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The Scottish Mining Museum can be found beside the A7 in Newtongrange, three miles south of the Edinburgh bypass. It is Scotland's national museum for the coal mining industry, and provides a home for a number of important national collections as well as caring for the above-ground remains of the Lady Victoria Colliery.
Coal has been central to the story of Scotland over much of the past two centuries. A chance of geology meant that a large part of the heart of the country was home to a series of rich coalfields extending from Ayrshire in the south west through Lanarkshire, the Lothians, Stirling, Clackmannanshire and Fife. But although the central belt of Scotland was home to most mining activity, outlying coalfields meant that mines existed as far west as Machrihanish in Kintyre; as far south as Canonbie in Dumfries & Galloway; and as far north as Brora in Sutherland.
By the early years of the 1900s, nearly 150,000 people were directly employed in Scotland's mining industry; out of a total population at the time of around 4.5 million. Scotland's coal industry produced over 40 million tons of coal each year, and powered much of the rest of the country's economy at a time when Glasgow was generally considered to be the second city of the British Empire.
And yet... by the time the industry was nationalised in 1946, direct employment was down to around 80,000 people in 300 mines, producing around 23 million tons of coal each year. And by 1980 the equivalent figures were 20,000 employees, 7 million tons production, and around 30 mines. Today the only coal extracted in Scotland comes from open cast sites, and there are no deep mines in production.
What this means in practice is that an element central to the lives of very many Scots of recent generations has effectively disappeared. When mines closed the shafts were filled, and the buildings - and, usually, even the spoilheaps - were cleared away. Today you can only tell if you are in an ex-mining area of Scotland if you stumble across a pithead memorial, usually to one of the many disasters that plagued the industry, or a miners' welfare club.
Lady Victoria Colliery in Newtongrange was sunk in 1895. It employed a maximum of 1,765 people at its peak in 1953, and closed in 1981. Unlike almost all other Scottish collieries, most of the the above-ground buildings at Lady Victoria were retained after its closure, though the shaft, and other below-ground works, were filled in.
The role of the Scottish Mining Museum is to ensure that the role and national significance of the industry, and the impact it had on the lives of those who lived in mining communities, is never forgotten. It also serves as the custodian of the national collections and archives relating to the mining industry in Scotland. As a result it cares for over 60,000 items ranging from large scale mining machinery and locomotives to personal equipment, documents, and over 14,000 photographs.
The visitor to the Scottish Mining Museum starts in the superb three-storey visitor centre. The ground floor contains the ticket desk, a shop, and an excellent cafe. The upper floors contain a wealth of interactive displays, reconstructions, and sound and visual exhibits to tell "The Story of Coal" on the first floor, and the story of the mining communities, "A Race Apart", on the second floor.
From the visitor centre you proceed along a gantry to the start of the "Magic Helmets" tour. Visitors tour in groups, and each wears a helmet that comes complete with headphones that give information about the different areas visited and the items on view.
The focal point of the tour is the series of walkways around the "Tub Circuit and Pithead". Here tubs full of coal were brought to the surface and marshalled. You can also look into the top of the filled-in shaft, which was once over 500m or 1500ft deep.
Close by is the Operations Centre, containing a series of hands-on engineering and mining exhibits guaranteed to fascinate children of all ages. Another excursion takes you to the winding engine house, home to the most powerful winding engines fitted in any Scottish colliery. The man controlling the winding engine had one of the most responsible jobs in the colliery, and it comes as a surprise to find that he had to spend his days sitting on what looked like a converted wooden dining chair. You can also visit the area in which coal emerging from the colliery was washed before being sorted.
Although Lady Victoria Colliery no longer has underground workings, visitors tour a highly atmospheric recreation of an underground roadway and coalface built above ground in part of the colliery. This gives an excellent impression of the sorts of conditions miners worked in, though without the levels of dust and noise they would have had to put up with day after day.
As well as the normal tours on offer up to 3.30pm each day, visitors can also take one of the "Big Stuff" tours that take place twice a week and include the museum's collection of heavy equipment; or make arrangements to study the museum's archives.