Simon Taylor writes:
On a dreich morning in October 2021 a group of people stood in the wind and rain above Knockshinnoch farm just outside New Cumnock. In the group were Jackie Dick, Paddy Dornan, Billy Hunter and Jim McCulloch, four former miners who had lived in the small mining villages of Connel Park and Burnside and had worked in the many pits around them. Former miner Tom McGinn was also in the group, but was with us only for a short while. Local historian Bobby Guthrie, a member of Improving New Cumnock, was there, too, and the group was led by Francis Lopez, a location scout and film-maker from New Cumnock, who had brought the group together. The purpose was to guide myself and my friend Dot Clark, originally from Old Cumnock, around the former mining area and its lost villages. As I am involved with the Coalfield Communities Landscape Partnership (CCLP) place-names project, I was especially focussed on the place-names, many of which had been wiped away along with the mines and villages. However, the morning was much more than that. Jackie, Paddy, Billy and Jim painted a vivid picture of a whole lost landscape and way of life, sharing with us with humour and good nature their intimate knowledge of, as well as their lives in these places.
From Knockshinnoch we looked out over a green, rolling landscape that 60 years ago would have been dominated by coal-mines and bings. Directly in front of us a large bing would have reared up – the Washer Bing, so-called because it stood next to the coal-washer.
However, there is still something to be seen in this landscape which evokes the mining era – the boggy depression in a nearby field. This is called locally The Crater, and it is where, on 7 September 1950, a peat-bog emptied itself into the coal-mine below, killing 13 men and trapping another 116 for three days. A huge crater opened up, pictures of which can be seen on Robert Guthrie’s New Cumnock History website under Knockshinnoch Disaster 1950 – NEW CUMNOCK HISTORY where full details of the disaster and the dramatic rescue of the trapped men can also be found. The crater has to a large extent been filled in, but there is still that boggy depression, and its name, which remain as a reminder of the terrible event. There is also nearby, on the footpath which leads to the Afton Water, a memorial erected to the men who died. For some of the ex-miners gathered in the rain that morning, the Knockshinnoch disaster is one of their earliest memories.
The path which goes past the Knockshinnoch memorial is a short-cut from the Cairnhill area of New Cumnock to the Knockshinnoch pits, and is now known as Miners Walk. However, the miners taking this path had to cross the Afton Water using Gibson’s Steps, stepping stones named after Gibson, the then farmer at nearby West Park (formerly Laigh Park). Crossing this way could be difficult, especially when the river was high, so in the early 1930s a bridge was built, but its central pier was dislodged by the first spate. At the instigation of local councillor Daniel Robertson, a suspension bridge was built, which has survived to this day. The bridge was referred to locally as Danny’s Brig, a name which has now become official, appearing as it does on footpath signposts.
By the time we reached the main road and the village of Connel Park, the rain had stopped and a weak sun was now shining. Ayrshire is strewn with the names of villages and streets now demolished because of the demise of the industries which once supported them, and which they once supported – coal-mining and, to a lesser extent, iron-working. Connel Park has clung on as a few houses along the main road, but once it was home to around 1,200 people, mainly living in miners’ rows (locally often ‘raws’). Billy Hunter had grown up in Long Row, while Francis Lopez’s family stayed in Store Row and Paddy and Mary Dornan had stayed in Honeymoon Row.
Some of these rows were called after buildings – at the corner of the Store Row and the main road stood the all-important Co-operative Store; some were descriptive, such as (the) Long Row, running parallel to the Store Road but considerably longer; some were called after nearby features, such as Football Row (Old and New); and some took existing names, such as the Bank Brae, two rows on either side of the brae on the main road leading to Bankglen and Bank House, or the Boig Road, the road passing the farm of South Boig (pronounced /bo:g/ with o: as in ‘oh’, but the same word as ‘bog’). The most memorable name was (the) Honeymoon Row (official name South Boig Street ) on the Bank Brae, so called because it was the houses that newly-weds went into. Some rows had unofficial names – Honeymoon Row was one. Others would change their name officially, such as Railway Terrace, so called because it lay along the single-track industrial railway line. There was another Railway Terrace at Pathhead by New Cumnock station, so to avoid confusion it was renamed Stepends Road, but it too has an unofficial name – Washer Row (pronounced Wahsher Raw /waʃər rɔ:/) because it was so close to the coal-washer and Washer Bing (see the above picture). It was in Washer Row that Bobby Guthrie’s father stayed. Stepends (/stɛˈpɛnz/ with stress on ‘ends’) was named after a cottage beside the Connel Burn, which, as the name indicates, was crossed at this point by stepping stones.
Near where the railway line crosses the main road was a large building called The Clachan, a kind of unofficial community centre, where miners would come together to relax and play, carpet bowling, dominos or cards. Clachan is originally a Gaelic word meaning a wee village, often around a kirk. It was built in 1904 but it was not named The Clachan until after the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow in 1938. One of the many exhibits at this remarkable event was a somewhat romanticised life-sized reconstruction of a Highland village which was called simply An Clachan, ‘The Clachan’. New Cumnock visitors to the Exhibition brought the name back and applied it to the Connel Park ‘community centre’, perhaps with a certain irony. Pictures of An Clachan can be found at British Empire Exhibition 1938.
The Clachan, along with all the rows, has gone, only the building which once housed the Store still stands.
On the Boig Road, at the very edge of the mining village, is the small farm of South Boig. This is known locally at The Bowen, pronounced The Boo-in /ðəˈbuən/, a bowin or bowing signifying a tenancy whereby the tenant (known as a bower) rents both the land and the live-stock (see Dictionaries of the Scots Language:: SND :: bowin n2 (dsl.ac.uk)). Beyond The Bowen is a small wood on the east side of Boig Road. In this wood stood Ardnith House, built for Robert Brown, one of the three partners of the Lanemark Coal Company, formed in 1865. After his death at Ardnith House in 1886, his son Thomas Mathieson Brown took his place in the company. Thomas is remembered for one thing. In November1906 he sent poisoned shortbread to the house of William Lennox in Cumnock. It seems to have been meant for Lennox, but in fact it killed his carer Miss Grace McKerrow. Full details of this dastardly deed can be found on the Cumnock History Group Website at History – Cumnock research items – Cumnock History Group
The small wood on the site of Ardnith House is called Geordie’s Wood (Wid). We were told it was named after a later inhabitant of the house, one John C. George, who in the 1950 General Election stood as a Unionist Party candidate in South Ayrshire against sitting Labour MP Emrys Hughes (son-in-law of Keir Hardie). Needless to say he did not win.
In Connel Park Paddy Dornan left us and we were joined by Ian Howat, farmer at Laglaff and director of the Improving New Cumnock Co. as well as of J. R. Howat Plant Hire. He is also on the board of The Scottish Mines Restoration Trust involved in facilitating the restoration of open-cast coal mines across Scotland. The two major opencast mines which scarred the landscape around New Cumnock were House of Water a few miles to the west and Hall of Auchincross/Rigghead/Greenburn to the north. These have now been filled in and landscaped, and there is a proposal to keep Greenburn in the energy sector by building a wind farm there.
From Connel Park the group drove south-westwards through the small village of Bankglen, through what had been the village of Craigbank, now vanished, and past what is left of Lanemark Row, known locally as Knowe Tap, ‘knowe top’: as the name indicates it is the highest point on the road between Connel Park and Burnside. Burnside is another decimated mining village which once served the mines of Lanemark to the south-west and Bank Colliery and Brick Works to the north-east.
This had been the home of Jim McCulloch for many years. He was born in the village, in Burnfoot Row, now demolished, and grew up in a house in Burnside. There had been 4 rows on the hill at Burnside. Now only a handful have survived, one of which is Jim’s. Jim was the only one of the four whose former house still stood. Beside Jim’s house a steep brae dropped down to the main road – excellent, but dangerous, for sledging we were told. It was known as the Cowsy Brae (ˈkauzɪ bre:/). There was no explanation for the name, but I wonder if it is the Scots causie ‘a causeway, a raised path or road across wet or marshy ground’. Just beyond the main road at the bottom of the brae is a boggy area through which the Lane Burn flows, and there may well have been a causeway across it leading to the farms of Farden and Lanemark. Cowsy Brae would have been so called because it was one of the approaches to the causeway. It was in the Lane Burn that the bairns enjoyed catching minties (minnnows) in bottles.
The burn in the names both of Burnside and neighbouring Burnfoot is the Blarene Burn (/blaˈrin/ Blareen, with stress on reen) flowing from Blarene Hill and taking its name from the long vanished settlement of Blarene somewhere near the farm of Brockloch (Gaelic for ‘badger set’, a safe distance from Knockshinnoch ‘fox-hillock’, cnoc sionnach, another Gaelic name). It gave its name to Blarene Level, an old coalmine south-west of Burnside out of which the large Lanemark Colliery developed.
After leaving Burnside we drove back to New Cumnock to the top of Cairn Hill on the southern edge of the town. In the late 1950s a council estate had been built on this hill to house families from the surrounding villages such as Connel Park and Burnside, and in 1960 Cairnhill Primary school was opened. It had been Francis’s former paper-round: he remembers vividly how he would see all the miners on their way to the early shift stepping out their doors at exactly the same time, as if choreographed. The estate was in its turn demolished gradually from the late 1990s to 2009, leaving a grass-covered hill, with only the tarmac roads surviving to indicate where the houses once stood. Jackie Dick had lived on the hill, which he referred to as Farden Avenue, named after Farden Farm opposite Burnside. The wind was so strong up there that we struggled to open the car doors, and, on the hill itself, had to be careful not to be blown off balance. It was a stark reminder of just how exposed the place is. This was not, however, the reason for its demolition, it was rather because of a drastic decline in population following the closure of the mines.
To the south of Cairn Hill, the so-called Z I Wood (Wid) was pointed out – or rather its remains. It referred to strips of woodland in the shape of the letters Z and I which stretched across the whole north face of Dalhanna Hill. However, with most of the trees cut down, the letters have been erased.
Although we did not linger on the wind-swept hill, we were there long enough to admire the rainbow over New Cumnock.
We then drove back down the hill to New Cumnock Townhall, recently renovated with a grant from the Prince’s Trust. It now serves as a community centre and hall. Before we said our goodbyes we were treated to a recital by Ian Howat of a verse from a poem he had written:
At the cundie by the lunky whaur the sheugh gans tae the burn whaur the cowpie wis ee-pickit and the braxie hoag was fun
It was inspired not by the coal-mining heritage of New Cumnock but by the farming life which has always existed here, both before and during the era of the pits and the bings, and which will long outlast them. Back to the fields.
‘Back to the Fields’ is the title of an excellent film made by Francis Lopez in 2000 about the history of New Cumnock. A significant part of it consists of the older generation of men and women speaking about their memories of living and working in the New Cumnock area, going as far back as the 1920s. It is one continuous film, the divisions having been made for its presentation on YouTube.
Acknowledgements: My sincere thanks go to Jackie Dick, Paddy Dornan, Bobby Guthrie, Ian Howat, Billy Hunter, Francis Lopez, Jim McCulloch and Tom McGinn for sharing so generously their memories of life, work and place in and around New Cumnock. Additional thanks are due to Francis Lopez for making it all happen and to Bobby Guthrie for his input and help in finalising this article. I would also like to thank my friend Dot Clark for her enthusiastic engagement with the whole project.