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
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.