When life was the pits

6th February 1998 at 00:00
As the mighty winding engine roars into life, the thrill for the child who has just pulled the lever that turns it on is obvious. Polished, pampered and now powered by electricity, the largest steam engine in Scotland is noisy and impressive.

The 1,500hp engine, which wound up its last cage of coal in 1981, is part of the Scottish Mining Museum in Newtongrange, Midlothian, developed from the Lady Victoria Colliery. It offers a multitude of hands-on opportunities to explore science and technology. Operation Move It, for example, is a room of pulleys, gears and wagons with a variety of gradients, which allows pupils to explore the concepts of gravity and friction.

The museum was developed by a working party including representatives from the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum, Scottish Museums Council, HM Inspectors and teachers and local pupils. Operation Move It helped win the museum a highly commended rating in the Gulbenkian awards for museums and galleries, and increased school visits.

As the son of a miner, and headteacher of nearby Newtongrange Primary School, John Brash, was keen to help set up the project, and is on the museum's board of trustees. "It is devised by teachers for teachers," he says. Mr Brash is eager for children to learn about mining, but does not lament the waning of the industry. When he was 15, his father procured him a summer job, to dispel any illusions about mining.

"I saw the dangerous conditions and I saw my mother's worry if my father was a few minutes late. My uncle had to tear his own arm off after getting it trapped in machinery. Most people were miners because they had no alternative."

The museum guides are all ex-miners. It is impossible to exaggerate the difference this makes. Men such as Tommy Taylor, 69, who spent 41 years down this pit, breathe life into the exhibits. He does not romanticise his life. The week before he started work, in 1945, four men were killed in a nearby pit.

Now he tells young people from centrally heated houses, who have never seen a lump of coal, about pit life. The first miners in the area were monks from Newbattle Abbey, who clawed exposed coal from the river banks. Children handle objects such as early lamps and one dresses in miner's clothes, complete with tackety - studded - boots. Mr Taylor tells them they would have had their own long johns and semmit - a miner's vest - but, as he anticipates, they have no clue what came before boxer shorts.

Miners also tied up the legs of their trousers to stop vermin running up them, and kept their lunch in a tin box to stop rats or mice contaminating the food.

Holding up a dust mask, Mr Taylor tells of miners' black spit and adds the kind of detail rarely found in textbooks. "The masks left a red triangular mark. Not very good when you were out wenching."

He points out the site of the former bath house erected in 1953. Before that, miners washed in tubs at the back of their houses. Backs were washed only once a week as the men believed too much washing weakened them.

But Mr Taylor claims the most interesting remarks come from the children. Their most common question is on toilet arrangements - the reply has something to do with shovels and waste trucks. Other children are fixated by disasters, like the one who asked: "Have you ever been killed dead?" Seonag MacKinnon

Scottish Mining Museum, Lady Victoria Colliery, Newtongrange, Midlothian EH22 4QN. Tel: 0131 663 7519. Admission Pounds 2 per head, discount for groups of more than 20

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