The Red Hills of the Lothians
(including Ode to a Shale Bing)
By Douglas Burrows, the grandson of a Broxburn shale miner
The incessant ringing of the doorbell startled Jackie Gray from his shallow sleep. Pulling himself slowly out of his armchair, grimacing as his weight pressed on his arthritic hips and knees, he opened the door and his grandson entered.
“I knew you were in granddad, your kitchen window is open at the top.”
Billy, aged ten, visited his granddad as he never tired of his tales of when he built the ‘Red Hills’. Jackie lived in a senior citizen’s flat, whose windows overlooked those very hills.
He had been born and brought up in Broxburn, where everything revolved around the shale mining industry, sit it was the natural thing to do on leaving school that he should go down into the mines. Later, Jackie was to work ‘on top’ pushing the hutches of burned out shale and tipping them over the edge, which steadily increased their mass to make them the ‘Red Hills’ that we see today, or shale bings as they are called locally.
The work was hard and sometimes dangerous. He used his head, on which he wore a bunnet with a padding of old blanket, to give him that extra leverage when tipping the hutch. Sometimes the wind would catch the shrapnel like pieces of shale and blow them back in his face; resulting in many small scars that were visible to this day.
“Tell me granddad, about the time you just managed to escape being crushed by a runaway hutch. Or the time the roof caved in when you were down the mine. Or when…”
“Hold on! Hold on Billy, one thing at a time.”
Jackie did not mind having such an enthusiastic audience to listen to his stories, as he liked relating them as much as Billy liked listening to them.
Jackie’s wife Sarah had been dead now for five years. They had four sons, two of whom were in Australia and one in Canada. Billy was the son of the younger one, who lived socially.
“You should write a book granddad or even a poem so that future generations will know what it was like in the buildings of these bings.”
“No, I don’t think so Billy. It would be too boring for people nowadays, and anyway, I don’t have the education required to write fine stories or poems.”
Sarah had often said to Jackie that he should write his memoirs, and when he made these same excuses she would take his hand and put it on his heart. “Your writing comes from there, that’s the difference.”
After Billy had left, Jackie looked over to his favourite bing and the memories flooded back. “Oh, what I would give to stand on top of it one more time before I go to join Sarah. Some hope of that now! Especially when it is now owned by the Council… anyway, with my hips and knees the way they are, I couldn’t even think about it.”
Sarah had always had faith that one day he would, once again, stand on top of “Big Red”, his pet name for the largest and his favourite bing.
“Poor Sarah, she really believed it, and now she is gone, and it will never happen.”
The Council had been working on it for over a year to turn it into a mining museum.
As he looked out, Billy’s words were ringing in his ears, “write a book granddad, or a poem”.
Jackie had often jotted down bits and pieces but was too sensitive to show them to anyone. He went over to a small cabinet at the side of his armchair and took out a well-thumbed notebook. He began reading aloud his now finished article “Ode to a Shale Bing”.
Ode to a Shale Bing
Silent and ever so high
Those sentinels stand
Red monuments silhouetted
Against the evening sky.
Monuments to our forefathers
Built of toil and sweat
Broken-boned and bloody
Would curse and fret.
Tearing from the bowels of the earth
Where precious oil producing shale abounded
Thereby the town
On which the town of Broxburn was founded.
Drained of its oil
When crushed and burned
That is how we see it
Now that it’s dead
Changing its colour
From grey to red.
Still smoking shale
Transported in steel hutches
Tipped over an ever growing mountain
Dust blowing back
Like a showering fountain.
The hooter blows aloud
The day’s work is done
Homeward bound they crowd
The chatter of their voices loud
The clatter of their boots
Impressed in my memory
From my childhood roots.
Tin bath steaming hot
In front of the kitchen fire
Black-grained and aching body
Soothed and cleaned of mire.
A hot meal and time to rest
A time to read the newspaper
That is the best
Reading by the light
Of the very oil
That has been produced
By their daily toil.
The ringing of the doorbell brought him abruptly out of his poetic mood.
“Is that you again Billy?” he shouted as he opened the door. His voice tailed off as he was confronted by an official-looking gentleman.
“Yes, I’m Jackie Gray.”
“My name is Michael Hamilton, your local Councillor.” I have been informed that you are one of the only persons still alive who helped to build that bing over there…” pointing towards ‘Big Red’.
“Could I come in and have a talk with you about it?”
Once settled on a chair opposite Jackie, the Councillor started asking many questions on all the aspects of shale mining.
“As you know, we are turning the last bing you worked on into a mining museum and we would be grateful of any technical advice you may have to offer.”
“Of course, I’ll help in any way I can.”
Councillor Hamilton looked at Jackie for a minute then stood up.
“The work is almost completed now. There is a new wheelhouse and one and a half miles of steel rope has been delivered. Also, the new hutches, there is a specially designed one with a seat that will carry the dignitary who will be first to pass through the tape at the top declaring the museum open. We would like you to be that dignitary, Mr. Gray, if you will accept?”
There was silence.
“Surely you have your lines crossed. Me, a dignitary! Opening your museum! I’m sure a local minister or priest or even one of your own Council members would be more suitable.”
“No. It is you we want, Mr Gray. No one else.”
“In that case, I accept this honour, especially when there is a hutch to take me up and down.”
The big day arrived, and hundreds of people thronged, both the bottom and top of the bing. After the hutch broke the tape at the top and all the cheering had stopped and photographs taken, Jackie’s family helped him to the spot that he had always said he had loved the most, overlooking the town. They then left him there, as this part was roped off for him to be on his own.
“Granddad looks lonely dad. Will I go and stand with him?”
“No. He’s not lonely Billy. Your Gran’s with him.”
Jackie’s eyes misted as he looked down, once again, on the spires of his beloved town. Then lifting his eyes slowly upward he said, “Well Sarah, what do you think of your poor mining boy now? A dignitary indeed! Thanks for your undying faith, that I would one day stand here again. See you soon.”