Dr. Wallace recalls an underground incident at Argyll Colliery

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Dr. Archie Wallace at his home in Campbeltown in December 2016. Photo: Jan Nimmo ©

In November 2016, I paid a visit to Dr. Wallace who practised as a family doctor in Campbeltown from 1949, alongside Dr. McPhail. The consulting rooms at that time were in the stone snecked building on the north side of Burnside Square (now the Argyll and Bute CARS/Townscape Heritage Initiative Office). During my visit to Dr Wallace, now in his nineties, he talked about a particular incident where he was called to treat some men who had gotten into trouble in one of the underground roads at Argyll Colliery.

Here is transcript of the interview:

Yes, well I’m Archie Wallace, my age is in the 90s now and my memory is quite good but it’s maybe not just 100% and I certainly don’t want to over-dramatise what went on…. I’ve really got very little idea of when this actually happened or the names of the people that were involved, and, as I say, I don’t want to over-dramatise it….

It was either a Saturday or a local holiday, because the mine wasn’t functioning, but people called deputies had to carry out an examination of the mine every day, including holidays, and a couple of men would to do their usual walk down the roads – they called them roads, which are channels, and these had to be examined. Now I don’t know what raised the alarm – whether the man in the office was expecting them back and they didn’t arrive or whether there was some communication to say that they were in trouble somewhere, maybe a telephone line of some sort, that they had down there or some communication – I’ve no idea. I went to the Cottage Hospital on my way out to Machrihanish to collect an oxygen cylinder in case it should have been needed.

So, anyway, the story I got, I just happened to be on call that day, was that people were in trouble and they might require medical assistance so out I went and I remember that there were four guys or maybe five. I don’t remember who they were except for one man called James Fowler, he stays in Ralston Road, I remember him quite clearly because he’s quite a tall fellow.

Well, we went down one of the roads, and we were going to a part of the mine which hadn’t been worked for a while but it still had to be inspected. We made our way along this road, as they called it, and that was quite scary for me because I’d never been down before and parts of that channel were quite narrow and you had to bend down to get through. As we got further away I did notice that the quality of the air was not very good and not being used to these conditions I was absolutely sweating, profusely, so much so, that it was running into my eyes, and above, there were these awful creaking noises which sounded like the whole thing was going to collapse. These were the conditions that these guys had to work in. 

Well, we got to where they were and they were semi-conscious but they looked quite healthy. The reason they looked quite healthy was because it was carbon monoxide (poisoning) – which when it combines with the blood it turns a pinkish colour – the capillaries of the face turn pink and they don’t actually look all that ill but the quality of the air was terrible. I think what helped was that they were on the ground and the carbon monoxide had risen to the top of the vault. So I was able to give them some oxygen and they recovered a bit but I was anxious to get them up but because I didn’t want to finish up with two of them and five of us and not being able to move them, though we had some oxygen. 

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The entrance to Argyll Colliery. A.C. was a drift mine so the miners were transported underground by rail. Photo courtesy of the Scottish National Mining Museum.

What happened was the main had been on fire, one of the spontaneous fires that mines get, and we used to see smoke coming up from the neighbouring farm, right from out of the ground. Eventually they closed it and sealed it off to see if the lack of oxygen would sort this out and it seemed to do the trick. But it was after that, that this happened. And what had happened was that the carbon monoxide was building somewhere in that area and I don’t know what would suddenly make it much worse and the quality of the air that we were breathing was just not sustainable. If they were to make their way back, that’s what they thought so that’s maybe why they asked for help.

Anyway, the way back was a bit of a nightmare because there were two extra people who had to be assisted and we had to stop every now and again to get our breath back and to get a few puffs of oxygen. About 10 minutes into it I noticed that the dial on the oxygen cylinder was at zero, so I was just praying that we would be alright. A lot of this was just a bit of phobia on my part and maybe I was panicking a bit, but we were struggling; we were breathing heavily, we weren’t getting enough oxygen. That, as I say, went on for about 10 minutes and eventually, I think I was at the front, I turned a corner, and you’ve heard the phrase, “a breath of fresh air”…  And we got a breath of fresh air, and by God, I can tell you it was welcome. And we were home and dry… So it wasn’t all that fantastic…. but nobody seemed to know anything about this. The manager at that time was Mr Seaman, I think that was his name, as I can’t remember the guys’ names and it didn’t even get into the Courier and my feeling was that the Coal Board just didn’t want any publicity about it and maybe they told the mining guys, you know, “just to hush this up”…. And of course I wasn’t prepared to say anything either, except over the years, I gave a talk to the Rotary about it because I thought they would be interested and they really were interested, but that was about all…

And another thing, not that I was looking for anything in any way at all, but you think there would have been a note or something to say thank you for your help, but there was nothing! Not a thing! Extraordinary really! It was almost as though they had decided that – I think that they were afraid that there would be repercussions and that maybe they had re-opened the mine too soon.

 I knew a lot of the miners, they were patients of mine and were golfing friends, like Dan Stalker, and all that crowd, so l knew them quite well but I can’t remember recognising the fellows that were with me.

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Argyll Colliery Rescue Team – Jim Fowler, second from the left. Photo courtesy of the late Jim Fowler ©

When Morag McLean (nee McMillan), Campbeltown, put a piece together for this blog about her father, Kenny McMillan, in an extract from one of his diaries he mentions that “T. McFarlane was Gassed” in 1958. I have asked Dr. Wallace if he may have been one of the men involved in this incident but the name didn’t ring a bell… Dr. Wallace doesn’t remember the date of this incident but it is most likely to have occurred after the big fire of 1958.

If anyone has any other information about this incident please contact me.

Jan Nimmo

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