The Road to Drumleman archive blog is delighted to publish this article by Alex McKinven, once an employee of Argyll Colliery, Machrihanish and author of the the book Kit and Caboodle, The Story of Football in Campbeltown. As a follow on to Alex’s article we’ll post some newspaper cuttings from the Campbeltown Courier which were collected by Kenny McMillan, once the manager of Argyll Colliery FC. You can visit the Kit and Caboodle Facebook page here.
The Story of Miners and Football in South Kintyre – Alex McKinven
Although now in my early seventies, the memory of working as part of the surface team at Argyll Colliery still holds a very special place in my heart. Yes, the work was physical and demanding, but the hard daily graft paled into insignificance when compared to the light-hearted camaraderie that was always available at the drop of a hat. The end of shift encounters with a sea of blackened faces soon made me aware that underground workers were a special breed of men, a race apart when it came to making light of the everyday dangers that surround them. However; apart from assisting the engineers to renew the haulage cable system, for the most part my experience underground was non-existent. Nevertheless; even a small glimpse of the conditions the miners endured filled me with admiration for my fellow man. As often heard – life ‘down under’ was like entering another world.
Away from daily toil, it never ceased to amaze me how organised the miners were when it came to spending their leisure time, whether it was in sport, the arts or other forms of recreation. However; in all of these activities this group of ‘Titans’ had a secret weapon – the assistance of the wonderful Miners Welfare Association. A small deduction from wages helped to fund a multitude of local activities, culminating in the annual Gala Day in which every child – colliery related or not – was treated to day out thanks to the kindness of the miners. The Miners’ Welfare Hall – Old Courthouse in Bolgam Street – doubled as the nerve centre for social activities, and it was here as a youth that I sat watching live football beamed onto a large screen via a contraption called a television set – unbelievably, this some sixty plus years ago.
The mention of sport, in particular the wonderful game of football, has helped to draw back the veil of time. Back then the miners of Argyll Colliery, like their fellow workers throughout the industry, had a special relationship with the ‘beautiful game’. Nevertheless; it came as a surprise to find an Argyll Colliery team had existed as far back as 1926, a period in which the club won the Ainsworth Cup – an Argyll-wide competition organised by the Mid-Argyll Football Association. Sadly, this sporting success was earned during a catastrophic period for the town’s traditional industries. The local shipyard at Trench Point was first to close its doors in 1922, a disaster for the local economy that was followed by the collapse of the whisky industry. The town’s unprecedented collection of distilleries failed due to Government capitulation to the temperance movement, this coupled with high taxation and the advent of prohibition in the USA. Of course, local distillers used Machrihanish coal as the main source of fuel, resulting in a chain-reaction that led to the closure of the colliery itself in 1929. The collapse of local industry preceded the deepest and longest-lasting economic downturn in history – a period known to history as the Great Depression (1929 – 1939).
As the economic crises receded another human disaster was about to unfold – the rise of Nazi Germany. Between 1939 and 1945 the world was plunged into a destructive war; nevertheless, the cessation of hostilities brought hope with a new Labour Government and a policy to reopen a nationalised Argyll Colliery at Machrihanish in 1946. It was the beginning of a new chapter in the history of mining in Kintyre, a period superseded by an influx of experienced key workers to educate the next generation of miners and give the town immediate relief from the threat of post-war unemployment.
The lack of fit and proper housing was a major post-war problem, a shortcoming partially alleviated by the creation between 1946 and 1948 of a new housing estate at Meadows – known locally and colloquially as the Steel or Miners’ Hooses. It would take a few years for the ‘Pit’ to reach full production, but between times the thoughts of miners turned to a ‘real’ priority of life – the game of football and creation of two new sides to represent the colliery workforce. Early summer of 1951 saw NCB Strollers and NCB Athletic join the ranks of the newly formed Artisans League, an amateur administration named after the skilled working classes who promoted the game during the Victorian era; however, this was a ploy and merely a ‘Sprat to catch a Mackerel.’ Grandiose plans were already in place to create a junior side and apply for membership of the town’s football elite – the historic Campbeltown and District Junior Association.
So was born Argyll Colliery Junior Football Club, a team that would have a novel beginning to life in the ranks of semi-professional non-league football. At this level players could receive remuneration for their services – but I’m sure very few did in the local game. Embarrassment would reign during the first round of matches, as the players were asked to wear old-fashioned black and white jerseys with tie cord collars. Where on earth did they come from? The answer to the question can be found in an earlier reference. The jerseys were a legacy – somewhat unwanted – of the team of 1926, a relic from the last time a miner’s team had taken to the field of play.
The new management team of Kenny McMillan and John Docherty were quick off the mark to purchase a brand new football strip – although knowing glances were exchanged when confronted with their choice of colours. Both men were die-hard Motherwell supporters, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise when the famous ‘claret and amber’ emerged from the wicker hamper at Kintyre Park. It would prove a memorable beginning, as within a few weeks of starting the miners claimed their first trophy – the McCallum Cup. In a competitive final, two long range efforts from Donald Paterson and a solo effort from Sam Batey were enough to see off the ‘mighty’ Glenside – one of Campbeltown’s legendary junior football clubs.
For the best part of a decade Argyll Colliery FC was a ‘magnificent obsession’ for the management team, so much that Kenny McMillan was inspired to keep a diary of the team’s performances and results. Little did he know his humble archive would become extremely important, a precious record of the club’s exploits in all matches – including ‘blue ribbon’ Scottish Junior Cup ties. Meetings with the famous junior club Shotts Bon Accord were also included, a side Kenny simply referred to as ‘our Shotts friends.’ Against such exalted opposition the results weren’t half bad either. The ‘Miners’ drew 1-1 draw with Shotts at Kintyre Park in May 1953, before losing the return match in September that year by 3 goals to 1. From these results alone we are immediately made aware that Argyll Colliery FC was more than capable of holding its own against teams from the much vaunted Central Scottish League, at this time the best junior league in the country.
Argyll Colliery reached its peak as a team in season 1953-54, winning the league championship and three of the four cups available. A quote from Kenny’s memoirs is unmistakable in its praise of the ‘claret and amber’. Having beaten Campbeltown United by 5 goals to 1 in the final of the Sutherland Cup, he goes on to say ‘ We scored five fine goals and George Cook – the scorer of four – has never scored as many goals in his life’. He then goes on to qualify his statement. ‘Of course, he has never played in such a good team. Mr Sutherland would be proud to know his cup couldn’t go to a better team’. In football terms, the miners of Argyll Colliery had struck gold!
Like in every other walk of Campbeltown life, the characters involved in local football were sometimes better known by their nicknames. ‘The Miners’ team was no different in this respect, and Kenny’s mischievous entries included a number of affectionate by-names that could have graced a Walt Disney film script. The team list occasionally digressed from the ‘norm’ to include references to ‘Orra’, ‘Sleepy’ and ‘Happy’, or when the opposition was mentioned – ‘Feeny’, ‘Tucker’ ‘Roabie’ or such like. There was no malice in this whatsoever – quite the opposite, only good humour and a sense of place and time. Campbeltown revelled in its vast collection of nicknames, in such numbers that set it apart from many other communities on the west coast of Scotland.
As the 1950s rolled on, ‘the Miners’ flew the flag for Campbeltown football in far-flung places; exotic venues like Armadale, Inverurie and Rutherglen were visited. They even created a youth league to protect the future of football in the town, and, I’m delighted to report that the efforts of Bill Adams, Jimmy Stark, Charlie Duffy and Sandy Cunningham achieved this goal. ‘The Miners’ last effort to embrace football was as an amateur side for a two year period in the Kintyre Amateur Football League – 1958 to 1960. Ironically, it ended as it began, with the club wearing black and white striped jerseys, although this time, thankfully, the garments were brand new.
Argyll Colliery may have passed into memory; however, ‘the Pit’ will be remembered as much more than a place of work. Yes, it brought much needed jobs and financial stability to the community, but the National Coal Board also had the welfare of people at its core, values that are very hard to find in modern industrialism. Togetherness and camaraderie was the key to everything that was achieved; a message that echoes loudly through the decades as we take a figurative, if nostalgic journey along the well- loved road to ‘Drumleman’.