Old Machrihanish

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A photographic image of old Machrihanish. Courtesy of Charlie McMillan ©

This photograph of Machrihanish was brought in to one of our drop-in sessions at Campbeltown Library by Charlie McMillan, a former mechanic at Argyll Colliery. We’re not sure when it dates back to but it’s certainly the oldest photographic image I have seen of Machrihanish. The salt pans would have been just off camera to the left. I wonder if the Wimbledon Pit existed at the is time (close the where the Argyll Colliery was later to be situated) or whether there were still workings open at Kilkivan? I think it’s more probably to be pre- Wimbledon.Cameron McLellan from Machrihanish Online thinks that the photo had to be taken before 1869 as the Mission Hall had not yet been built so the photo could date from early/mid 1800’s. If anyone has any information to add contact me.

Jan Nimmo

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L-R Dougie McArthur, Charlie McMillan and Rankin MGown. Photo: Jan Nimmo ©

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John Irwin – shotfirer at Argyll Colliery

William John Irwin, known as John, was born in 1905 in County Tyrone, Ireland. His mother died when John was just a young boy. His father was a seagoing man so John was brought up by uncles and aunts and was “farmed out” (a form of bonded labour) when he left school at the age of 10.

John did a tour of India with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. He came to Campbeltown in the 1930’s on one of the “Kelly” boats that shipped coal from Kintyre to Belfast and carried soil from Northern Ireland, as ballast, to Kintyre. According to Donald, John’s son, many of the parks around Campbeltown, such as Quarry Green, Kilkerran Road, were made with Irish soil.

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John Irwin did an army tour of India with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Photo courtesy of Donald Irwin, Drumlelmble ©

John worked at the Drum farm, Kilkenzie, near Campbeltown. He a married local woman, Marie Docherty and they had 9 children. The family lived in Drumlemble. Three of his children, Donald, Jimmy and Margaret, still live in South Kintyre. In 1941 John joined the war effort and went to sea, serving with the Royal Artillery Maritime Branch.

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John Irwin, shot-firer, Argyll Colliery, Machrihanish. Photo courtesy of Donald Irwin, Drumlemble ©

It was on his return to Kintyre that he started to work at Argyll Colliery, Machrihanish. The colliery, which was was driven in 1946, was originally called the Lady Lithgow mine, after the wife of the owner, Lord Lithgow. The mine was nationalised in 1947. John did his underground training in Fife and worked as a shotfirer. In 1948 the family moved from 16 Front Row, Drumlemble to a Pre-Fab house in Rhudal, also in Drumlemble.

Donald, John’s son, remembers visiting the colliery on pay days, where his dad treated him to a roll in the canteen – he recalls both Flo Docherty and Cathy Greenlees, the women who worked there. In 1963, just after he left school, Donald had to go to collect his Christmas present at the canteen, an Airfix model of a B52 plane. Miners’ children all received good Christmas presents back in those days.

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A page of notes from John Irwin’s shot firing training notebook. Courtesy of Donald Irwin ©

Donald also remembers miners’ gala days at Macharioch, Southend and at Clachan, and says the bus journeys were highly entertaining thanks to sing-songs led by Hamish McNeil, who worked at the mine.

John Irwin suffered from work related health problems so stopped working as a shot-firer and got a job working at the switches in the mine. He finally left Argyll Colliery in 1963.

We have John’s son, Donald, to thank for providing the project with Coal Mining in Kintyre – a history of coal mining in Kintyre compiled by former mine manager David Seaman and the late Father Webb.

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

Miss Agnes Rennie

I was put in touch with Miss Agnes Rennie by her niece, Anne Stewart, who lives in Machrihanish, by Campbeltown. Agnes, who was 94 years old when I visited her in 2014, was born in Helensburgh in 1920. Her grandfather, whom she never met, was a miner, as were some of her maternal uncles. As I understand it, her grandfather Shearer was from the Dennyloanhead/Longcroft area in Falkirk.

As a young woman Agnes studied Institutional Management at Glasgow College of Domestic Science, popularly known as “The Dough School” which was situated just next to Kelvingrove Park. Her first jobs were in hospitals, including Gartnavel Hospital, in the west of Glasgow. She then spent approximately 30 years with the NCB (National Coal Board). Agnes was based in Alloa and was in charge of supervising the catering/canteens in collieries all across Scotland. The area manager at the time was a Mr Lang, who had worked his way up from being a miner and, according to Agnes, was a very considerate person to work for. This work involved Agnes and her assistant, Pat Angus, visiting Argyll Colliery roughly every 6 weeks. She made the journey by plane and remembered that she stayed at the Argyll Hotel in Campbeltown.

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Miss Agnes Rennie, who worked for the NCB, visited Argyll Colliery regularly, including during the fire of 1958. Pencil drawing by Jan Nimmo ©

When, in 1958 spontaneous combustion caused a fire to break out at the Machrihanish mine, a dedicated rescue team was brought from Coatbridge by the NCB to assist the Argyll Colliery workforce. This operation meant keeping the canteen open 24 hours a day, so Agnes and her assistant were told to pack their bags for the long drive to Kintyre to organise the opening of the canteen. Here she worked alongside the local women who ran the canteen on a day-to-day basis and served the men who were fighting the fire. Agnes describes how the team who were brought in were catered for at the expense of the NCB. Agnes, off her own bat, also supplied the men from Coatbridge with writing paper, envelopes and stamps so that they could write home to their families.

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The Fire Rescue Team Coatbridge/Argyll Colliery underground at Argyll Colliery in 1958. Photo courtesy of the late Jim Fowler ©

Typical meals provided were soup, mince and potatoes, stew, followed by  apple tart and custard. “Pieces” were made up for the men to take underground. There was home baking in the canteens too; scones, pancakes etc. Agnes thought that on this occasion she was there for three days and that she stayed at the Ugadale Hotel in Machrihanish. She also remembered that she visited the Argyll Colliery when it was in the process of being closed (1967).

Agnes said that, as a young woman, she never imagined that she would end up working with miners but went on to say that she loved her job, and that, although many people looked down on colliery workers, she thought that they were “the salt of the earth”. She remembered the men as always being very pleasant and that she enjoyed her visits to Campbeltown and was at pains to say that the women who ran the canteen at Argyll Colliery did a very good job.

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Miss Agnes Rennie, aged 94, (2014) worked with the NCB for 30 years and was a regular visitor to Argyll Colliery, Machrihanish, Kintyre. Photo: Jan Nimmo ©