Cathcart Clan
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Coal Mining in Ayrshire

As all of us are aware, the Cathcart family comes from a long line of miners. As part of my research about the family, I am also interested in what our ancestors did and how they lived. In the 17th Century in Scotland, miners were considered no more than property.

Although the coal burghs had merchants and tradesman they were characterised by the concentration of workman in the coal mines and salt pans. These workmen suffered degradation of their status during the 17th Century. This began with an Act of Scottish Parliament of 1606, which forbade anyone to employ a collier (miner), coal-bearer or salter unless the individual had a testimonial that proved his release from previous employment. Workers hired without such a document could be reclaimed within a year and a day and punished as theives. The 1606 Act was extended in 1641 to cover surface workers at coal mines. The law was again ratified in 1660.

The later interpretation of these laws meant that any man or woman accepting work in a colliery or in the salt pans effectively became a serf for life - they were no more than a piece of mining machinery that could be bought or sold and bequeathed by their master.

This serfdom became even stronger enforced through two additional measures. The initial legislation provided that vagabonds could be arrested by masters and forced to work in the mines or salt pans. There are several recorded incidences of these actions, but it was not too common an occurrence. Serfdom was also strengthened by the custom of "arling" to bind the children of colliers to follow them into the mines. In fact, the promise of the "arle" was not legally binding; a child so bound would be able to leave the mine within a year and a day of his majority. This practive effectively made mining serfdom hereditiary, no Presbyterian miner would suppose that a vow taken in the face of the kirk was unlawful.

Serfdom in mining did not become common in Scotland until the second half of the 17th Century and was never universal. There are indications that in the 1640's considerable numbers of miners were able to move freely between mines under the customary year contracts. But serfdom was sufficiently endemic to enforce the degradation of the miner's whole family, who were regarded as the master's property and featured as such in inventories. The man ws the "hewer" and was often helped underground by his wife acting as "coal-bearer" carrying baskets of hewn coal up the steep turnpike stair of the mine or up ladders to the pit-head. The children, both boys and girls, entered the mines at the age of 6 or 7 and either worked for their parents of as "fremd" bearers for childless couples.

The stigma of their servitude isolated coal miners from the rest of the population, which was often reinforced by superstition. In some areas, coal miners could not be buried in consecrated ground because the black and grimy men were identified with the devil in the minds of a population where accusations of "trafficking with Satan" were not uncommon. The social status of such miners were so low, that in Fife in the 18th Century, they were not permitted to be buried besides the free men and women in the kirkyard.

This social isolation was also affected by the marraige patterns of the miners. Usually, only a miner's daughter, accustomed to labour in the pit from an early age, was willing to fulfill the obligations of coal bearing which marriage to a miner entailed. Finally, serfdom precluded entry into this occupation from other sectors of the working population since few, if any, were willing to surrender their freedom.

The Scottish Parliament between 1587 and 1672 appeared obessed with the need to "put the poor on work". A number of Acts were passed allowing employers to seize beggars , orphans and poor children and to put them to work in either private businesses or in the municipal "manufactories" for a period of years. The period extended to 18 for girls and 24 for boys, but was sometimes a life sentence. In fact this legislation was infrequently used either because magistrates were reluctant to do so, or because it was more difficult to sustain slave labour in towns where a serf might escape easily and find plenty of hiding places.

The colliers and salters suffered because their occupations were the only ones in which serfdom proved practicable. Their communities were small, isolated and easily supervised by the landowner's grieves and finally their work was largely subterranean or obscured from view.

The 17th Century in Scotland saw the civil wars, the various covenants and the revolutions that were focused on the basic liberties that free men were considered to be entitled to. But the spirit of the time also allowed the political contenders to confirm, almost automatically, the serfdom of the least privileged of the Scots society.

It was not until 1799 that an act was passed in the Westminister Parliament which unconditionally ended legal servitude.

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