IT is 1978 and my grandmother holds me proudly in her arms, squinting into the sun on a summer afternoon.

There are other images, too, a sea of faces smiling towards the camera. People lounge on the newly-planted grass, chatting and sharing stories. The joy is palpable as old friends and long-lost kin embrace.

It is the first annual “Pailis” reunion. I have no memories of that June day – I was only six months old – but I grew up hearing stories about Bothwellhaugh, the former mining village in Lanarkshire known as the Pailis, a fond colloquialism for the Hamilton Palace Colliery.

In my mind’s eye it has achieved an almost mythical status akin to Atlantis, not least because much of the site where this tight-knit community resided now lies beneath the waters of the loch in Strathclyde Country Park.

After the pit closed in 1959 – the last of the tenement rows were demolished in 1965 – those who worked and lived here were scattered to the four winds. While some were rehoused nearby in Bellshill, Motherwell and Hamilton, others emigrated to Australia, Canada and the United States.

Yet, each year on the first Saturday in June – the traditional date for the Miners’ Gala Day – those who could would faithfully return to congregate around the stone memorial cairn erected where the heart of the village stood, the decades melting away as former inhabitants were reunited.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the formation of the Bothwellhaugh Ex-Residents Committee. My late gran, Mary Currie, was among its enthusiastic founders back in 1977. Their goal was to keep the memories and camaraderie of the village alive.

Today, though, the number of those who remember first hand life in the Pailis are dwindling fast. It is a real fear that large parts of this rich oral history could be lost. One idea mooted by the current committee is to create a museum with a site earmarked within Strathclyde Country Park.

HeraldScotland: Herald writer Susan Swarbrick holds the sign at a Bothwellhaugh reunion in the 1980s.Herald writer Susan Swarbrick holds the sign at a Bothwellhaugh reunion in the 1980s.

While still in the early stages of drawing up plans to secure funding, it is hoped that a centre – proposed for a former farm cottage – could open as early as next summer.

Many years have passed since I attended a Bothwellhaugh reunion. But last June, my mother – herself a Pailis wean – and I made our way to the cairn, nestled beneath chestnut trees and partially shrouded by thick rhododendrons.

The reunions of my childhood always had a sense of occasion. People set up deckchairs and laid out picnics on tartan blankets. There was mingling and laughter and even the odd singsong. But on this day, the only shrieks of excitement are those drifting over from the M&D’s theme park.

Former residents Jim McGarrity and George McPhee are there to meet us. It is a far cry from the 200-strong contingent – as reported in our sister paper the Evening Times – that turned out that first year in 1978. Both men are Pailis born and bred.

McGarrity’s father – also called Jim – was a face worker in the pit, while McPhee’s parents George and Margaret ran the village newsagent out of their room and kitchen, then later a converted railway wagon.

McPhee, 71, has brought several large storage containers. They are packed with ring binders containing old snapshots, yellowing newspaper cuttings and copies of census documents alongside birth, death and marriage certificates.

We spend a good hour leafing through and reminiscing. “I have such fond memories of the Pailis and growing up there,” says McGarrity. “One of the biggest things that stayed with me is the sense of freedom.”

It is a sentiment reiterated by McPhee. “During the school holidays the Clyde was our playground – we learned to swim in there,” he says. “You would get a jeely piece and out you would go for the rest of the day. Sometimes you would take a couple of tatties to fling on a fire to cook.”

McGarrity’s eyes twinkle. “We would play on the coal bing – even though we were told not to,” he adds. “And in the gum pond, or the gummy as it was known. Without fail you would be caught because the black stickiness was always evident in your shoes and bare feet.”

The village of Bothwellhaugh stood on the banks of the Clyde and was built in 1884 for miners employed by the Bent Colliery Company and their families.

The coal produced here was high quality and sought after for industrial use, particularly as fuel for steam trains, with much of it exported to Argentinian railway companies. The Flying Scot’s record run to London is reputed to have used Pailis coal.

HeraldScotland: Picture courtesy of North Lanarkshire CouncilPicture courtesy of North Lanarkshire Council

By 1911, the colliery’s initial crew of 14 miners had swelled to a thriving community of 2,500 people. There was a church, two schools, a miner’s welfare club and 450 homes. Life was hard and the work dangerous. Families lived cheek by jowl. But while people had little money, they made up for it in generosity of spirit.

McPhee was one of seven children. He lived in Haugh Place where his family had their paper shop until they left the Pailis in 1959. “It was a two-room house and five of us slept in the one bed,” he says. “There was the shop counter, a wee space in between, then our bed. When people came in for their paper at 6am we would still be there sleeping.”

His brother John is one of the village’s most famous sons: a Motherwell FC midfielder in the 1950s and 60s. Sir Matt Busby’s wife Jean worked at the pit head where the coal was screened and graded. Footballing legend Sir Matt would often have a kickabout with local children when he visited.

The mother of the late foreign secretary Robin Cook also lived in Bothwellhaugh and Scottish National Party MSP Richard Lyle was born there.

Amid much guffawing, McPhee, a retired joiner, recounts many a happy afternoon spent seeking adventures in their natural playground. “When I was a kid we used to love it when the farm tractor came in with hay for the pit ponies,” he says. “It would go back and forth to the farm with us riding on the back.”

Beside him, McGarrity chips in. “That’s when you found out who your true friends were,” he laughs. “Everyone would be pushing each other off the back of the trailer. If they were your pal, they let you on.”

McGarrity, 77, a retired electrician, remembers how his house in Douglas Place had one toilet for two families. “It wasn’t your dream scenario but you got by,” he says. “Our neighbour was a great singer and you always knew Robert was in the toilet because he would be belting out songs.”

McGarrity had his tonsils removed lying on the kitchen table aged eight. “It cost five guineas,” he says. “I remember the mask going over my face to knock me out and when I came round I was in the set-in bed. I got ice-cream afterwards.”

McGarrity left Bothwellhaugh at 21 to begin his armed forces training. “I was one of the last men to do National Service in 1960,” he says. “It was hard leaving. By the time I returned from the army in 1963, the village was being demolished.

“I saw my old house coming down. I picked up two bricks and put them in the back of my van. At that time I was staying in Motherwell and I sat them into the garden. When I moved house I never took them with me and that’s always been a regret.”

HeraldScotland: Picture courtesy of North Lanarkshire CouncilPicture courtesy of North Lanarkshire Council

He is sanguine about the bond among former residents. “It is heartfelt, hen. I could talk for hours about Bothwellhaugh. When we all meet up it is wonderful. There are such close ties among Pailis folk. Sadly, as the years pass, there are fewer of us left.”

As they speak about their early lives, there are echoes of my roots. Three generations of my family came from Bothwellhaugh. My great-grandfather, John Davidson, was the winding engine man at the pit. He operated the lift that took everyone and everything up and down the mine shaft.

His only daughter Mary – my gran – was born at Avon Place in 1924 and moved to Raith Place when she was two, which became her home for the next 34 years.

While many of the other girls took jobs at the laundry in nearby Bothwell after leaving school at 14, my gran was encouraged by my great-grandmother to train as a hairdresser. It was there she met and fell in love with my papa, John Currie, who worked in the butcher’s shop.

Ten days before her 15th birthday, the Second World War began. Her elder brothers John and Walter were called up. Tam was exempt as the pit blacksmith.

My papa was called up to serve in the army at 19. He was sent to the Netherlands where his job was to drive supply trucks to the front line. Back home in Bothwellhaugh, my gran would listen as the German bombers flew overhead, following the river to Clydebank.

Her brother John was killed during the invasion of Sicily in 1943. A year earlier her father, bed-ridden following a stroke, had died. Her mother survived the war years only to die in 1945 after suffering complications from stomach surgery.

Then 21, my gran took over paying rent at the family home. It was there she would raise her two eldest children – my mum and uncle – setting up a hairdressing business in the room and kitchen. As one of the newer houses further out from the pit head, it was slightly more highspec.

“I didn’t realise how posh we were with an inside toilet and the front and back door,” my mum tells me. “With your gran being a hairdresser she had what was called a geyser so we had hot water as well.”

HeraldScotland: Picture courtesy of North Lanarkshire CouncilPicture courtesy of North Lanarkshire Council

Earlier, walking to the cairn, we map out the geography. “Most of where the village stood would be under the water now,” she says. “Where the rowing tower is at the north end of the loch is roughly where our house in Raith Place was. M&D’s theme park is approximately where the bing was. The cairn was built where the centre of the village would have been.”

My family moved to Bellshill in 1960, the year after the pit closed. Afterwards my gran continued to run the weekly Darby and Joan Club for pensioners.

When the village was demolished, she loaded up a pram with bricks from her former house and pushed it up the hill to Bellshill. My papa laid them as a path in the back garden so that her beloved Pailis would always be with her.

Strathclyde Country Park was officially opened in 1978. The Clyde had been re-routed and the former Calder Pond incorporated into the new Strathclyde Loch.

The bing had disappeared to build the M74 motorway on the other side of the river, but familiar landmarks such as Raith Cottage and parts of the tree line remained.

In 1980, the memorial cairn was built to commemorate the war dead and those killed in the pit. Before it was sealed, a time capsule was placed inside.

Among the keepsakes was a book containing the names of many former villagers. My gran included the Boys Brigade bible that had belonged to her late brother John who died in the war.

Only a short walk from the cairn is the former farm cottage, lying empty and in a state of neglect, that it is hoped could be renovated for the museum. It is the only manmade structure that remains of Bothwellhaugh.

Former Pailis resident Pat Ryan, 69, who hails from a family of miners – his grandfather, father and four uncles worked at the Hamilton Palace Colliery – is among those backing the project.

“It has always felt unfortunate that there was nothing left of the Pailis,” he says. “They had pulled everything down. This is the last standing solid building. I think it is important to keep that.”

The cottage holds special significance for Alistair Griffiths, whose mother Isabel lived there as a child when his grandfather Sandy worked as ploughman at nearby Raith Farm.

HeraldScotland: Picture courtesy of North Lanarkshire CouncilPicture courtesy of North Lanarkshire Council

Griffiths – whose late father Joe was a founding committee member alongside my gran and McGarrity’s father Jim – would love to see fresh life breathed into the Pailis story.

“I was 13 when we left the village to move to Bellshill – about six months before it was demolished,” he says. “I was sad when it was knocked down, but it affected my dad even more. He never forgot his roots and didn’t settle anywhere else.

“In his later life, when he had dementia, my dad would say he wanted to go home. And by home he meant the Pailis, rather than the house in Bellshill where he lived for 32 years.

“There was a real sense of grief. It was a big wrench leaving Bothwellhaugh because everyone knew and helped one another. Things were different in the big towns.”

Griffiths’ father, a plasterer and slater, captured everyday scenes on 8mm cine film. The poignant home movies show people going to church, the Co-op closing, residents moving out of their tenements, children sliding down the bings and the last wedding in the village.

Griffiths, 65, reveals his father gave up cigarettes to save enough money to buy a camera and later organised a surprise screening of the footage at the miner’s welfare club that went down a treat. This collection was restored by historians at the Scottish Film and Television Archive in 1999.

“After he retired my dad spent a lot of time down at the cairn,” says Griffiths. “My mum would make him a flask, give him his piece box and off he went. He would happily sit down there and chat to anyone who came along. He wanted to talk about the village all the time.”

There have been copious rumours over the years that the village still lies under the man-made Strathclyde Loch, but Griffiths swiftly puts paid to any such romantic notions.

“Unfortunately that’s not the case. The whole village was knocked down – the bing used as bottoming when the M74 was built – and the only thing that remains is Raith Cottage. That is why we would love to see it turned into a permanent and dedicated museum to Bothwellhaugh.”

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READ MORE: the remarkable story of a Bothwellhaugh coal miner