Memories of Archie McGeachy, shotfirer, and of Drumlemble by Betty McSporran

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Archie McGeachy, shot-firer at Argyll Colliery. Photo courtesy of Betty McSporran ©

My Dad, Archie McGeachy, was born on 11th September 1924. As we grew up, Dad often spoke in detail about his times at the coal mine in Machrihanish and of the camaraderie between the men. He worked as a shot firer.

There were mine shafts which extended to the Aros Farm, north of Machrihanish, and out under the sea. I recall there was actually flooding in the mine before the fires [and total extraction] eventually closed it down.

One of the things I remember is my Mum and aunts talking about the time a Clydesdale horse was turned out into the field, above Coalhill, between there and Trochoillean Farm. In the morning it had fallen down a hole which appeared in the field. The horse was called Jacopa (I hope that is the correct spelling of its name). It was a sore loss to the farmer concerned.

In the heavy snowfall of February 1963 my Dad and I got stranded at Westport cottage and spent from the Tuesday till the Friday with a retired teacher, Miss McDougall, and her brother. There was quite a number of us including two policemen who divided all of us into two groups and the remainder went to Low Balevain Farm to enjoy the hospitality of the Binnie family. Drifts were above the Telegraph poles but Mr Binnie walked through the snow every day bringing baking, milk and potatoes to help feed us. We had the Jacobs Biscuits traveller with us too but his only samples were coconut mallows to help supplement our diet. I have never been able to eat one from that day till this! Hughie Anderson from Machrihanish was stranded as well. He drove the pit lorry and it was loaded with coal. Craig’s coal lorry was stranded likewise. Miss McDougall’s coal bunker was well filled .

Hughie, Dad and I set off on the Friday and walked the shore line to the Backs Water where we parted company. Dad and I stopped off at West Trodigal farm where Mrs Armour fed us with a bowl of homemade soup. We then stopped off at the miners’ canteen at Argyll Colliery where Dad bought some cigarettes – he hadn’t smoked for days. When we reached home we had to call the police station and let them know that we had made it! The  Campbeltown Courier reported the story. I was the only female stranded but they obviously thought I didn’t merit consideration as they made no mention of that fact. I may add that I was the only person who went back in person to thank Miss McDougall. Dad and I were so grateful and felt we were lucky to be alive as we wouldn’t have stood a chance against the snow.

I remember playing in the houses in Drumlemble that ran along from the hall to where the bus shelter now stands. The roofs were off the houses by then and the windows were covered by corrugated iron. The side row houses’ ruins were really only an outline of where the houses had been, as were the ruins next to Coalhill cottage. On the left hand side down the side row there were a few allotments and some had wee sheds standing on them.

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Postcard of Drumlemble Main Street showing the now demolished miners’ houses on the RHS. Courtesy of Charlie McMillan.

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Drumlemble Mission Hall, now a private residence, and where a row of miners’ houses used to stand on the Campbeltown – Machrihanish road. Photo: Jan Nimmo ©

There was a miners’ bus transporting the men from town out to the pit at Machrihanish to suit the shift times. We used to walk from Drumlemble to Campbeltown on a Sunday and catch a lift home with the miners’ bus.

Miners’ gala days and Christmas parties were always so exciting for us as we grew up. The Miners’ Welfare Hall in Bolgam Street in Campbeltown was where the parties were held. The picnics were huge family outings and are well remembered for such happy times.

My Dad developed a lung disorder due to the coal dust and spent a year in the sanatorium in Oban due to that. He was never able to do mine work after that and actually never able to do any manual work. He passed away as a young man aged 43 on 8th January 1968.

In 1982, when part of the playing field collapsed in Drumlemble, the whole of Rhudal cottages were decanted but the four houses in Burnbank were left. We were literally over the fence from this gaping hole. My brother, Leslie, worked with McFadyen Contractors then and he had a Coal Board official on the bucket of his JCB, with arm extended, in the shaft that ran between numbers 19 and 30 Rhudal cottages. I also recall where a mound appeared further along the playing field and the water spouted out of it like a fountain. Many years later the National Coal Board had to backfill underneath the self same Burnbank homes as one of the houses was sinking.

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Katrina, Cameron, Betty McSporran (née McGeachy), Betty’s sister, Margaret Blaylock and Alice McMurchy. Photo: Jan Nimmo ©

The bard of Kintyre is an ancestor of ours (James McMurchy). Interestingly enough his art has passed down through the generations. I myself have been published on six occasions and have written some lyrics for songs. At present I am working with Charlie McMillan who had written a pipe tune and I have added the words. We are at present in the process of trying to get it recorded to a CD. My brother, Leslie McGeachy, and my sister, Margaret Blaylock, are both prolific in the poetry genre as well.

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Leslie McGeachy , Betty’s brother, and Debbie. Photo: Jan Nimmo ©

 

 

 

 

 

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The Campbeltown and Machrihanish Coal Canal

In 1773 James Watt, the renowned Scottish engineer and inventor, surveyed a canal to connect Machrihanish/Drumlemble to Campbeltown. The Campbeltown and Machrihanish Canal was opened in 1794. The canal was level so had no locks and was about 3 miles long. It was built to transport coal in flat bottomed barges from the coal mine at West Drumlemble to Campbeltown. The barges were drawn by horses. It eventually fell into disrepair and was abandoned by 1856. The canal was mostly filled in although there is still a small section evident on the eastern marches of Hillside Farm and this can be seen on your right hand side, as you approach Campbeltown from the A83.

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James Watt. Illustration: Jan Nimmo ©

The canal ran eastwards from West Drumlemble, to Dalivaddy Farm, to the Lintmill and then crossed Chiskan Waters and continued through Tonrioch and Knockrioch farms, the Moy and onwards to the Gortan and Hillside Farm. It terminated at the coal depot or ree that was once near the Albyn Distillery, which was situated on The Roading, Campbeltown and which became the site of the Jaeger factory, (known locally as The Clothing Factory), until that closed in 2001.

The Argyll Coal and Canal  Company took over the running of the pit at Kilkivan and built a light railway in 1876 to transport coal to Campbeltown. The railway followed the same route as the canal until it it reached the town where the line ended at the quay.

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A plan of the Campbeltown and Machrihanish Canal based on an 18th century plan from the Duncan Colville papers. (Argyll & Bute Council Archives). Image courtesy of Campbeltown Heritage Centre.

The following poem which highlighted to me by by ex-collier, George McMillan, Campbeltown. The poem is by Archibald Munro and was written in 1888. (Thanks to Cameron McLellan of Machrihanish Online for the information about the poem).

The Old Drumlemble Canal

“Leaves but a rack behind”.
One gibly descants on the beauty of streams
Or the floods that from precipice fall;
Another on Torrents in ecstasy dreams –
My subject’s the ancient canal.

My fancy yet awakes with delights
As Memory its windings review;
Mid the scenes of the past it lies smiling and bright,
And it banks with fresh verdor renews.

By it’s hoof trodden brink, with satchel in hand,
I saunter’d or skipped to the school;
But, truth to confess, too long I would stand,
To scan the contents of the pool.

Let tropical regions their produce display;
And botanist dote on their forms;
Let palms and bananas the tourist repay
For his travels in quest of their charms.

The pliant, slim sedges that bow’d to the wind –
Create, I fancy, for boys –
Had virtues more precious – at least to my mind –
And wakened much livier joys.

From their supple materials, moulded with skill,
A tiny flotilla launch’d on the wave
I doubt if such rapture Lord Nelson did fill
As he marshall’d his fleet and admonish’d the brave.

The type of the the crocodile cleaving the Nile,
‘Mid lilies and bulrushes tall,
Small lizards and asp would your leisure beguile
By the brink of the ancient canal.

The crazy old gaabert sail’d slowly along
With her cargo of timber and coal;
What volumes of blessings (!) left many a tongue
At her sluggish approach to the goal.

The slower the better for truants like me –
How nimbly I sprang from the bank,
And leapt on her beams with boisterous glee,
While the pilot got fierce at my prank!

Kind pilot; thought oft a bit of coal he would raise,
They might menace with “Courts” and a jail;
But though we got shakings and troublesome starts,
The breeze never rose to a gale.

When winter beleaguered the drumly old pool,
And its surface as firm as a floor,
The truant and student abandoned the school,
More welcome achievement to score

From morning till ev’ning – and often beyond –
Oblivious of books and of care,
Like eagles we sped o’er the crust of the pond,
To parents’ and teachers’ despair.

No water more clearly reflected the skies,
The outline of clouds and their hue;
No glass to my features more truly replies –
My photo seems hardly so true.

Huge gudgeons and perches the angler allured
From villages, mountains and glens;
The luck of his rod the fisher secured
The vigour that exercise lends.

Here friendships for life were cemented in youth
And sweetened as seasons revolved;
And though we’re apart as the north from the south,
No space can our union dissolve.

Yet sad were the thoughts in the emigrant’s breast
Were he to revisit the lake
Where in summer he’d wade to the wrens tiny nest,
Or the duck from its slumbering wake.

The waters have fled, like the mists of the morn,
Deserting their time honoured bed;
No longer their windings the landscape adorn,
Nor moisture o’er neighbourhood shed.

Like the spirit unbound, what was flowing and free
Has pass’d from its “motionless” coil;
Now it sparkles on roses, or rolls to the sea,
And now it refreshes the soil.

But the channel is buried in rubbish and reeds –
At once its own carcase and grave –
The refuse of adders and vagrant seeds,
Unsightly to saint and to knave.

Yet, though now repulsive thy trenches appear,
Thy graces I fondly recall;
To my bosom thy features will ever be dear,
Smooth, torturous, placid canal.

Kilkivan – Inundation from an old abandoned working – July 1878

The following information is from the Scottish Mining website and regards the deaths of Neil Smith (collier), Daniel McPhail, (collier) and James Todd (bottomer) at the Kilkivan Pit, Drumlemble, near Campbeltown. We previously published a blog entry about this incident, Lines on an Accident at Coalhill. (It seems that the names Donald/Daniel and James/John were interchangeable). According to the information on the Scottish Mining website, James/John Todd was 64 when he was killed. There isn’t an age given for either Daniel or Neil – we will add these when we have that information.

The report makes for chilling reading…

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Kilkivan Cemetery, between the villages of Drumlemble and Machrihanish, where Daniel McPhail is buried. Photo: Jan Nimmo ©

Inundation from an old abandoned working

Argyle Coal & Cannel Co.

From Main body of report:

The pit at which the irruption took place is 27 fathoms deep, and was suddenly filled to within 12 fathoms of the surface. The old workings, from which the water flowed, are of considerable extent, but have been abandoned for upwards of 50 years. Referring to plan which exhibits the workings of two seams of coal, the first six-feet seam lies at 18 fathoms from the surface, and the lower or nine-feet seam, at 27 fathoms. At the time of the accident the working was confined to the lower seam. The depth of surface overlying the stratified rocks, lying not far above the sea level, averages 54 feet, of which 40 is principally composed of sand. Several dislocations traverse this part of the coalfield, and the fracture, or ”veise” is generally found filled with sand. In mining up to these fractures, or barring them, there is frequently a partial discharge of water, which is looked upon as quite an ordinary, occurrence. In May last the place marked x on plan, when extended to the dislocation a a, relieved some pent-up water, to check which supports were immediately put to the roof, and a rough darn constructed, backed by a loose building. This had the desired effect of shutting off the water, and the place was supposed to be left in a secure state. Nothing further was done until the 5th of July, when the manager had occasion to be in or to pass near to the mine x, when he discovered water and sand passing from the front of the dam. On observing this, precautionary measures were taken, which were completed before night. No further discharge was observed up to the time of the disaster, which happened on the afternoon of the following day, 6th, when the water which lay in the six feet seam found its way into the mine x by the “veise” of the dislocation a a. The pressure of the water, probably equal to 100 feet or thereby, forced away the , obstruction at X , and made an opening down the veise of the dislocation 25 feet and 4′ X 10′, in which it must have rushed with considerable force. The bottomer, who was employed at the bottom, was so suddenly overtaken that he did not escape, and two of the miners, working at B, the dipmost part of the mine were, I presume, instantly closed in, their bodies being afterwards found near to their working-place. Fortunately the work was nearly over for the day, and five workman, engaged at different parts of the mine escaped by the “blind” pit.
The appliances for pumping, the water and unwatering the mine were kept in constant operation, but the bottom was not reached until the 2nd of September when the body of the bottomer was found, and nearly four weeks elapsed before the bodies of the others were reached. The works were conducted or guided by an old plan, which is now found to be in error at least 46 fathoms, or rather the workings have been extended 46 fathoms beyond the limit shown upon the plan.
The existence of water in the old workings was well known, but it was equally well known that it lay from 25 to 30 feet above the seam being worked. Since the accident a mine has been driven to prove the actual position of the old waste. This is a very unusual accident, the displacement of at least 25 feet of material, 4′ x 10′, more or less consolidated, and could only have happened under special conditions. The salutary provisions contained in section 42 of the statute, which provided that plans of abandoned mines shall be be lodged with the Secretary of State within three months after the abandonment will in future tend to prevent such misfortunes.

And there is another entry regarding the deaths – an article from the Scotsman…

Campbeltown – Colliery Accident – Three Men Drowned – Shortly after three o’clock on Saturday afternoon a mining accident occurred at the Drumlembie Colliery, belonging to the Argyle Coal and canal Company Ltd, situated on the estate Kilkevin, in the parish of Campbeltown, by which three of the miners lost their lives. It appear that the water broke into the mine in some unexplained way from an old disused working. There were a number of men in different parts of the pit at the time, but on water being discovered to be flooding the workings they rushed to the bottom of the shaft, and succeeded in getting safely to the top, with the exception of three men named John Todd, Daniel McPhail and Neil Smith, who were unable to escape from the pit in time and were drowned. Todd and McPhail were both married, but Smith was unmarried. The bodies have not been recovered. The pit, which was flooded within about 100 feet of the surface, is being pumped as fast as possible, but it will take some time before it is cleared. One of the miners named Munro, who was among the last to leave the pit, states that he remained with Todd, one of the drowned men, waiting for the cage to descend, and that he (Munro) jumped and caught the rope as soon as the cage came down, expecting Todd to follow, but he heard the latter calling out, “Jamie, I am done; I can’t get on.” Todd was about 60 years of age. The others were young men. [Scotsman 8 July 1878]

From Scottish Mining

Lines on “An Accident at Coalhill” by James MacMurchy

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Typed version of “Lines on the “Accident at Coalhill” (Drumlembe, Argyll) by James MacMurchy, the so called “Poet of Kintyre”. Photo” Jan Nimmo ©

When my father’s widow, Ros Nimmo, decided to leave Campbeltown to move to England to be nearer to her daughter, she gave me a few odds and ends that belonged to my father. Amongst them was the above typed up sheet with the lines of a poem. My father, Neil Nimmo, a former employee at Argyll Colliery, must have asked someone to type it up for him – he was a Drumlemble man who came from a family of miners and was always interested in stories related to mining.

When I started to do some research for the documentary The Road to Drumleman, about Argyll Colliery, Machrihanish, I discovered that the poem was by James MacMurchy (McMurchy/McMurchie). According to an article by Ron Booth in the Spring 2000 edition of the Kintyre Antiquarian and Natural History Society Magazine,  John MacMurchy started work in the mine in Drumlemble “at a very young age”. He apparently had a good singing voice and wrote many poems that relate to South Kintyre. You can read more about James in Ron’s piece. The typed version of the poem that my father possessed varies a little from the one in the collection of poetry  published in a book of MacMurchy’s poetry in Campbeltown Library, so I have typed up the published version. If anyone can shed further light on the victims mentioned in this poem please get in touch. (please see the photo of the headstone at Kilkivan Cemetery below).

Jan Nimmo

Lines on the “Accident at Coallhill”

July has come in wi’ a sweet balmy gale,
To waft o’er the flowers on the mountain and dale,
And the wee smiling daisy with fragrance to fill;
But alas! it brought sorrow and grief to “Coalhill”.

The miners, just finished their labours below,
To the clear light of day, they hurriedly go,
When a noise, loud as thunder came fast to each ear
Which caused all the miners to tremble with fear.

It’s the ‘waste’ broken in, Hark! the waters now roar;
There are nine men below, we may see them no more,
May God them protect, who is mighty and wise,
And help them, for safety, to flee to the “rise”.

As Providence ordered, the manager near
Descended the mine, braving danger and fear,
He reached the six men in their perilous cave,
And saved their lives from a watery grave.

Then down through the workings so wild
Like a fond hearted father, in search of his child,
But no sound of the three missing men could he hear
But the wild roar of water, sae gloomy and drear. 

Go back from the danger, you’re duty you’ve done,
The men are no more – their life’s journey is run
But we hope they are safe in a happier shore,
When the struggle of life, they’ll encounter no more.

May the men who are safe, give to God all their praise
Who sent them relief, and lengthened their days;
May they trust in His bountiful providence all –
For without His permission a sparrow can’t fall.

James Todd left his house, just a short year before,
And his friends in Tollcross will see him no more;
When he came to Kintyre, how little thought he
To have died in the waters that flowed from the “Ree”.

Neil Smith, young and fair, in his manhood and bloom,
And Donald McPhail shared his watery tomb;
Their friends and relations, now sadly do mourn
For the loved ones that’s gone and will never return.

James Mac Murchy

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It appears from the date on this headstone at KIlkivan Cemetery that Donald/Daniel McPhail was drowned at Drumlemble Pit (Coalhill) in 1878. Photo: Jan Nimmo ©