Mining History

Miners as Slaves

In the 17th and 18th centuries, coal miners in Scotland, and their families, were bound to the colliery in which they worked and the service of its owner.  This bondage was set into law by an Act of Parliament in 1606, which ordained that “no person should fee, hire or conduce and salters, colliers or coal bearers without a written authority from the master whom they had last served”.  A collier lacking such written authority could be “reclaimed” by his former master “within a year and a day”.  If the new master did not surrender the collier, he could be fined and the collier who deserted was considered to be a thief and punished accordingly.  The Act also gave the coal owners and masters the powers to  to apprehend “vagabonds and sturdy beggars” and put them to work in the mines.  A further Act of 1641 extended those enslaved to include other workers in the mines and forced the colliers to work six days a week.

Even the Habeas Corpus Act of Scotland, in 1701, which declared that “the imprisonment of persons without expressing the reasons thereof, and delaying to put them to trial is contrary to law”; and that “no person shall hereafter be imprisoned for custody in order to take his trial for any crime or offence without a warrant or writ expressing the particular cause for which he is imprisoned” specifically stated “that this present Act is in no way to be extended to colliers and salters.”

The process of emancipation began with an Act of Parliament of 1775 which freed the colliers in age-groups – those under 21 and between 35 and 44 were to be freed in 7 years, those between 21 and 34 were to be freed in 10 years and those over 45 were to be freed in 3 years.  The liberation of the father freed the family.  However, gaining freedom required a formal legal application before a Sheriff and a great many colliers continued to be bound until 1799 when an Act was passed that all colliers in Scotland were “to be free from their servitude”.

Notice from Edinburgh Advertiser 14 September 1779
Deserted from Grange Colliery, near Borrowstouness – William Brown, bound collier to said work, brown complexion, 5 feet 7 inches high, had on when he left the work, a black coat, a red-died waistcoat, and long riking trowsers, and it is supposed he is lurking about some of the collieries in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh. From this intimation it is hoped that no gentleman in the coal trade will give him any employment.