Knowledge

A Recognised Collection of National Importance
Home > Knowledge > Your Writings > No Clover for the Major

No Clover for the Major

A story of the oil shale mines of West Lothian

by Joseph Savage, Broxburn and Uphall - circa 1950

Joseph Savage was chief cashier at Roman Camp Oil Works until its closure in 1955.

There had been some frost during the night and stars shone diamond-bright in the sable sky. There were diamonds on the road, too. struck from the flinty surface by the rays of Jimmy's bike lamp. He cycled canfully round the icy corner at the Railway Station and eventually reached the pithead Baths without so much as a skid. The heated air swirled round him as he pushed open the glass door. Jimmy Douglas was on dayshift at No. 7 Shale Mine and it was half-past five in the morning.

"Hullo, Jimmy," greeted big Tom, the attendant. "There's a nip in the air this morning, but it's no' Johnnie Walker, worse luck!" The·boy laughed and went along the corridor to the lockers for his pit clothes. They were warm and cosy; the blue flannel shirt, the hand-knitted socks, the moleskin trousers which he tied with string round the tops of his heavy boots with the steel toecaps. An old tweed Jacket and a safety helmet completed the outfit and Jimmy Douglas stood up, ready for his day's work as a pony driver in this West Lothian shale mine.

He was sixteen and dark, small though sturdy, with a chubby face in which twinkled blue, mischievous eyes.

The nailed boots rang on the tiled floor as he strode towards the door, passing the sprays where a dozen nearly naked men were sluicing away the grime of a night shift in the nearby Oilworks. Big Tom gave him a made-up piece and a cheery word and Jimmy stepped out into the cold morning air. Two hundred yards ahead the Mine loomed out of the darkness.

Frank McKean, the pitheadman whose duty it was to see the men safely down, appeared as Jimmy lifted his check off the board at the Mine mouth.

"Hullo, Jimmy, said he, "you're in good time for the first rake this morning. You'll be keen to see that beast of yours, I expect?" .......Jimmy adored Major, his horse, and was forever being chaffed about it.

The boy leaned against a pile of pit props, idly kicking the gound and looking a trifle dejected. "Aye, Frank, I may as well be keen, as long as I have the chance. Have you heard what the vet said about Major yesterday?"

"About his leg, do you mean?"

"Aye, it seems the bone's slightly diseased and there's no betterment for it. Major'll work for maybe six months yet, then he's done."

"That's no' so good," Frank was sympathetic. " But don't take it to heart, laddie. Major's been twelve year's in the Mine, you know, he's almost as old as you. Maybe it's time he was retired."

"Retired!" Jlmmy's tone was bitter. "Retired to the knacker's you mean. When Major leaves here, he's finished. A bump on the forehead with the humane killer, then off to Edinburgh for dog's meat!" "You've got it all wrong, laddie." The pitheadman put a kindly arm round Jimmy's shoulder. Major'll be pensioned off, you'll see, sent to the Company's Farm to eat his head off for years to oome. Ask the Manager, he'll tell you."

"He'll tell me all right, of course he will. There's a bit o' the Annie S. Swan about both you and the Manager, wi' your fairy-tales about the poor old horse trotting around, kneedeep in daisies and munching buttercups all day long. You're a pair o' blethers. There'll be no green pastures, no clover for the Major, in fact, he'll no' even be under the daisies!"

"Man, you're a great pessimist, Jimmy Douglas, the horse will be well looked after yet, give it time."

"I'll give you time, McKean, sixty days' hard labour!" He ducked into the carriage as Frank made a playful swing at him.

Several other men had come forward and were waiting to go down. They crowded on to the iron platform and the pitheadman signalled the carriage away. The bell clanged in the enginehouse and the huge winding drum started to revolve.

The carriage dropped slowly at first down the steep incline into the Mine, then faster and taster. The rocky walls rushed by at dizzy speed and the men gripped the iron rail as the carriage swayed on the rails. Soon it slowed to a stop at the Main Bottom, a clean, dry area with electric bulbs lighting the high roof typical of shale mines. Full and empty hutches lined the vatious railroads and a pump whined close at hand. The men filed out of the carriage and trudged away to their working places.

Jimmy Douglas ran the hundred yards or so to the stables and arrived, breathless, at Major's stall. The big black whinnied with delight as the boy fondled him affectionately, stroking, patting. As the expectant muzzle came round Jimmy took a slice of bread from his piecebox and the horse munched happily.

As Major had been fed and watered by the nightshift pumper Jimmy had only to affix the simple harness necessary for hauling hutches, the swivel-tree, chains, etc; also an electric lamp, as their section was not free of gas. Jimmy secured another lamp to his cap, the slim cable snaking down his back to the accumulator slung on his hip.

The sound of ·hammering came from the next stall and Jimmy hoisted himself up on the wooden partition.

"Hallo, Sandy," said he, "Got a new one?"

A .freckled face grinned up at him. "Aye, it's Jean Kent this time and isn't she a smasher!" And wee Sandy stood back, hammer in hand to admire the latest addition to his galaxy of film stars. They literally covered the walls, a plethora of pulchritude, with the maximum of radiance and the minimum of raiment.

"I'd rather have one of Colin Liddell," quoth Jimmy, whose walls were adorned with photographs of Hearts' players.

"Away wi ye, man," Sandy's tone was scornful. " Ye' ve got no taste. Did ye ever see a fitba player wi' legs like these?" And he indicated the shapely shanks of Dorothy Lamour.

Then his mood changed as he asked: " What did the vet say about Major yesterday?"

Jimmy told him and Sandy jerked a casual thumb at a red First Prize ticket tacked in the place of honour above Major's feedbox.

"No more tickets at Linlithgow Show, Jimmy boy, and no more handshakes and ten bob notes from the Boss himsel'."

Came jingling of chains and stamping of hoofs as the half-dozen horses were led aw ay to the working places. Jimmy and Major clanked towards the South Section, an eerie pair, with their bobbing lamps casting monstrous shadows in the Stygian darkness.

The black walls glistened with dripping water and·oocasionally a snowy fungus festooned the seven foot props that supported the roof. Water squelched underfoot and once a rat scuttered out of their path. The twin rails ran past abandoned workings that yawned cavernously. To the uninitiated the place might have been reminiscent of Dante's Inferno. To Jimmy the veteran it was merely commonplace.

As they plodded along he whistled and sang right cheerily. This particular morning the lilt was "Corn Rigs," that happy tale of a harvest night long ago when Rabbie Burns and big Annie Rankine of Adamhill lived and loved amang the rigs o' barley.

Eventually they arrived at Graham's Lye and the boy hooked Major's chains to ten empty hutches and off they went up the slight slope to their particular group of working places.

The miners blew down the shale with explosives, then the drawers filled the hutches and pushed them out to Jimmy at the Lye. His job was to link them into rakes and run them down to the main haulage to be drawn later to the Mine bottom. Comlng back, Major hauled up a fresh lot of empties to the working places.

So they toiled all morning, the big black never putting a foot wrong, walking sedately behind the full hutches or drawing the empties steadily up the slope. And ceaselessly did Jimmy prattle to him like a mother to her firstborn babe.

Occasionally there came the roar of a shot, followed by the crash of falling rock and the stench of acrid smoke.

Half-past ten oame and "corning," as miners call their piece-time. Jimmy gave Major a feed, then sat down to eat his bread and cheese and drink a flask of tea. The minera joined him, big Jock Russell and Dod Mac lean, Kenny Grant and Danny Rodgers, Andrew Macmillan, Teodorski and Siennicki, the Poles.

There was also, alas, Puggie Kerr, an uncouth lout who had taken a vicious dislike to the popular Jimmy and baited him at every opportunity. He knew the boy's weakness for his horse and played on it.

"Has Major been learning any new tricks lately?" asked Jock Russell, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "They tell me you picked up a good one at the circus last week."

Jimmy sprang to his feet, ever eager to demonstrate his pet's cleverness. "Aye, Jock, I'll show you what the clown did. He pretended he didna want to leave the ring, but his pony put its muzzle in the small o' his back and shoved him out, like this..." And as the boy feigned reluctanc to move, Major valiantly nosed him along the hutch road.

"Damn good, laddie," commented wee Kenny Grant. "I'm pleased to see that cuddy o' yours can do more than pinch the piece oot o' our jacket pockets!"

But one spectator was not amused. "Ach, we're fed up wi' you and that knock-kneed nag. Ca' that a blanketty trick!" Puggie Kerr spat contemptuously, bent down, and suddenly heaved a lump of shale at Major. It struck the sore leg and the frightened horse clattered back, neighing in pain. Jimmy grabbed a large stone and let fly at Kerr, but missed.

"I'll murder ye for that, ye wee swine!" and the bully lurched to his feet and launched himself at Jimmy.

But the wee fellow was too quick for him. Ducking uader Puggie's clawing arms, he lowered his head and butted the big one well and truly in the solar plexus. Down he crashed, mouthing a string of obscenities.

Jock Russell jumped up and seized Puggie. "That'll do ye now, ye'll leave the laddie alone or I'll deal wi' you. A big lump like you should know better than fight in the pit anyway. Get back to your work." He roughly propelled the furious Puggie towards the working place and the rest of the men followed.

Jimmy put a fond arm around his horse's neck. "Nobody'll hit you while I'm here, son.... Wait a minute and I'll see if there's something lying about for you. There was. Puggie's half-finished piece lay abandoned on the ground; Jimmy pounced on it as the spoils of war and triumphantly fed it to Major. As he did so, a shot exploded in Kenny Grant's place.

Jimmy paid no attention. His bootlace was loose and to tie it he placed his foot on a hutch. Suddenly Major whinnied and prodded the boy violently in the small of the back.

"Easy, man, easy, this is no time for circus tricks. Can ye no' see I'm busy?"

But the big black whinnied again, then charged Jimmy tull tilt from behind, knocking him head over heels. He had barely hit the ground when he heard a rending noise and a huge stone crashed down from the roof; it struck Major full on the neck, sickeningly, ere it bounced and rolled to a standstill leas than a foot from the horrified boy. A. rain of fine shale fragments, falling from the gaping hole, scintillated in the rays of Jimmy's cap lamp.

As in a nightmare he saw Major sink pitifully to his knees, then roll over on his side. He was dead.

Major, oh Major!" Jimmy' a agonised cry rang through the Mine as the men sprinted towards him. Russell was first.

"Are you all right, son?" he enquired anxiously. The boy lay with both arms around his pet, sobbing as if his heart would break.

"I'm all right Jock, but look at Majorl He saved my life and now he's dead, dead! And they said he was useless and done!" He sobbed out the story of Major's "trick."

"He certainly saved your life, son, that stone weighs half a ton at least." Jock Russell's face was white. "It must have been a lipe, a kind of fault in the seam, that nobody could suspect. Maybe Kenny's last shot loosened it."

Gently the big miner lifted the boy and led him away. "It will always be a mystery how the horse knew that stone was going to fall on you, son, but he did," mused Jock. Awell, it was a grand finish to a grand horse; he's at rest now.

"Aye, he's at rest, echoed Jimmy; he was more composed now. "And maybe somewhere, after all, there'll be green fields and buttercups - and clover, for the Major."

© Joseph Savage

creative commons

We are happy to licence use of many images, extracts, and other resources of this website under a Creative Commons attribution, non-commercial licence (Scotland). See full copyright statement. Such material should be attributed to Almond Valley Heritage Trust and, where practical, a hyperlink provided to www.scottishshale.co.uk.