HISTORY is underground at the Machrihanish Caravan Park in Campbeltown. Dig into the grass for example and there's a chance you might find the concrete foundations of the old miners' bath house. The locals can also tell you where the entrance to the mine used to be. Nowadays, it’s covered with caravans and fields, but there are pictures of how it was several decades ago: a long, sloping path leading to a small hole in the ground, and then darkness.

The Argyll mine used to dominate Campbeltown, but nowadays visitors might not even know it had ever existed. Now, 50 years on from its closure, there are attempts to change that – an effort to dig up the history of the town’s mine and tell the story of the small industry that existed on the Kintyre peninsula for hundreds of years. As you would expect, the story is about dark and deathly conditions but it’s also about the solidarity and community that was created and sustained by the mine. Here’s one of the old miners talking about it: “To work with miners was one of the best things. I started in a factory but it wasn’t the same.”

Those sentiments still mean something to people in Campbeltown and they are certainly familiar to the artist Jan Nimmo, who heard similar comments many times from her father and uncle, both of whom worked down the mine before it closed. Nimmo now lives and works in Glasgow, but she grew up in Campbeltown in the 1960s when the mine still powered the community and the rumble of the conveyor belt was its soundtrack. In recent years, she’s also been part of the effort to unearth the story of the mine and this week it culminates in a new exhibition featuring photographs and some of Nimmo’s drawings of the old-timers, including her father.

I’m meeting Nimmo at her flat in Glasgow to find out more and it's obvious that there are several distinct threads to the project. First, there’s the story of the mine itself and the people who worked there. Second, there’s the much more personal story of Jan Nimmo and her father Neil – when he died 10 years ago, Nimmo realised she had lots of unanswered questions about his working life.

And thirdly, there’s the wider political picture. The kind of conditions the miners worked in at the Argyll pit still exist around the world, says Nimmo, and she should know because she’s seen them for herself in South America – people are still being injured and killed and still having to fight for the right to join a trade union. The story of the Argyll mine, says Nimmo, isn’t just history, it’s about the present as well.

Sitting at the table in her living room, Nimmo is starting the story with some details of what it used to be like in Campbeltown when the mine was still open. The men were paid around seven or eight pounds a week, she says, which was decent money in the 1960s in a rural community. “It was a really good job in the sense that it was well paid and no-one wanted to work on the surface,” she says. “The men wanted to get to the coal and get the best wages and it was the first time in Campbeltown that there had been decent housing.”

Nimmo also believes the nature of mining created strong bonds between the workers. “It was a happy community,” she says, “People looked out for one another and they chapped one another up in the morning if anyone was late for the bus. The miners also organised a lot of things in the community – gala days and Christmas parties and they would have a fund for the local hospital, drama, art exhibitions. From what I gather, there was total camaraderie underground – there might have been disagreements between people, but you leave all your troubles behind while you’re underground and look out for one another.”

It was not altogether a happy or healthy experience of course – how could it be? Look at some of the pictures of the men and the tiny torches they had to see by. There were also injuries and deaths. In the short film Nimmo made about the mine, The Road To Drumleman, the miners relate some of the common injuries: bones crushed, fingers shredded, eyes lost. And in 1951, miner Donald Woodcock was killed when a block of coal fell from the face, crushing him to death. Nimmo believes that before nationalisation in the late 1940s, the men took risks because more coal meant more money and sometimes the risks did not pay off. “The older mines were treacherous,” she says. “Flooding. Masses of coal falling on top of people. It was pretty much bonded labour.”

Her father was aware of all these problems and downsides but even so he always spoke nostalgically about mining and Nimmo believes it was because of the positive effects in the community and in his family. Neil Nimmo's father had been a miner too, as had several of his uncles. “It’s what people did,” says Nimmo. “There was a sense of, ‘It’s a hard job and we’re tough’.”

She does wish, though, that she had asked her father more about his work, which is one of the reasons she started to explore the subject of the Argyll colliery in greater detail. Nimmo was just three years old when the mine shut down and her father lost his job, but she still has some memories from that time, or impressions of moments: walking in the countryside near her house; letting the cows lick her hands; and crossing what she thought was a stream but which she later learned was a small canal built for the colliery. It was a happy time for her, living on the edge of the green of the countryside and the black of the coal.

The details of her father’s involvement in the mine have slowly emerged over the years. He left school when he was 12 and did his national service before taking a job in the mine. “There was a job for him in the mine and there was a sense that he had to provide for the others and muck in,” says Nimmo.

From the start, it was a tough place to work. One day, he broke his ribs while drilling but worked on to the end of the day before he got treatment. “He was quite wee and wiry, but he was incredibly strong,” says Nimmo. “He had been working on farms since he was a boy.”

When the mine eventually shut down in 1967, it was a difficult time for Neil and the 140 or so others who worked there. The reason for the closure was it was getting harder to reach the coal – it was also of lower quality than the coal that could be found in other parts of the country. But this was a long time before the miners’ strike of the 1980s and there were mining jobs to be found elsewhere, with some Campbeltown men going off to Ayrshire, Staffordshire and elsewhere to get work. Neil, on the other hand, stayed put and for the rest of his life worked in a succession of tough, tiring jobs – working in a quarry, driving lorries.

His daughter took a different path, going to art school in Glasgow, but Neil Nimmo understood – in fact, when he wasn’t working, he loved to paint himself – many of the miners did. He also loved to follow his daughter’s work in a range of media: drawing, painting, collage, printmaking and others. For the new exhibition, at Glen Scotia Distillery in Campbeltown – organised with the South Kintyre Development Trust and with Heritage Lottery funding – Nimmo has completed new drawings of her father and many of his colleagues, her neat pencil lines following the lines of their faces.

Nimmo hopes the exhibition, and the blog that goes with it, will take the story of the mine to a wider audience, but there is a political, campaigning element to her work too about modern working conditions here and abroad. On the wall of Nimmo’s living room in Glasgow are several rows of papier mache heads – cheetahs, pigs, monkeys, foxes and other things. They were made by artisans in Mexico and are a reminder of Nimmo’s trips to South America to campaign on the conditions faced by some banana workers there.

“I got a chance to look at the living conditions, which were appalling,” she says. “People were losing their eyesight and complained of all sorts of ailments. They use planes to spray fungicides. There are laws to say, ‘Don’t spray while there are people on the plantations’, but it happens all the time.” At one point, Nimmo joined a picket line in Ecuador, where she says workers had been violently evicted. Armed guards opened fire and the man standing next to Nimmo was shot in the stomach.

She remembers later having to tell her father about the incident and his reaction. “My dad was going, ‘What you doing all that for?” she says. “What about us? What about telling the story about the miners?’” But in the end, says Nimmo, her father saw the connection. He understood, she says, that in many ways the story of the miners and the story of the banana workers were one and the same, with the same message. “What underpins it all is basic human rights,” says Nimmo. “People have the right to a decent wage and health and safety.”

Neil Nimmo was also undoubtedly very proud of his daughter’s work, passing it around his friends and taking a close interest, before his health started to fade and he died aged 77. Nimmo was only 44 at the time, and had already lost her mother as a teenager, so it was an intensely emotional time. She remembers her father struggling to say three words when she visited him in hospital – “I love you” – but what she really remembers is the strength of his grip on her hand. At the time, she remembers thinking, ‘How can anyone be that strong after a stroke?’

And then she remembered: her father had been a miner and, even at the end, that means one thing – strength.

The Road To Drumleman Community Exhibition is at the Kiln Room at Glen Scotia Distillery from April 22. The blog is at www.theroadtodrumleman.wordpress.com

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