Today we are heading to Glasgow. We’re not sure what time we have to be out but it can’t be before well after breakfast which runs until 10 am. We take our time. Eventually we drag ourselves down to breakfast and return to pack up. Hubby goes to pay and return the keys and we’re off.
I’m behind the wheel today providing the entertainment and sparking some misgivings on Hubby’s part as I let all the other vehicles know my turning intentions by flicking on the windscreen wipers to a faster speed! I enjoy the driving but it means that Hubby’s on his learner’s wheels documenting our journey with photographs along the way. Our whole arrangement of duties this morning is un-natural. Simply un-natural! But Hubby barely slept last night so we just have to suffer the initial adjustment, it doesn’t take long to get back in the groove.
Today we’re heading to Wanlockhead via Muirkirk which are both villages with family associations. Our route takes us through Cumnock and I notice that what we’re passing meets the description our Alloway informant gave for finding the location of Alexander Peden’s grave. It’s a grey day today and raining lightly as we turn off the main drag, park in a little side street then walk back around the corner to where the grave is located facing the street. I puzzle how best to try to deal with the awkward position. It’s almost impossible to get a clear angle on the memorials and inscriptions because the fence is so close. The little enclosure has three stones of remembrance of differing ages and varying legibility. In frustration I divert myself with a photo of the nifty stile nearby. I’ve never seen one like that before.
We can’t stand here in the rain all day so I bite the bullet and do my best on the grave and memorial and contemplate the inscriptions. I can’t decipher the oldest, but the next headstone is better:
Here lies Mr Alexander Pedin. Faithful Minister of the Gospel some time at Glenluce who departed this mortal life the 26th January 1686: and was raised after six weeks out of the grawf and buried here out of contempt. Memento Mori.
We already know that erecting memorials was very fashionable in Victorian times. Clearly the local worthies thought that an inadequate explanation of the worth of the deceased and the honour of his suffering so in 1891 an additional effort in Aberdeen granite was added to the site in honour of the martyr. This time they’ve made it much bigger and more durable
In Memory of Alexander Peden (A native of Sorn) That faithful minister of Christ, who for his unflinching adherence to the covenanted reformation in Scotland, was expelled by tyrant rulers from his parish of New Luce, imprisoned for years, and hunted for his life on the surrounding mountains and moors till his death on 26 January 1686, in the 60th year of his age; and here, at last, his dust reposes in peace awaiting the resurrection of the just.
Such were the men these hills who trode
Strong in the love and fear of God
Defying through a long dark hour,
Alike the graft and rage of power.
I wonder again if this famous local son was related to our Susanna Peden or her father Hugh Peden. I suppose it’s possible. Alexander Peden had a brother Hugh though multiple generations must separate him from our Hugh Peden who would have been born about a century after the death of prophet Peden. It’s pretty profound to contemplate a potential connection to such momentous historical events.
Once we get to Muirkirk we don’t do a great deal of looking about. I’m just happy to pass close by and get a general sense of the country there.We head generally eastward across cold, rolling countryside before turning south to Leadhills and Wanlockhead. It’s not as green and lush as the lower areas closer to the coast. As we near the high altitude mining villages we start to see a lot of flowering heather. It starts as a lovely avenue, sometimes accompanied on the road verges by the bright yellow of what I think is probably ragwort, then it spreads in a brightly purple marbled patchwork across vast areas on either side of the road. This is the closest we’ve got to such an extensive display. Clearly this land is managed for game birds.
Suddenly Leadhills is upon us. Wanlockhead isn’t far away. Leadhills is a sweet little place and we notice the local library which is the first subscription library in the British Isles, it is tempting to stop as bidden but we press on conscious of the time and I almost regret our lazy morning. I always regret not having more time.
Sheep graze on the verges and in waste ground around the villages. Here and there a sheep munches on some food supplements provided in big yellow bins left by the road. They as all sheep we’ve seen are marked with a large blob of colour on their fleece to identify where they belong when it’s time to head back into confinement and shelter for the winter.
Finally we arrive in Wanlockhead, the highest altitude village in Scotland just before 1pm. It’s only a tiny place and it’s not hard to find the museum. We’re lucky with parking and score a spot right opposite the door of the Visitor's Centre when a car pulls out. There’s a lot of people around despite the cold, wet weather. As we pay our entrance fee the lady serving us books us straight on to the next mine tour at 1.55 pm. That gives us almost an hour to kill so first up we check out the café. Hubby has bowl of vegetable soup and I try a dark treacley brown slice of date and walnut cake from among the range of home-made cakes and slices. The little café is decorated with historic photographs and information which amuses us as we eat and chat.
Meanwhile, the staff have been plotting and as we get back to the lobby, heading for a look at the museum displays, a staff member asks if we’d like to go up to the library for a quick look before our mine tour. Yeah, sure, if we have time. We’ll only have 20 minutes but that’s just enough. We hurry out and take a path that zigs and zags its way up through a memorial garden, tempting us with views across the village. Sweet little cottages sit brightly white on the green and great daubs of purple heather stretch out across the hills behind them. We don’t have a lot of time and fine drizzle of rain is falling but still I linger momentarily behind to enjoy the scenes, confident that I’ll be able to catch up with hobbling Hubby.
We climb the steps and brush our feet on the mat as we pass through the little porch and are welcomed into the library. There’s just three of us. I’m the last having hung back a little to take a photograph of the building without people in it and rushing the last bit, arriving a little out of breath. Our guide explains the history. This library and the one in Leadhills were set up and run by the miners for their mutual improvement. The miners were comparatively well paid for their era but it is still impressive that they prioritised self-education in this way. Around the walls of the room bookshelves are full of obviously antiquarian volumes. Some costumed figures are set up and there’s an amusing recording that’s been made of a young miner joining up to the library. It explains the rules and how the library operates. Although the older man getting the details already knows most of what he's asking, it’s a very formal process and no shortcuts are taken. It’s well done and gives us a few laughs as the young applicant makes sarcastic jokes from time to time.
The library was first established in 1756 in a small space like a walk in cupboard. When that was outgrown the Duke of Buccleuch gave the miners a cottage to use, it was that one we can see with yellow windows over on the opposite hillside. When that was also outgrown the present library was built using money from the sale of the previous building and contributions from miners. The book collection that the miners built up is now one of national significance. They started with religious texts and moved on to engineering and technical books and finally fiction. The mine at that time was operated by the London Mining Company. They were Quakers and they were good people who treated their workers well. Some credit too is due the Duke of Buccleuch who provided a school for the children and paid for the teacher. By 1845 everyone in Wanlockhead could read and this was at a time long before high literacy rates were commonplace.
We are invited to take a seat by the window as the miners would have done and spend a little time having a look over reproductions of some of the books in the collection. Hubby is handed a religious text and soon tires of that and swaps with the lady next to him who has been looking at a dictionary of slang. I’m more than happy with my little book of advice for child rearing, which has some things that are very sensible and good and some things that are barking mad. A great deal of concern was expressed at the evils of training children in academic subjects at too young an age. Apparently this is a common trap that mothers fall into with their first child, but luckily the second comes along and the elder child is saved from the damage that would be caused by encouraging their abilities too soon because their mother is now too busy. Fascinating reading.
I ask our guide how far back library records go and mention that my forebear was a miner in Wanlockhead. She enthusiastically enquires after his name and relevant dates and starts checking what library records she has on hand in plastic sleeves. Janet Harkness, whose memorial we visited in Auchinleck Cemetery, was born here in Wanlockhead. I only know what is shown on her death certificate in 1861 when she was into her 80s. So we’re looking for someone adult in the latter part of the 18th century. The earliest John Harkness we find today is shown as having a birth year of 1819. There’s a subsequent John Harkness that is clearly the next generation of the same family and both are position holders in the running of the library. There may be more records held by the museum. If I email the museum with what I know, the researchers can do some research for us. It seems possible if not likely that those we’ve found today are relations of my John Harkness. I will have to do some more research of my own on these men too and see if we can confirm a connection. We have had just enough time here in the library. Just. Our guide gets a call to hurry our return for the mine tour, so we reluctantly but hurriedly say our goodbyes and return down the hill.
We are heading for the mine entrance which is in the depths of the valley fairly close to the little burn, just a little opening with a neat blue sign in the side of the hill. Altogether, we’re a group of about 8 or 10 and we have a mix of children and adults in various ages. Our guide hands us a hard hat and gives us a quick health and safety briefing and warns us that the mine is shared with a couple of different species of bat, so don’t freak out if one flutters past us, then we duck as quickly as we can into the mine tunnel away from the few midges that are hanging around. Luckily the midges don’t like the mine. Equally lucky I do. It’s dank and dark, wet and glistening from the lights that shine with a dim, yellow light periodically. At first our path is through an area that has been lined with wooden beams. None of this is original. After the mine closed villagers threw rubbish into the mine entrance so to reopen the mine a new mining effort was required and this shoring up work was done as part of that.
Our guide is very enthusiastic about the mine and its history. She delightedly points out tiny ferns and mosses that grow around the lights, explaining and marvelling at how little light they get. This tunnel is part of a large complex of runs but the lower levels are now flooded. We’re walking slightly uphill and this is no accident. The burn floods occasionally and having this slope gave the miners half a chance to get the water out when the floodwater receded. The mines in this area are on land that is owned by the Duke of Buccleuch. He invited a mining company in to manage the mines on his behalf and at one time there were 47 lead mines in a 5 mile area. To attract workers to the dangerous dirty work he offered them land on which they could (at their own expense) build a house and grow vegetables. I’m puzzled by the land tenure issue. Did the people have to pay rent for their houses. No, the houses are privately owned here, but the land belongs to the Duke.
Teams of miners, usually brought together from the men and boys of a family, made a “bargain” with the mine manager as to what they would be paid. Each of the tunnels in the mine represented a “bargain”. They were paid annually after the smelting had been completed. Meanwhile they were provided with credit at the company store in the village. When time came to be paid, what they owed would be deducted from their earnings. When I hear this I have a sinking feeling that this might turn out to be a virtual slavery such as been the case in similar situations in other areas and countries, so I am relieved to hear that this left them, typically, with about £20. This doesn’t seem like much today, but it was a good living for them in those days. Good enough that over the summer months teams of miners would come from the continent and live in tents along the burn for the season.
Lead mining was not as dangerous as coal mining and there were few fatal incidents. The tunnelling was through rock so they didn’t tend to get collapses. Most were accidents with explosives and were injuries rather than fatalities. The miners would make a little cavity in the rock, fill it with gunpowder and a fuse, tamp it down with a copper tube (copper doesn’t spark) then light the fuse and stand back. Voila. The rock and rubble would be dragged out in little crates by boys of about 11 – 14 then younger boys of 8 – 10 would sit in the creek and wash the rocks clean of dirt and clay. You earned more in summer because the day was longer but you still worked in the winter time. They didn’t have shoes, just rough cloth tied around their feet. All I can do is shake my head. I cannot imagine a life so hard.
It was unlucky for women to enter the mine. Lucky them we all agree. The men ensured their own luck by never mining the first seam they found. Instead they would keep going and touch the first seam on their way in and out every day. This first seam is still right there, worn smooth by the constant caressing over so many years. Throughout our tour our guide emphasises how clever the miners were, finding solutions to problems in innovative ways, using as much as they could and not taking out anything that didn’t give them an adequate return. Working underground the miners carried small lights. If the lights went out or burned low it warned them of low oxygen and they would have to get out.
The ore wasn’t the only product of the mine, they also mined manganese clay which was sold as a base for paint, and used some of the clay to tamp down the explosives because it didn’t create the dust which they had found was making them ill. Although cave-ins were uncommon they stored enough food in the mine to feed 21 people for 3 days.
We marvel at a sodden piece of pitch pine that is an original beam still present in the mine. It would crumble away to nothing if removed and dried out. Press it and it oozes water.
We make our way back out of the tunnel, return our hard hats and move along to see the miner’s cottages. This is a series of connected rooms that are set up to show what living conditions would have been like across in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. I’m fascinated to see these and of course since my direct forebears were here in the 18th century, my closest attention is on the room with its dirt floor and pad of dried heather covered in blankets for sleeping; rudimentary fire and low stools that kept them down underneath the thick smoke that would accumulate under the thatch. Over the years living conditions improved but they died young and the people were tiny by modern standards. The model in the room that looks like a little girl of about 10 years old, is actually a representation of a young woman of about 19 years of age. We are all suitably amazed. Getting enough food and good nutrition was a struggle.
It occurs to me that if the cottages were constructed on land owned by the Duke then presumably the Duke would have the power to tell the miners to go from his land when it suited him. Apparently this is the case and the most recent attempt to do that occurred in the 1960s after the mining ended. The Duke attempted to clear the village. Some strong people simply refused to go and it is down to them that Wanlockhead is still here. As we hear this information I feel seethingly angry, my emotion smoulders bitterly and impotently. I cannot imagine what it must be like to live under such a system. The issue of compensation or whether it was offered is not discussed. Perhaps it is really not so different from the compulsory acquisition of property that takes place when land is needed for public infrastructure etc. But historically in the context of the clearances a century before it just feels so outrageous to even think you should try such a clearance on. I look forward to reading the book I picked up about land ownership in Scotland that appears to be in almost all the gift shops I’ve visited. It’s called “The Poor Had No Lawyers” and the long subtitle says “Who owns Scotland and how they got it”. Or words to that effect. I expect it to say basically that a cabal of wealthy and powerful individuals just decided they owned everything that had previously been common land and voila. Bob’s your uncle. What’s anyone going to do about it? The author seems to be asking that very question of the Scottish parliament and keeping the book updated to that end. It’s not a situation unique to this country by any means. Australia had the very same process of wealthy squatters just taking vast areas for themselves and then collectively using their wealth and influence to have legal tenure granted to them. Rebellions and the global trend to democracy had its effect and land reforms were implemented. No law can stand that cannot be enforced. The people consent to the system under which they live.
Venturing outside, we look at the pump that was installed to provide water for the cottages. You couldn’t drink the water from the burn because it was/is contaminated with lead and filth. Water from the pump was ridden with lead too but at least it was clean. The climate here is harsh and it’s a real fight against the elements to grow vegetables of any sort due to such an incredibly short growing season. Historical photos show plots under cultivation though, so the people must have worked really hard to succeed in supplementing their food. Indeed they really had to. In the 1860s there was an outbreak of disease. Luckily a doctor with experience at sea recognised it at once as scurvy.
Someone raises the question of the sheep. Do they belong to the villagers? No, they belong to the Duke. They are not for food, nor for wool. They are “tick bait” and roam through the heather attracting ticks so that come the shooting season there’s not too many ticks hanging about. Our guide seems to feel some sympathy for these tick bait sheep but it sure sounds better than being bred for meat or wool and these ones look like they are doing OK. Having the Duke’s sheep wandering about crapping on your front step or nibbing on the garden plants seems an imposition, whatever the legality of the situation.
Off in the distance we see an enormous grey, fresh looking slag heap. The Duke is still making money from the mines today, all these years since they closed. The slag is sold for use in roads and such things.
Our tour concluded we slowly make our way back up to the visitor’s centre. I’m more impressed than ever at what the local community has achieved with their museum. It’s a wonderful effort and reflects such a proud, strong heritage. In the static displays at the visitor centre, they note that they estimate some 40,000 people around the world have roots in Wanlockhead. I am very proud to be one of them. Very proud.
I wander back slowly to the visitor’s centre mulling over all we’ve seen and heard. Somewhere along the line today someone told us that there was a mine band and in one case one of the miners was a very good player and was offered a job playing for his living. He told his "employer" (the reason for the quotation marks will become clear) and they threatened to throw his whole family out if he left. Faced with that prospect he ended up staying.
Time to get into the museum displays. There’s a range of local history recorded there. It’s not just about lead mining. I think my favourite was about the local embroidery industry. Local women were engaged in the production of handmade Ayrshire Lace and there are a number of pieces on display including a partially completed example of the pattern pieces they were provided with to work on. It is not much different from embroidery templates you can still buy today. Younger, less experienced embroiderers would do the simpler stitches and the more expert would specialise in the trickier parts. Before the industrial revolution the work paid reasonably well, but the woman who ran it was demanding as to the speed and quality of the finished work. Apparently she became very wealthy off the enterprise.
Hubby was interested to hear about the mine manager’s son that lost an arm at the Battle of Culloden. When he was repatriated he went to work for his father as a book keeper calculating the weight of the lead. There was also a drum that is believed to have been used at the Battle of Waterloo, though some assumptions have been made as to how it was passed along following the battle. Of course the museum also has displays about the lead mining and the community have made some convincing mock ups including a forge. It’s only small but it is interesting.
By about half past three we are ready to move on and this is encouraged by the helpful running schedule for the Leadhills and Wanlockhead Railway. This is the highest adhesion railway in Britain. Assured we have time to get there, I conclude my browsing in the gift shop and we head straight off. It’s only a few minutes down the road and we noticed the sign to the station when we were coming through earlier so that helps. We climb out of the car glad of a break in the rain. It’s bitterly cold and there’s a bit of a breeze that is adding to the chill factor. I’m thankful for my hoody and gloves and the comparative warmth of the ticket office. It’s a modest affair with a few souvenirs for sale. It’s time for departure so we waste no time getting up to the little set of carriages smartly painted in red and white.
We fumble with the intelligence test door latches. Let me do that, I say, edging Hubby out of the way, narrowly beating our friendly engineer who has come to explain the workings. We climb in and secure the door. We’re ready to roll, but aaghh this is an open carriage. There’s no windows. It’s probably a good thing this trip only takes about 20 mins up to Glenconnar!
Once there, we and the other little group of passengers who are local people, a couple of ladies and a couple of kids of about 7-10 years old, alight from the carriages. We’re all hunched up in the cold breeze and the chill is the first topic of conversation. It’s mild for Scotland they all laugh. We can’t believe our driver is getting about happily in a polo shirt all bare fleshed bonhomie. This is where he tells us all about the railway and the volunteer organisation that runs it as well as their plans for the future. The fence ahead of us is the border between South Lanarkshire (where we are) and Dumfries and Galloway, which is the other side of the fence. See that group of trees visible through the cutting? That’s Wanlockhead. The railway used to run all the way up there and we’re aiming to reinstate the railway the rest of the way, but so far the tenant farmer who has that stretch hasn’t given permission.
We also hear about the game birding and he describes the process of beaters. The target bird here is Red Grouse. Red Grouse are the more common, but our driver has seen a Black Grouse just recently from the station platform here at Glenconnar. I’m proud to be the only person present who knows the answer to his question whether any of us know when the grouse season commences (it’s the 12th August). Apparently this area is abuzz on that day each year. Did we noticed the row of round shooting positions on the way up here. I did.
The shooters stand there and the beaters walk through the heather with big flat paddles on long sticks that they whack the heather with, driving the birds towards the shooters. I’m a bit disappointed at how easy it’s made for the shooters. Where’s the sport in that? May as well do clay pigeon shooting. I hope they eat the birds but I’ve been told (elsewhere) that when it comes to pheasant and partridge at least, most of the birds are not eaten. It’s just pointless bloodsport with literally hundreds of birds slaughtered and no market for the meat, that information apparently from someone who was a game keeper on an estate who got out of it for that reason. I hope that the grouse are managed and taken in a more sustainable and ethically justifiable way on the Duke’s estate.
It’s hoped an agreement can be reached. Our driver is a friendly and jolly man, but my goodness it’s cold and we’re not unhappy when the all aboard for the return is called. We rattle and bump along down the slope. This is the last trip of the day so we have to stop and close gates behind us as we come in to Leadhills platform. We’re a bit more efficient with the catches on the door and we say our goodbyes and continue on our journey. It’s now about 4:30 pm and we need to head in to Glasgow fairly directly to get there at the time we’ve given to our Airbnb host.
I’m tired and slow on arrival and traffic flow doesn’t give me much chance to capture the lovely streets of red sandstone, um, tenements as we pass. There’s a beautiful consistency in the stonework everywhere, some of the shopfronts underneath could use a bit of jazzing up but even the run down ones are leant an air of class, by the beautiful stone above. I do believe I’m going to like Glasgow!
We have no difficulty finding our Airbnb address and parking is easy just across from the entrance. We find our hostess sitting on the front step having a ciggie, chatting on the phone and waiting for us. No smoking is allowed in the house. We’re busy fussing about too, but before long it’s friendly greetings all round and we’re shown our room and around the place which is all very comfortable and beautifully decorated. We talk happily for a while, pass on greetings from mutual friends, then we need to duck out fairly promptly to our dinner reservation at Sapori d’Italia which is a short walk away. Linda has given us directions and I’m leaving Hubby in charge so there’s no dramas. Good move. As expected, especially given it’s Saturday night the little restaurant is full of people. Just as well we booked our table. A young lad and lass are tag teaming our service. She doesn’t seem too enthused, but he’s good enough to make up for it. Hubby indulges in a Peroni and we await the arrival of our selections. Hubby’s a bit disappointed that there aren’t more pasta options on the menu. We’re both really in the mood for pasta and we’ve heard that there’s a large Italian community in Glasgow and the food is great. I break a personal rule and decide to get the lasagne. Hubby goes for the carnivore’s version of the cannelloni, there’s also a spinach and ricotta version available. I’m a bit concerned that the two dishes may be pretty similar just a different layout but my fears turn out to be unfounded. Hubby wins though. My lasagne was delicious but his cannelloni was even more so. We’ve had a big day and we’re pretty tired. I don’t feel like another long night of eating. The dessert looks good over in the cabinet but we decide to give it a miss this time. From the response of the wait staff, I get the impression that doesn’t happen too often!