator praised the marching colliers celebrating ‘Wallace’s Day’ for their good behaviour which was due to ‘the circumstance of a great many of the Redding population being decent  teetotallers’. While their successors in 1996, charging their glasses with a well-earned refreshment at the end of yet another successful demonstration, may not make a similar claim, they are certainly very conscious of playing a part in maintaining the bond of solidarity which links generations long past with those still to come. How many of the marchers in ten years time will have seen a lump of coal outside a museum?  Not many, but we can be sure that on the first Saturday in August the ancient tail coats and toppers will be dusted down and the Free Colliers will be on the march once more for Wallace and for freedom.

Ian Scott (1996)