IN March 2002, miners surfaced from their final shift following the flooding of Scotland’s last deep mine at the Longannet complex. They brought the curtain down on a centuries-long historical saga. My new book tells the story of the end of Scottish coal mining. There were more than 100,000 workers in the coal sector alone at the industry’s peak employment during the early 1920s and still around 80,000 in the late 1950s. Whilst deindustrialisation was often a disorientating experience, in the Scottish case, it was not a sudden one.

Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialization in Postwar Scotland tells the story of a profound economic change that ­unfolded over the course of a time period ­approximate to a human lifetime. Its pages span the second half of the 20th century into the ­present, as new shifts in energy sources and employment structures threaten the security of Scottish workers and communities.

We often think about deindustrialisation through images of the 1980s and early 1990s. The 1984-5 miners’ strike looms large in recollections of the end of large-scale industrial ­employment. Other important struggles from that ­period ­include the battles to keep ­workplaces open, such as the occupation of the Caterpillar ­tractor ­factory in Tannochside, North Lanarkshire, during 1987 and the Timex strike that rocked Dundee in 1993. Perhaps it is the demolition of Ravenscraig steelworks’ iconic cooling towers that retains the greatest purchase on ­historical memory. By that time, the closure of such a ­crucial industrial site was collectively understood not just as a threat to a workforce, a ­community, an industry or even the working class, but as an attack upon the Scottish nation itself.

In Coal Country, I explain why we can only grasp the significance of these events with reference to a longer set of profound transformations to the Scottish economy which have left social, cultural and political reverberations that are still being experienced during the 2020s. These changes began even before the peak of postwar coal employment. From the late 1940s, when the mining workforce was still ­growing, settlements in Eastern Lanarkshire around Shotts experienced community ­abandonment and systematic ­disinvestment decades before the Thatcher onslaught hit industrial Scotland.

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When I was reading the closure ­records for Baton colliery that dated to 1950, I came across Abe Moffat, the president of the National Union of Mineworkers Scottish Area (NUMSA) cautioning industry officials during the closure of Baton colliery in the Shotts area of eastern Lanarkshire: “The Board should realise that they were not discussing a mining engineer’s opinion but the social life of a mining village.” During the late 1940s, UK government policymakers and the Coal Board expected that miners would be willing to uproot themselves from their communities in the declining Lanarkshire coalfields to take up new jobs in Scotland’s ­central and eastern coalfields. In later years, miners’ leaders and MPs for coalfield constituencies ­became more critical when the Coal Board began to incentivise Scottish miners to move south to more productive collieries in the English ­Midlands. These steps were interpreted as an ­offence in national as well as class terms.

The early experiences of closures under nationalisation were central to the customs through which deindustrialisation was managed over the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Miners, their families and coalfield communities viewed collieries and the employment they provided in moral economy terms as their collective resources rather than simply the property of Coal Board managers to dispose of at will. They expected closures to be negotiated with trade union representatives and for suitable alternative employment to be provided within travelling distance of their homes. This involved a combination of job opportunities in mechanised modern collieries – known as ­“super pits” – and the use of financial incentives to ­secure manufacturing investment, which ­often came from engineering firms headquartered in England, as well as American multinationals such as Caterpillar.

The tractor factory occupation in the late 1980s may have marked a pivotal struggle against industrial contraction, but the plant’s entire life can be framed through a longer ­experience of deindustrialisation. Caterpillar built their ­Tannochside plant atop a derelict mining village during the late 1950s as collieries closed in the surrounding areas. Former miners, steelworkers and shipbuilders manufactured tractors ­between the 1950s and 1980s, as did their sons and ­grandsons.

The offence caused to the moral economy sensibilities of coalfield communities through the imposition of the closure of productive and modernised workplaces goes a long way to explain the tenor of 1980s industrial protests. Factories, pits, steelworks and shipyards shut without customary amelioration through negotiation and the provision of alternative employment.

Coal Country is based on a highly original combination of archive research with an oral history project. It unveils a persistent anti-coal bias among UK energy civil servants from at least the 1950s. UK energy policy privileged oil and nuclear fuels over coal in part due to a politically driven suspicion of the power exercised by unionised miners and rail workers who dug and moved coal. The records of the nationalised coal industry and the NUMSA gave me access to the voices of managers, miners and union activists and leaders.

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Colliery closure records demonstrate the growing frustration with the centralisation of the National Coal Board that developed as the industry shrank during the 1960s. Minutes of a meeting during the closure of Gartshore 9/11 colliery in North Lanarkshire during 1968 include a union official complaining that “the planning for the pit is done 500 miles away” at the Board’s headquarters in London. A Coal Board study of miners who subsequently refused transfers and attempted to demand redundancy payments instead reveals a long experience of movement between closing collieries and disillusionment with centralised authority. One worker simply responded that “the pits are finished”.

Scottish national discontent fed into the NUMSA’s support for devolution, more popularly known as “home rule”at the time. The union’s four presidents from 1942 until 1996 were all members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Communists were longstanding advocates of a distinctive progressive Scottish national political culture. The same year as Gartshore 9/11 closed, the NUMSA’s president, Michael “Mick” McGahey addressed the Scottish Trades Union Congress where he insisted that his “union firmly believed that Scotland was a nation. Not a region of Britain, not a district, but a nation in its own right and entitled to demand a right to nationhood”.

Earlier in the decade, Lawrence Daly, who stood alongside McGahey in leading the Scottish miners through the 1972 and 1974 strikes for higher wages and workplace security had anticipated his comrade’s sentiments.

WRITING in the pages of New Left ­Review, Daly acclaimed the miners and their families for largely balking at the ­opportunity to move southwards, ­arguing that this was the basis for a ­credible resistance to deindustrialisation in class and national terms: “What is really surprising and impressive is the way in which the vast majority of the people refuse to be uprooted.”

Deindustrialisation contributed to the formation of a national coalfield community. As miners commuted further afield to “cosmopolitan” collieries for work, older parochial barriers dwindled. Distinctions between pits and regions became less significant as miners worked alongside each other under a single employer and campaigned against colliery closures dictated from London. The NUMSA ­consciously fostered a Scottish coalfield identity through the annual Scottish Miners’ Gala, which was held in Edinburgh annually from 1947. Thousands of miners and their family members gathered in the Scottish capital and marched round the city behind their colliery banner. This tradition continued for half a century, only ending ­during the 1990s.

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The Gala was the premier day in the Scottish coalfield calendar. It closely resembled the activities of local gala days, but on a larger national stage. Familiar features of local galas, including sporting competitions, pipe and brass bands and a Coal Queen contest were reprised in the nation’s capital. Scottish miners were joined by other trade unionists and speakers. They included fraternal delegations of miners and representatives of causes that the NUMSA supported. During 1969 North Vietnamese delegates addressed the Gala rally at Holyrood Park as their countrymen were battling the Americans. South African activists engaged in the struggle against Apartheid attended in 1988. Speakers from the Scottish Trades Union Congress used the national platform that the Gala provided to make the case for a devolved Scottish Parliament.

I also recorded more than 50 interviews with former miners, members of their families and other former industrial workers from the coalfields in the course of researching this book. Their memories and thoughts give us access to what it meant to be a miner, a resident of a coalfield community and to ­experience job losses and closures in a fuller way than archives ever can. In some cases, my interviewees could ­remember as far back as the 1930s.

Jessie Clark recalled helping her ­mother pick coal off bings in the South ­Lanarkshire village of Douglas Water where her father was blacklisted by the Coltness Iron Company for his trade ­union activism.

My interviewees underlined the importance of family to passing on political consciousness but also demonstrate distinctive generational experiences of deindustrialisation.

The testimonies revealed memories of ­sexism and social conservatism as well as the danger of industrial accidents, lost limbs and deaths underground, punctuate the oral testimonies I collected.

Nevertheless, Brendan Moohan recalled that “it was pretty good” growing up among miners in Musselburgh during the 1960s and 1970s before he began work at Monktonhall colliery in Midlothian during the early 1980s. Similar sentiments were relayed by other former miners and ­factory workers who recalled the influence of trade union and an active associational life in surrounding communities. It was the loss of workplace power and a working-class presence in local and national politics that they mourned the most.

I recorded my interviews between 2014 and 2019. They demonstrate that deindustrialisation cannot be neatly periodised. It was a long, painful ­process that still shapes ­Scotland’s economy and politics.

Coal Country opens with the annual commemoration of the Auchengeich ­colliery disaster of 1959 that takes place each September in the North Lanarkshire village of ­Moodiesburn, while the recent steps towards pardoning miners convicted during the 1984-5 strike is another reminder that the industrial past very much remains part of our present.

Coal Country examines the long roots of the transformations that have shaped Scotland’s economy and the commitment to combining social justice with national autonomy that is pivotal to its politics.