My father, Robert Nimmo, came to Campbeltown in 1926 from Harthill in North Lanarkshire to work in the Machrihanish coalfield. He worked underground as a shot firer alongside my three uncles on my maternal side, Angus, John and Robert Brown, until the closure of the mine in 1929. He met and married my mother, Isabella “Bella” Brown, a Drumlemble woman.
After that, times were hard and my father did a number of different jobs, from working as a security officer at the ‘Drome during the war years, to having a small shop; a general store that sold groceries and sweeties. After the war he worked together with my Uncle Angus and others to construct the prefabs at Drumlemble.
Subsequently he worked at the quarry as a shotfirer, then building the tunnel at the Lussa Loch. My brothers, Neil and John, also worked with him at Lussa and it was here that Neil developed his expertise as a shotfirer. When the mine reopened all three went to work there along with Neil’s twin Ramsay. Ramsay was sent to Sheffield for six months where he trained to be a mine electrician. Returning to Machrihanish he worked with his twin brother and father underground for a number of years. John worked for two years on the surface at Argyll Colliery, sorting coal and loading lorries. My father started work at 7.00am and worked below ground, often up to his waist in water. My mother’s brother, Uncle Neil, another mine worker had bronchitis and worked on surface, picking stones out of the coal. Although, it was often said that it was easier to pick the coal out of the stones!
I was born in the front row of Drumlemble. There were eleven in the family. At that time, in the 1940s, all the families were large. Life would have been hard for my mother and father looking after and feeding seven boys and two girls. However, my Granny, Catherine Brown (nee Taylor), lived across the main road in the row of houses long since demolished. She would help look after us and also help with the washing, which was carried out in a corrugated lean-to at the back of the house. Inside there was a large cast iron bowl below which a fire could be lit to heat the water to wash the clothes.
Behind the house there was the outside toilet and further back a number of sheds where the men would keep various tools and anything else that they were hoarding. Beyond these there was the “midden”, where all the rubbish, food waste and toilet waste was dumped. This was removed at fairly regular intervals but nevertheless there were lots of rats and quite a number of health problems like scarlet fever, TB, whooping cough, ringworm, and impetigo. It was fairly common to see boys and girls going around with purple coloured spots on their face, arms and legs where Gentian violet was used to cure the ringworm or impetigo.
I can remember twelve plain loaves being bought on Saturday and then a further 9 loaves on Wednesday. These had to be sliced before my mother would make up “pieces” for my father and three brothers who were working in the mine. No cold meat for the sandwiches, it was cheese or jam, six slices of bread each, giving six sandwiches, which they carried to work in a tin box. There was little need to visit Campbeltown for shopping as lots of vans brought food and groceries to the village. The Co-op van came on a Monday, while McArthur, the baker’s van, came on Saturday, then there were vans from Liptons, Rentons, the butchers, and Colin Campbell, the grocer. These weren’t the only mobile salespeople. Travellers or tinkers as they were known then, frequently camped in tents at Ballygreggan or at the Lint Mill, east of Drumlemble. They would go around the houses selling clothes pegs and other household utensils, sometimes in exchange for tea and food. The ragman was also a regular caller, collecting old clothes.
Drumlemble School provided a good education. Although we didn’t travel, we learned lots about the world in geography and nature studies, names of countries, rivers, birds and flowers. Each summer there was a prize for the pupil who brought in and could name the largest number of different wild flowers. By this time we had moved into the prefabs just across from the school. Some days I would leave the school at 3.30pm, look across at the house and my heart would sink when I would see one ton of coal deposited at the gate. As soon as I arrived home my mother would say, “Get changed and get that coal barrowed in”. That would keep my two older brothers and I busy for the rest of the night. There were no street lamps at that time so winter nights could be very dark.
There were always lots of children about to play cowboys and Indians with in the Sanny Hole (an area east of Drumlemble where gravel had been extracted leaving a deep hole in the green field) or play football in the field. Miners had their carbide lamps. Water dripping on carbide produces acetylene gas, which burns and produces light. One of the games we played was to place some carbide on the palms of our hands, then spit on it. The winner was the boy who could endure the heat of the burning carbide the longest.
The mining community were very close and organized gala days at various venues -sometimes Machrihanish, sometimes Drumlemble, Southend or Kilberry. Special buses took us there and back. I recall winning the Miners’ Cup for the 100-yard sprint at Southend, while my brother Alister won a competition in Kilberry where he knocked all his opponents off the log.
There were two halls in Drumlemble. The Mission Hall, where the missionary Mr John McKendry conducted Sunday services and Sunday School. My father played the organ there. Midweek, when Mr McKendry came out with his list of hymns, my sister would have to hum the tune to remind my father of the melody. The other hall was the Drill Hall where dances, whist drives, cinema shows and other community events took place.
During the war both halls were commandeered by the military. Soldiers were stationed at Drumlemble while there were sailors at the Ugadale. My sister recalls that, at that time, there used to be three full buses leave Drumlemble on a Saturday night taking young folk into Campbeltown, where the bright lights of the Rex Cinema or the Picture House would tempt them. Alternatively there was dancing in the Victoria Hall, Town Hall or Templars Hall (The Bowrie) or they could enjoy an ice cream in one of the three Italian cafés; The Locarno, The Mayfair and The Royal. The night’s revelries would always end with the long walk home to Drumlemble. By the 1950’s the soldiers had moved to Dalivaddy, east of Drumlemble, and football matches between the soldiers and a selection from Stewarton, Drumlemble and Machrihanish would take place regularly. One of the biggest celebrations took place on the night of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953 when my father, Bob, lit a huge bonfire up at Rhudal and this was followed by a dance in the Drill Hall.
As already stated, life for a coal miner and his family wasn’t the easiest, but the difficult conditions bred a strong sense of self-reliance, whilst shared experience built a strong community in Drumlemble.
Angus Nimmo ©