Architecture and the Face of Coal: A Personal Perspective by Gary A Boyd

In anticipation of the publication of his book, author Gary Boyd reflects on how the architectural traces of the coal-mining industry permeate his childhood memories, and how this led to the writing of his book: Architecture And The Face Of Coal

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When I was a child my father and uncle used to take me for walks along the Union Canal at Falkirk, my home town. The Union Canal is a contour canal, clinging to a specific altitude by following a winding path from its terminus in central Edinburgh to the point where it plunged down a series of locks to meet the Forth and Clyde canal at Falkirk, a descent now negotiated by the eponymous wheel. The path of my childhood walks began with a climb to the canal passing under the main Glasgow to Edinburgh railway line.

From an arched bridge at the canal constructed by the navvies, the vista of the Forth Valley opened before you. From here it was possible to see, with a small twist of the head, a series of vertical forms embodying centuries of Scottish history: the 19th-century monument to William Wallace on its crag at Stirling, the dramatic fires of the crude oil hydrocarbon cracking towers at Grangemouth, and the talismanic (and only recently demolished, 2021) single chimney stack of the coal-fired Longannet power station. To my young mind, however, these things weren’t as important as those immediately to hand. My father – forged in the days before over-cautious parenting – used to let me climb a disused railway signal standard which had controlled a long-disappeared branch line which he called the 'pugline'. Over the bridge was a flat concrete yard, incongruous in its bucolic surroundings of grassy and wooded slopes. There were iron rails embedded within the yard which disappeared abruptly into these slopes. But best of all were the concrete stairs which I used to run up and down, and which, echoing the rails, also went nowhere.

Derelict pithead baths at Dullatur, visible from the main Edinburgh to Glasgow railway mainline. I passed this building at least weekly while a student at architecture school without knowing what it was. This flat-roofed modernist building in the middle of nowhere was a complete enigma.

At some point when I was old enough to understand, my father explained that this had been the site of a coal mine and that when he was a boy there had been a conveyor bridge taking coal across the canal to the waiting railway wagons. This then, was South Bantaskine Mine, owned originally by the Callender Coal Company and worked until 1959. The pugline had serviced another mine, Policy, sited above the town on what later in my youth had been a windswept football pitch surfaced in the inexplicable, inhospitable red ash material that proliferated on football pitches throughout the centre and west of Scotland scarring forever the knees of the nation’s footballing youth. Policy was abandoned in 1960 but its coal yard curiously still remains as a depot for solid fuels. 

The physical remnants of coal permeated my childhood. But the presence of coal was evidently more pervasive than the sites of its production or indeed its combustion within domestic grates and industrial boilers and furnaces. Coal’s position within the crucible of 19th-century industrialisation and the birth of modernity was consolidated in the 20th century. There were over a million miners in 1913. With their dependents, a total population can be estimated of about five million persons directly involved in coal mining. That is one tenth of the population. Coal also fired the electricity revolution of the second half of the 20th century. It was the agent of the modernisation of Britain, the power of, and perhaps the paradigm for, the welfare state. In certain years during the 1960s and 70s, the nationalised coal industry built more miles of tunnel than the entire network of the London Underground put together. Coal was also the site of intense research. It could be adapted to make petrol and other liquid fuels, it was used to make medicines, chemicals, fabrics, and so on. Somehow, it was present in the Zytol (shiny white) toilet paper that hung in the cold toilet of my grandmother’s house.

None of this is to say that, in the knowledge of its contribution to climate change, the extraction of coal is now in any way acceptable. Yet its history – the buildings it produced and the environments it made as it developed, modernised and was eventually made to collapse – remain important: not only as overlooked cultural artefacts, but also as potential lessons for the future.

Site of Castlebridge Colliery in Clackmannan, photographed by the author in 2019. After supplying Longannet Power Station for decades via an underground conveyer belt, it closed down in 2002. It was Scotland’s last deep mine.

This brings me back to the stairs that led to nowhere… Years later my uncle would explain that these steps had led to pithead baths. Here, miners could wash before returning from a shift, ensuring that their homes and their spouses and dependents’ domestic circumstances and workloads remained unaffected by the dirt of the pit. These baths – which would, at their peak usage in the 1930s and 1940s, service the sanitary needs of around 600,000 coal workers – were developed under a collaborative programme involving the cooperation of the workers and their unions, the government, and the mine owners. Moreover, they were designed to be beautiful: iconic works of light-filled modern architecture created exclusively and uniquely for a section of the working class on whom everyone else depended. In turn they became an architectural paradigm for the post-war modernisation of the industry whose 'superpits' and ancillary buildings, depots, research and treatment plants, medical facilities, training establishments, merry-go-round trains, worker’s clubs, sports and cultural facilities and so on, expressed the ups, downs and controversies of the industry as it moved from a critical presence in our everyday lives to its almost total eclipse as a productive force.


Pre-order your copy of Gary Boyd's book HERE.