This article appeared in the Livingston Post February 22nd, 1973. The Post is no longer published. Advice on who to approach for permission to reproduce this article would be appreciated.
As there is nothing better to unite men than a common respect for danger, this more than anything else developed a bond between the workers of this area who formerly entered the bowels of the earth to mine the slatey oil-bearing rock that was the main ingredient of an industry that at one time employed over 15, 000 people.
Discipline in the pits was at all times strict, and anyone who broke the stringent code of conduct could expect no mercy from men or management, and instant dismissal that also meant at one time diving up tenancy of an oil company house, could have life-long repercussions on a man and his family.
The method of mining shale being on a piece-rate basis, the hutches or tubs that were filled at the face were marked with a special disc in order that the weighman on the pit head could accredit the weight to the correct miner. To tamper or change a man's disc on a hutch was an offence that had no equal in the mines, and anyone found guilty of such an offence was also afflicted with a lifetime of suffering, as this was conduct that no one connected with the shale mining industry could ever forgive.
Although the work in the pits was hard and dangerous the light-hearted incidents were frequent, with the humorous stories and unforgettable characters who made them funny being numerous. Many of the anecdotes still are the basis of conversation, and it will be for many years to come in places like Livingston Station and Calder when former miners and their families meet.
In the days when facemen employed their own drawers to fill the shale and push the hutches to the haulage that carried them to the pit bottom, a considerable amount of hiring and firing was carried out as drawers changed employer for better conditions, and facemen changed the men under their charge to get the best workers. This sacking and hiring was normally done on the pit head on a Friday when the pay-out was made, or in the pub on a Saturday night with the exchange of only a few words. There is a story well known in the area of one drawer whose services were dispensed with in a more formal manner however, as he was in receipt of a letter that summed up conditions in the shale mines at that time in the following terms. "Due to the diabolical circumstances appertaining in the industry over which we have no control, speed is an essential commodity in which you are somewhat lacking, and as a result you give me no alternative but to dispense with your services forthwith."
As places in the pit were double shifted, with the money earned being shared, it was the custom to inform your workmate of the work that had been done and the conditions of the roof etc. and one story goes that an old Irish miner, meeting off the nightshift was greeted with the comment, "I filled a brace and put up three props", the Irish born miner was quite happy, according to reports, until he found out later that day that a brace was only two, and not the 20 hutches normally filled.
The influx of Polish workers who entered the mines after the war also had its humorous side, mainly due to the incomers having little or no knowledge of the language. All the signs and warnings in the pits had to be duplicated in Polish, and as some of the local workers thought that the incomers were not having to suffer the consequences of their actions on some occasions, the saying developed at that time, "me Pole, me no understand". There was also one Pole, who keen to make a little extra cash, took on a spare-time job in the mornings before attending his work on the back-shift. He was soon to discover however that a man working at the shale face was unfit to undertake additional employment, this message being hammered home when he was awakened by cleaners at the bus depot after spending half the night there, having fallen asleep from exhaustion unnoticed in the bus when returning from his work. The foreign workers soon settled down in he local pits however and became an integral part of the working force, many of them marrying local girls and become naturalised Britons, and are now as Scottish as the Scots.
In the years previous to the wind-up of the shale industry there were men employed in the pit who have become a legend for the considerable amount of work they could complete. One of the most famous miners in this respect was Martin Gaughan who, in a lifetime of employment in the shale pits was respected wherever he went for his ability as they would say in the trade to 'howk shell'.
Although many of the great miners received their reputations as a result of their tremendous physical strength, not so Martin Gaughan, a man of around six feet and slim build, stooping as he got older, Martin had the great ability to use explosives, knowing just where to bore the holes. Employed on the piece-rate basis, miners on the whole were inclined to do everything at high speed, but not so this immigrant from Ireland, as he was known sometimes to sit and look at a face for a quarter of an hour, deciding how and where to set his explosives.
A special bonus was paid to drawers who in any one week could fill 100 tons and over, and many men for their ability to receive payment of this additional money, regularly made names for themselves. In Burngrange Pit, West Calder, one Bill Kear beat all records in this respect when he completed the feat, that was no mean achievement, every week for over a year. There are other 'hundred tunners' whose names come easily to mind, such as Jimmy Kilday, who incidentally was, and possibly still is, the Scottish pie-eating champion, Charlie Calder from Bellsquarry, Jan Szymanski who demonstrated that the Polish miners were as capable as their Scottish counterparts, and many others.
With so many characters and first-class miners employed in the shale industry, it is possibly invidious to select some without mentioning the rest, but two men whose names always crop up when Westwood is mentioned, are the Dolan brothers, Jimmy and Johnny. Although great miners in their own way, they were both different, Johnny who unfortunately passed away a few years after the closure of Westwood, was the strong robust kind for whom no feat was any hardship to complete. Had he applied himself to rugby or Highland Games sports he could easily have been a champion, as added to his great strength he had the will always to be first, taking it as an insult if anyone could produce or fill more shale than himself. His younger brother Jimmy, although smaller and lighter built, was as strong pound for pound, but he was a more scientific miner than Johnny, gained the same results with a lot less effort. They were sons of a former miner, as were many of these employed in the shale mining industry, as the shale companies, by building first-class homes and recreational facilities had a particularly high family tradition.