From Hook to Book

Archive for the tag “Bothwellhaugh”

Return to the Coal-face

One-hundred years ago, my great-grandfather trekked down the pit road six and a half days a week, sometimes a mile into the gloom, to reach the current coal face of the Hamilton Palace Colliery in Lanarkshire, Scotland. (Those who lived in the colliery’s tiny pit village of Bothwellhaugh affectionately knew it as the “Paillis”.) It might have taken John an hour before shift start for him to ride the cage down hundreds of metres to the road below before beginning his walk, and he didn’t earn a shilling until the first coal shards hewn hit the bottom of his skip.

In the quiet of the mine, every noise magnifies, the laughter and cursing of men, the snickers and snorts of pit ponies, the clang of picks on rock and shot fired into the bords bringing down stone and coal and earth. Some shifts, depending on your bord (work face), you’d spend soaked to the skin from start to end, if not soaked with sweat from the heat generated deep underground, you’d be wet through from the sodden roads or lying crouched in cramped quarters to get at the coal.

We can read a hundred books, and scan a thousand photographs and still be hard pressed to realise the eerie, cloying nature of dust-filled air and the closed-in walls of the underground caves of a coal mine. Tiny lamp lights carried not far in front, especially in the days of naked flame lamps pre-gas and battery lit lanterns. Danger lurked in a myriad of life-threatening ways. Precipitous rock was not always given to staying put leading to frequent “falls of stone”, or men and lads might face a panicking pit pony sending a tonne of skip and coal  careering down the tracks to crush any body unable to jump into a cutaway in the wall, or see the pony fall victim itself, another of the many unfortunate creatures  lost to the task.

Men might  drown with an inrush of water. Others fell down shafts or found themselves crushed between hutch (skip) and props. The tales and manner of demise of workers, especially in the shameful era before men’s lives were considered more important than the tonnage hewn, are endless, even without the oft written about explosions from fire damp and roof falls. I cannot imagine many miners, wheelers, shiftmen or engine drivers began their shifts at ease, nor saw their loved ones wave them off without a prayer. In the course of writing my novel, I’ve imagined their discomfort, the dirt, the wet, and the fettered fear that must have travelled the pit road with all who worked the tunnels. Last week, for a second time, I ventured down a coal mine too.

My first trip underground was mid-2010 when I went down a Lanarkshire coal mine, into the gloom, yet fully trusting of our guide and in the knowing we were down for a limited time and with all the safety precautions of modern-day OH&S. Still I found it unnerving and the prickles jagging up my spine only eased on stepping back into daylight. I was determined though to tour underground at the Wonthaggi State Coal Mine, it being my great-grandfather, John McConaghy’s workplace the last eighteen-years of his working life before ill health saw him retire in 1930.

Regardless of whether you’ve a family history connected to mining, the tour at Wonthaggi offers excellent insight into the workplace/life of a miner, wheeler or shiftman. From the steep trek down a (tourist smooth) path between the skip tracks to the ride out up the very steep incline in a cage train, I found the tour took me not only down into the mine but transported me to another time. Part of me wanted the human voices to hush and let me hear the whispers and sounds of the long-ago workings take up instead. Only the coward in me remained happy to keep it real and modern and focused. A few seconds pause, at one stage, saw our humorous guide, Rod, snapping off the lights to give us an inkling into just how black, dark can be. From then on, though the periodic lamp lighting somewhat injured the pretence going on in my imagination I was most grateful for the light they cast just the same.

Rod told us tales of how the miners used to kick the thunder box before opening the lid for a sit, lest they got a bite on the bum from a rat for their oversight. Yet the rats were the miners’ mates. The miners used to feed them. And if the rats hung around, you knew you were pretty right. But if the rats were running past, you knew to high-tail it out of there fast too.

We writers and descendants are lucky to have such opportunities to hear the whispers of our forebears and vicariously experience a tiny taste of their lives, without the danger, the suffering, the physical and health damage working in any mine (be it coal, gold, tin, or other) can inflict on a body leading to premature illness or death. I’ve often lost sight of some of the harsh realities while writing my novel, which is set in both Wonthaggi and Bothwellhaugh. At times I saw only the romantic side of a different era and place and lifestyle, despite working hard to establish authenticity, but then even war can take on a romantic side in literature. We can paint the suffocating air, the crash and grind and squeal of a hutch careening out of control and slamming into flesh, but I am grateful not have to see and live the aftermath and grieve as men, and wives and mothers did often in days when many had no choice but to follow the pit road. I am grateful as are some I’ve interviewed and read about that those days are gone. Though there are others that equally mourned the passing of such days and a life that was all they knew.

I’ll be proud to see the novel that has resulted from my research published. I’m delighted that the feedback coming already has acclaimed its veracity and believability. Research is my bliss in being a writer, almost equal to the writing, be it interviewing a rodeo clown, climbing down a coal mine, or scuba diving in the ocean. I wonder what on earth, above or below, is coming next…

I’d love to know what type of things you’ve done or adventures you’ve had in pursuit of authenticity in your writing research. If you like, you can leave me a message in the comments.

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No. 510

Or what should be titled “The best conversation starter ever”.

What began as a trip in 2008 to explore my ancestral roots, grew into a niggle that refused to be stilled. Perhaps weeks of researching my family tree and their migration from Ireland to Scotland and on to Australia placed me in just the right mood to be open to the teeming vibration of possibilities I found from the moment I began to walk through the reconstructed setting of the Wonthaggi State Coal Mine.

Writers will recognise that feeling – that stir – there’s a story here. I didn’t know what it was at the time. All I knew was – “it’s here”. And what a setting? What a history? What a backstory?

I couldn’t use my family story because, well, there wasn’t one. Okay, of course, there is a family background, a migration, of good, solid, hard-working people who flew under the radar and left little trace of themselves or their lives. Not in the newspapers, nor in diaries, or letters – nowhere it seemed of note. A lot of people ask if my novel is my family story. No, it is not. But it is their background, their journey and representative of lives lived in the early nineteen-hundreds, a time of mass migration to this country and the age of the coal industry.

I found little oral history to be told either, much as I quizzed my mother, imploring her to search perhaps missed grey areas of her memory that may turn up some trinkets of possibility. But no. My great-grandparents were battlers who got on with life, despite the loss of more than half their children at birth and in infancy, uprooting themselves twice in search of a better life for their family. They made no fuss or show of their lives and seemingly had no desire to record it. But their background, their journey to Australia, the places they lived, those details I’ve lifted and molded to my story. Some extras too, remembered from anecdotes told by my grandmother, embellished and expanded by Mum, have been woven into a work that is otherwise entirely fiction. But it is the small gems of truth that bring authenticity and texture to my story and were a great thrill for me to include beyond the more impersonal, yet invaluable greater research.

One treasure I did unearth during the research is the medallion I am wearing in the photograph at top left of this blog and reproduced below – No. 510. This is a replica of my great-grandfather John McConaghy’s miner’s token. Every time a pit worker went down the mine, he took his token off the board so that the mine management would know who was below and who to search for in the event of an accident. John’s number was 510 for all the eighteen-years he worked there. My grand-father, Ted Nash, who later married my grandmother (and John’s daughter), along with his four brothers all worked at the mine too, though most of them, including my grandfather, only briefly.

I wear the token on a strip of leather, often, and it never fails to amuse and delight me how often a stranger will ask me the meaning of the number 510, or what the medallion represents. I’ve had strangers ask on trains, in Melbourne Central, restaurants, the supermarket, even in London, who cannot keep their eyes from it, and I watch as their curiosity grows. They’re always intrigued with its background too. I’m often surprised how many people are connected in some way to the State Coal Mine in Wonthaggi or who’ve had ancestors working in coal mines somewhere in the world.

Just thought I’d share this gem and tangible link to my past and my story, which, to me, makes it all the more precious.

Writing into the Inspiration of Place

Roman brig – Bothwellhaugh – 1911

During my time in Scotland, researching my novel, I fell in love with a small Roman brig near the site of where my great-grandparents’ mining village once stood. (Bothwellhaugh, Lanarkshire) It conjured for me a strong sense of place and a romanticism that followed me home, begging me to write it into my story.

I knew that it really had no place to sit naturally, so for a long time I gave up on the idea. Until… I needed a short intro to the setting and characters that I wanted to set some years previous to the story.

In my mind, I could see a laddie and a wee lass with him, hiding under the brig (as they called it) and could hear them whispering. The rest you’ll have to wait to find out about when you read the book. I wanted to share my source of inspiration though.

Chris at Roman Brig – Bothwellhaugh 2010

(Special thanks to the marvellous Tom Eadie in Scotland for sharing so generously, and often, of his knowledge of Bothwellhaugh and things Scottish. And for sharing the image on the postcard pictured at top.)

Researching a lost village

How do you research a place that no longer exists?

My WIP begins in a tiny Scottish coal mining village gone from existence some fifty years plus. A common enough story in Scotland. Mighty bings that once dominated the backdrop of such villages have all been removed and little remains as evidence of the hundreds of coal mining villages once dotted across the country.

Research – according to one dictionary – means the diligent and systematic inquiry or investigation into a subject. Sounds pretty dull. Not so.  I’ve found the research for my WIP, a young adult crossover novel, to be anything but… Spellbound more aptly describes it – from day one.

The passion I feel for the settings and era of my novel keeps drawing me back to learn more. Sometimes I have to give myself a serious slap and close the window on research to get some actual story writing done. I can see and hear my characters and place them in the moment I’m researching. Never more so than during my recent research trip to Scotland.

I was able to confirm much of what I’d investigated previously, though I did discover a couple of my “Scottishisms” were incorrect. The matter of a few miles can change the way of referring to the simplest of things. For instance, I was calling my protagonist’s mother Mam, but in Lanark, I’m told, it should be Mum or ma or maw. Also I learned that babies are called weans in that part of the land, not bairns as they are known further east. Small details, yes, but, regardless of  fiction, they must be correct.

I spent time in the local heritage centre and library going through old files and newspapers and found references bearing out my previous library, internet and personal interview research. Old ordinance maps showed the layout of the village and surrounding landscape, not to mention some very un-PC references to the nearby town Poorhouse and lunatic asylum. I was fortunate to meet with a local ranger and spent several hours with him poring over old photographs of the mining village and its inhabitants while he regaled me with stories and invaluable connections to place and time.

Travel takes us not only over the seas to new lands but into new places in the mind. Sights, smells, sounds, the mystery written in the face of a passing stranger all combine with the promise of story. As an avid writer, I was ready and open to catch them passing on the breeze. And, boy, did they come.

On the banks of the Strathclyde Loch I found the village come to life. Echoes of the past vivid in my mind and unbeknownst to me my husband snapped the photo seen here of me intent on writing a scene on the spot. I was so engrossed I didn’t even notice when it started to rain.

Most importantly, I also felt a strong emotional connection to my grandmother and her family that for me was not altogether unexpected but overwhelming in its intensity. I visited the cemetery where my grandmother’s  baby sister was buried in common ground and words cannot explain the deep peace and sense of satisfaction I found in being there.

Now, on with the writing…

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