Wednesday, October 13, 2010

When the Earth Sang

As the first of the Chilean miners are brought to the surface, I think of men in my own family history who also worked underground.
In the UK a hundred years ago, one in ten of all working men were miners. * There was my greatgrandfather, the son of a lamplighter, who worked in the coal mines in Scotland. It was to build a better life that he came to New Zealand after his marriage and the birth of his first child - a girl who sadly, died on the voyage. In New Zealand he found work as a carter. But nearly thirty years later, with a wife and eight young children to support, New Zealand entered a depression and he found himself without work.

He travelled to a remote area, away from his family, where he worked in an underground quartz reef gold mine. Perhaps by this time he had forgotten the skills of his coal mining days. He worked as a shot firer. One day he set two charges, one of which went off, and the other didn't. He went back to check (strictly against the rules), whereupon it detonated and blew him up.

Back in Scotland, many of his wife's brothers and brothers-in-law, and their sons, were still working in the coal mines. I came in contact with a distant cousin, who told me of the mining disaster in New Cumnock (where they came from) in the early 1950s. Unlike the Chilean mine, the coal mine was near to the surface, and the land above was peaty swamp. The roof collapsed, and water rushed into the mine. Thirteen were killed, but 116 more were dramatically rescued after several days wait - nothing compared to the plight of the trapped Chileans, but a tense time for those waiting above.

My cousin told me that the miners still have "The Old Rugged Cross" and "Flow Gently, Sweet Afton" sung at their funerals. These are the songs that the trapped men sung while waiting for rescue. Those waiting for news could hear the singing coming up through the earth under their feet. This is Burns country. New Cumnock sits "at the confluence of the Nith and the Afton". So Burns's song has strong local resonance - a sort of "local anthem".

Here are the words:

Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes!
Flow gently, I'll sing thee a song in thy praise!
My Mary's asleep by the murmuring stream --
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream!

Thou stock dove whose echo resounds thro' the glen,
Ye wild whistling blackbirds in yon thorny den
Thou green-crested lapwing, thy screaming forbear --
I charge you, disturb not my slumbering fair!

How lofty, sweet Afton, thy neighbouring hills,
Far mark'd with the courses of clear, winding rills!
There daily I wander, as noon rises high,
My flocks and my Mary's sweet cot in my eye.

How pleasant thy banks and green vallies below,
Where wild in the woodlands the primrose blow:
There oft, as mild ev'ning weeps over the lea,
The sweet-scented birk shades my Mary and

Thy crystal stream, Afton, how lovely it glides,
And winds by the cot where my Mary resides!
How wanton thy waters her snowy feet lave,
As, gathering sweet flowerets, she stems thy clear wave!

Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes!
Flow gently, sweet river, the theme of my lays!
My Mary's asleep by thy murmuring stream --
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream!

If you have trouble with the Scots dialect, there is a translation here.


Kay Cooke said...

I like the interesting and careful way you have acentuated the general plight and point of view of miners the world over, linking it in with your own family's history and with Scottish culture. You have included a lot of well-written information here. Good to look in on your other posts too and the photos of your trip to Australia.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Excellent post,