If you're following us on Facebook then you'll have noticed that we've been putting out a number of memes on proverbs, prayers, triads, and so on. Our latest meme is a prayer to the moon:
|Original image: Dawn Perry|
Anyway, at the weekend the kids and I went on a fieldtrip with my mother-in-law and the archaeological society she's involved with. It was a long day with a few stops arranged (plenty of opportunity for my mother-in-law to show off her grandkids), the first one being to a lead mine situated in the highest village in Scotland. It's maybe not the most typical thing I'd be blogging about here, but the mine was really interesting and also involved a visit to a cottage that's been laid out in three sections, each section showing what living there would've been like during that period. It brought home a lot of things, for me, that I want to waffle on about here.
The mines date back to around the eighteenth century and it first started off with men setting up camp in the area and mining – rather haphazardly – whatever they could find. They lived in makeshift tents during the summer and worked as much as they could, then returned home in the winter. The conditions in the winter were too harsh to survive comfortably in tents, and being so high up it was pretty uncomfortable at other times of the year as it was.
Then a company moved in and advertised jobs that came with a real home. Men flocked to the area, bringing their families, encouraged by the prospect of a roof over their heads and a regular income; being able to settle permanently in the area meant that a regular income from mining was possible. As far as the houses go, what the company really meant was that they'd give the workers a small plot of land and then – along with working in the mine all day – they'd have to build the house themselves. Which wasn't exactly what was advertised, but people made do, and a village began to flourish... This is one of the streets today:
If I recall correctly, things like water mains, sewers, gas, and electricity were still being installed in parts of the village in the 70s.
The men would go to work in the mines for ten or twelve hour shifts during the summer, going down to around six hours in the winter. They got double the wages in the summer, given the longer hours. Boys from around eight years of age were employed to wash the galena that was mined out of the hills, before it was sent for smelting. In the summer they'd spend ten or twelve hours standing barefoot in the stream. In winter they'd often have to smash through the ice before they could begin washing – again, spending the whole shift barefoot in the water. The mining company would advertise the positions as "healthy outdoor work" for boys.
At the age of twelve the boys who worked in the stream would be allowed to move up in the world, being promoted to work in the mine. They wouldn't do the mining itself – not yet. Instead, they'd spend their shift dragging the lead out from where the miners were working, to pass their load on to the boys washing the galena in the stream and then trudge back in for more.
Of course, using the stream tainted the water with lead and other minerals, but it was the smelting that was the most dangerous job: A by-product of the smelting was arsenic, which was freely inhaled. To begin with, the furnace was situated near the village to cut down on the time it took to get the ore there, but it soon became obvious that the fumes hanging over the village weren't doing anyone any good. Eventually the furnace was moved further out, and built into the hillside. Boys would be employed to clean out the flues of all the soot and sediment – men were too big to climb up there – exposing them to the arsenic, too. The average life expectancy in the village – in the 1750s – was 35, although the high rate of infant mortality is the main factor in giving such a low figure. The age group with the highest mortality rate was between 0-2.
As new shafts were opened, the miners would leave the first piece of galena that alerted them to a potential seam they could mine. The rest of the galena would be taken, but that first piece was left, for luck; take it, and the mine would take you. So there it stayed. Each day as the miners entered the shaft they'd walk pass that piece of galena and rub it for luck. At the end of the shift they'd rub it again as they made their way out. The mine deserved this respect.
The tour guide showed us the piece in the mine we explored:
You can see how worn it is. The moss is from the damp and the spotlight they use to show it off – the tunnels are otherwise too dark for anything to grow ordinarily, but it's just as damp as it ever was.
Once they were in the mine they'd stay there until the end off the shift – in the dank and dimness. They'd eat where they worked and they'd piss and shit there too, so the mines were full of rats. The miners would tie their trouser legs at the knee so the rats couldn't run up inside them. They didn't have any specialist clothing, they just wore everyday clothing that they covered in melted wax so help give some waterproofing. It was always damp in the mines, but especially so in the rainy seasons when the rain water would filter down through the hills and drip into the mine shafts.
While the galena was dragged out by the older boys, the rest of the rock was usually stacked up on the wooden props used to shore up the shaft walls – it was a waste of time dragging out rock that wasn't going to make any money, because less ore meant less pay. The piles of rock added weight to the props, and with the damp in the mines it meant that the wood could rot quickly and there would often be collapses. Conditions left a lot to be desired...
The lead that was produced from the mines was only shipped off once a year – perhaps two years if the mines weren't especially fruitful. They wouldn't be shipped off until the load could fill up a ship, which meant the miners wouldn't get paid until a whole load was ready to go. Each miner would have to buy their own tools, pay for their own candles to light their way, and so they relied on the mining company to provide a store where the families could get food and any other supplies they needed, on tab. The miners worked in groups called "bargains," because the head of the group would haggle and bargain with the mining company to agree a rate of pay for the group. When the miners were finally paid they'd have to settle their tab and hope they had money left over; in a bad year, sometimes the miners would find that they owed the mining company more than they'd been paid, and would need to work another year and hope that this time they'd earn enough. Families would try to supplement their incomes by panning for gold in the streams that ran through the village, and the miners would carefully cultivate stalagtites of hematite that would form from the shaft ceilings from the minerals that leeched out of the rock. When the stalagtite was big enough, the miner would break it off and take it home to polish it up, and then sell it on to travelling merchants.
So conditions were hard. On top of the long hours and demanding physical work, the earliest houses built by the miners had to be erected using the cheapest materials available. Rock wasn't hard to come by for the walls, but the roofs were often little more than thatches of bracken and heather – not always completely waterproof, but slate or proper thatching cost money that most workers didn't have. The glass tax of the eighteenth century meant that most families couldn't afford windows either, so they just had small holes in the wall, with wooden shutters that were kept closed in winter. The floor of the house was little more than earth (or mud at times, because the thatch wasn't exactly water-tight).
The hearth was roughly in the middle of the room; there was no chimney, so the smoke would just have to work its way out through the thatch. The furniture – a chest, a few stools, and probably not much more – were low down to help keep people out of the worst of the smoke. The beds were little more than piles of heather and bracken to provide a mattress, covered over with warm blankets. Cottages typically housed between 8-10 family members:
The weather was pretty miserable on the day we visited, and even though it's only September the damp and cold really brought home how it important it would have been to keep the hearth alight day and night. The fire was smoored each night – smothered over to keep it at a steady, slow smoulder rather than a roaring blaze, to conserve fuel and so it wouldn't need constant attention throughout the night, and so it could be easily raised up again in the morning without having to start from scratch. Allowing the fire to go out completely could mean freezing conditions. I can't help but think of all the feeling that was put into the smooring prayer as those words were said each night. In the face of such uncertainty, routines of daily prayers like that could provide a sense of comfort and consistency.
Within a hundred years things had improved some. Slate became more widely available and affordable for roofing, and the window tax had been abolished so people had the luxury of natural daylight. The central hearth was becoming a thing of the past, being replaced by a cast iron fireplace off to one side of the room, with a chimney to take away the smoke. A bed was built into a cosy nook near the stove, and wood panelling on the walls provided extra insulation:
(A bit blurry but the light was crap, sorry). The nook was the prime spot for sleeping, especially in the winter.
Life was a little more comfortable and dry, although the slate roofing could still be a bit leaky. The average life expectancy in the village had risen to 55 by the mid-nineteenth century. By 1910, housing had improved once more:
People had warmer housing and better access to education and health care. Life expectancy had risen even further, hence baldy granddad in the corner there. One of the major changes was that the mining company recognised the benefit of a healthier workforce, so they'd begun to offer subsidies to the workers so they could buy seeds to grow vegetables. A healthier diet was a major improvement.
So that's the museum. The little tidbits of folklore – like preserving the first bit of galena – were really striking, for me. I doubt the miners thought of the mine as having a spirit, as such, but all the same they behaved as if the mine had a life of its own, and they worked to appease it just as they did with their offerings of milk to the Good Folk, the smooring and setting the house in order each night to make sure that the spirits couldn't come in and interfere... Life may not be so precarious as it was then – for most of us – but our concerns remain much the same. And respect to those we share our space with is always due.