On the credit side, the demise of the coal industry did not result in devastated communities. As previously mentioned, the mix of other employment sources and the development of new industrial estates cushioned the blow for East Lothian. Rail and road access to Edinburgh made many of the former mining villages desirable residential locations for the commuting generation. The stock of miners’ houses, a lot of them good quality, remained as an attraction and an asset. In addition, many local improvements and amenities exist thanks largely to the Miners’ Welfare Fund, established 1920 (see Ian McAlpine, this volume). This led to the building, amongst many other things, of institutes, clubs, pubs, rest homes, parks, bowling greens, etc. The fund was also used to set up and support football teams, brass and pipe bands and, uniquely to East Lothian, to acquire a golf club, the Royal Musselburgh at Prestongrange House.
On the environment plus side, pit bings, once visually and atmospherically polluting, have largely disappeared. The local authority must be credited with the physical removal of, the reshaping, landscaping or otherwise redeveloping these eyesores. Perhaps the most striking result of such action was the ‘pyramid’ at the Meadowmill Sports Centre, which was in fact, a small dry ski slope atop an old bing, first proposed in 1967. Another remarkable transformation undertaken was that of the coastal strip from Musselburgh to Prestonpans. The long period of dumping waste from collieries, brickworks and from other sources straight into the sea ended, and the coastal devastation this caused has largely been dealt with. Cockenzie power station’s early fly ash lagoons have been turned into splendid parkland with a boating pond, a picnic area, and a bird sanctuary all linked to a further restored green area along a coastal path. It is probable that the final restoration of the Blindwells opencast site, judging by recent examples elsewhere, will also be aesthetically pleasing. If so it will be some reward to those who have had to endure many years of its industrial effects.
There is inevitably, however, an environmental downside to the end of coal extraction. The early working in the shallow mines was largely by the ‘stoop and room’ method that left a checkerboard pattern of coal pillars to support the roof strata. Over the years, the stability of these old workings can be affected by change due to water erosion, chemical alteration and surface loading, etc. This can result in localised collapse or lowering of the surface causing damage to structures and utilities. A number of these suspect areas will no doubt continue to create problems and inhibit surface development. Another common problem in old mining areas is the discharge of polluted mine water into rivers and streams. The old workings fill up and the water table, kept down for so long by mine pumps, rebounds in land lowered by subsidence. This occurred in the 1960s when a major new drainage system had to be constructed to conduct the water issuing from the closed coastal mines to the sea. Major civil engineering work has also had to be undertaken on the east coast main railway line to deal with the effects of past mining.
Postscript – December 2001
There remain considerable quantities of coal under the East Lothian countryside and its seaward area. By the end of 2000, possible exploitation of some of it by opencasting was being pursued, but there is an understandable resistance to this because of the adverse environmental impact it would have. It would be unrealistic, however, to imagine that anyone would consider that any large deep mining enterprise in the future would be worthwhile. Equally, the old practice of driving a small drift mine to be worked by a handful of miners is another unlikely prospect.
Perhaps, when the non-renewable energy sources of oil and gas run out and if nuclear power goes out of favour, then extracting the energy in coal from boreholes by underground gasification may become a feasible proposition. Hopefully that possibility will not need to be considered for a very long time.
So, we have the situation, where for 800 years coal in East Lothian heated homes and drove many of its industries from salt making, brick making and brewing through to transport and electric power generation. By 2000, the stage had virtually been reached where the only visible evidence of this once all-important industry was the beam engine, the headframe and a small scatter of some mine buildings at the Prestongrange Industrial Heritage Centre.
The main sources used to compile this overview are to be found in the Library of the Scottish National Mining Museum at Newtongrange, near Dalkeith.