Showdown at the Mine Corral
I’d just graduated with a BSc in Mining Engineering from Glasgow University and was proud of it. I’d also been taken on as a management trainee by the National Coal Board (NCB), at that time, the biggest employer of people in Europe, no back door organisation, and I considered myself one of the chosen.
The training course didn’t start for several months so, in the meantime, the NCB had sent me to pass the time in Tam Hamilton’s hand loaded, pick and shovel mine near home.
When I first went to Hamilton’s office, no more than a corrugated iron shed with a wobbly table, a chair and a wee fire pretending to be alight in the corner, Hamilton stared grimly through bushy eyebrows at first. He relaxed slightly, lifting his pipe and cocking one eyebrow as he recognised me. ‘Aye, so you’ve managed to get one o’ them university degrees, have ye?’
‘That’s right,’ I told him.
Hamilton took matches and lit his pipe.
I felt I had to explain. ‘The National Coal Board have sent me here until I start the management training course in August.’
Hamilton drew quickly on his pipe. ‘Management training course is it? So you’re to be one of the new bosses are ye,’ he commented. ‘Nae doubt they’ll have sent you here to see how to mine coal properly.’
‘Well, I’ve worked in some of the mechanised mines and I suppose they wanted me to see your hand-got working,’ was the most diplomatic answer I was been able to think of.
Hamilton took another drag at his pipe, puffed smoke, then, looking through the bushy eyebrows again, added, ‘Aye, well, the only mechanisation we have here are the pit ponies. So, you’d better go and learn how to drive one o’ them, eh? Since you’re one of the Dalton Gang, you should manage a pony nae bother. Just go and see the ostler, he’ll be at the bottom of the shaft, if you’ve been in the mechanised mines, you’ll ken what that is. Tell him Dick Turpin hasn’t come to work.’
With that, he knocked out his pipe on the edge of a rusty piece of pipe welded closed at the bottom, put down his pipe and turned to some paper work.
Intensely proud of my degree, I hadn’t been too pleased with the idea of driving a pony but then thought, this is only to fill in time till I go on the training course, he’s a senior official and it wouldn’t be right to argue with him. It’ll be something new anyway and besides, I’m free of exams at last, maybe it’ll be good to just drift along for a change. With that thought, I swallowed my ego and went across to the shaft.
The ‘shaft’ was really just an incline with a man riding carriage in it. The carriage ran on rails and was long and open, like a topless single decker tour bus with a steel wire rope hooked to the back.
My grandfather had driven the engine that let the carriage up and down and I was quite taken with myself as I climbed into the carriage, wondering if he would have been pleased or annoyed at me going “doon the pit”.’
I don’t think it has changed much since his time. Compared with the high-speed winders, it seemed to go crawl down the mine. In fact, some of the men preferred to walk down the steps on one side of the incline rather than wait their turn for the carriage.
When I got to the stables, what surprised me was how bright and clean they were. Not like the dusty, muggy atmosphere on a mechanised face with the machine grunting and moaning so much it was hard to think. When one of those machines started, you were covered in clouds of dust and when the dust sprays are turned on, you crawled through sludge and worked in a mist. Compared to that, the stable was a palace, a long wide tunnel with the ponies stalls down one side, a drain in the middle and the harness and the bags of feed hung and stacked against the other wall. The place was whitewashed and the air fresh and clean. The stable was the first place to be ventilated and as the air adjusted to the temperature of the rock very quickly, it was cool on a hot summer’s day and pleasantly warm when the snow and sleet were being driven by a winter wind on surface.
Maybe it had been my surprise at the freshness that had lulled my suspicions and saved my skin.
All the ostler did was to nod his head at a stall and tell me, ‘Black Bess is harnessed ready. Just get her oot and I’ll get somebody to show ye where to go.’
My relations with horses had been conditioned by the gentle giant cart horses, Big Geordie and Rab, at the farm up the road from our house with the result that I’d still been looking around with interest as I walked into the Black Bess’s stall. It was then that I had my opinions on horseflesh revised.
Black Bess’s mistake had been to assume that I was paying attention to her when she jerked her head round and tried bite my arm off. She didn’t have incisors like a dog, or a leopard, but the teeth looked enormous, like big flat white dominoes. As they flashed past my arm, I was stunned. Having missed with her teeth, she lashed out with her hooves. Lucky for me, in my comatose state, I hadn’t pulled back from the bite as quick as she’d expected and the hooves only hit fresh air.
By the time she’d got her hooves back on the ground and she was arching her back to strike again, I was back in Hamilton’s office.
Hamilton’s eyebrows shot up as I thrust his door open.
He listened calmly to my ranting and let me stand slowly depressurising before he made any comment.
‘Och, maybe she didn’t ken you were goin’ to be one of the big bosses one of these days,’ Hamilton quipped. Then, grinning mischievously, he added, ‘or, then again, hey, hey,… maybe she did.’
He sat back looking at me for a while, took a draw at his pipe, leant forward and knocked the pipe carefully against the side of his ashtray, turned over some pages of a ledger on his desk. ‘Let’s see if we can get you something more in line wi’ your mining engineering qualifications,’ he said. Eventually, he closed the book and looked at me with a satisfied grin on his face and added, ‘You could aye go and help the ropeman grease the ropes?’