Pit closures brought a generation of struggle for mining communities. Sandra Dick examines how some are fighting back

The colours are the shades of sugared almonds – sweet pastel pinks, a blushing red, the softest moss green, a dazzling sunny yellow and baby blue.

Lined up side by side, the houses pop against the backdrop of the rolling Doon Valley fields that hug the tight-knit miners’ village of Bellsbank in East Ayrshire, transforming once-murky brown, grimy facades into a chocolate-box scene that has had people travelling from miles for a look.

Some folk, says Bellsbank villager Mandi Tunnicliffe – the granddaughter of a former miner who drove the local coal delivery lorry – were apprehensive when the local authority, inspired by Tobermory’s pretty coloured houses, suggested homes in one of the country’s most deprived areas could benefit from a colourful facelift.

The first strokes of bright blue and salmon pink may have caused some gasps. Now, she says, most people are desperate for all the village homes to be coloured.

For not only have the subtle shades brought a delightful splash of colour to a struggling community left behind when the mines closed, but the blues, pinks, yellows and green have injected a vibrant new lease of life into a village which, much like the grim Ayrshire seams where its fathers and grandfathers worked, had become the pits.

“People are calling Bellsbank ‘Balamory’,” she says. “The houses look fantastic. It has lifted the place and raised the spirits of the people who are here.

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“It feels like we’re no longer a forgotten village. We know now that people are trying to help us and it’s given us back our community spirit.”

Indeed, the facelift has had a remarkable impact on the former mining community.

What started as a simple colour scheme change instigated by East Ayrshire Council’s housing asset services, and which made a conscious effort to involve local citizens like Tunnicliffe in key decisions, has sparked a community effort to tackle problems rooted in the pits’ closures and which, even 30 years on, still lingered.

Invigorated by their new outlook, locals have launched youth clubs which are helping to reduce anti-social behaviour. A food programme is providing nourishing meals using excess food from local schools and care facilities. There are also employment schemes and a multi-agency range of support in place to help improve villagers’ health and wellbeing, finances and to tackle social isolation.

And a small village that consistently ranks in the 0-5% category of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation – making it among the most in need in the country – is now being held up as a glowing example of what can be achieved.

“We were going to re-roughcast the houses anyway,” says Gary Craig, housing improvement manager at East Ayrshire Council. “But it was clear Bellsbank people wanted to make their village special.

“The colour choices got them thinking about being different and wanting something for their community. It was then about harnessing that.”

While few would suggest Bellsbank is ever likely to rival the colourful buildings of Portofino on the Italian Riviera, the village’s success is now being held up as a model for other “down on their luck” mining villages across East Ayrshire.

Praise has flowed in for its achievements and those of a handful of other mining communities such as Cumnock, which has benefited from its proximity to Dumfries House where Prince Charles’s Prince’s Foundation runs a number of training and education schemes. Meanwhile, nearby Auchinleck is preparing its own regeneration projects following the launch of a community action plan last summer which singles out a range of priorities.

However, according to a new report from the Coalfields Regeneration Trust (CRT), despite a generation passing since widespread pit closures many mining villages are still struggling to get back on their feet.

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It says ongoing political backing is needed to address a range of social and economic issues, such as higher-than-average unemployment, child poverty and ill health.

A study into deprivation carried out for the trust says 30% of coalfield neighbourhoods are now in the most deprived 20% of Scotland, with key challenges across education, employment, income and health, and some 17,750 children living in low-income families.

The study has also found coalfield communities have higher rates of 16 to 19-year-olds not in education, employment or training, and fewer 17 to 21-year olds enrolling in higher education. Meanwhile, unemployment is higher in coalfield areas, with 12,395 people amounting to 4.3% of the working-age population claiming Universal Credit or Jobseeker’s Allowance in October 2019, compared with 3.1% across Scotland.

“So much in these communities relied on the coal mining industry – employment, training, apprenticeships all disappeared very quickly,” he adds.

“A lot of Scotland’s coal mining communities have not yet recovered, and there is still a gap between them and other areas.

“Many of these villages are in rural areas such as Ayrshire and Fife where transport systems aren’t as good and it’s not easy to find new work.

“We see young people having to move away to find jobs, and that is not a good thing for a community.”

He says: “There are very real problems but there tends to be a strong community spirit in many places. It’s amazing how people in these places are still proud of their community and can make changes when they get a bit of help.”

Across the country from East Ayrshire to the mining stronghold of Fife, dozens of collieries once provided jobs for tens of thousands of workers, with pitheads from Comrie and Valleyfield in the west, through Cowdenbeath, Kelty and Lumphinnans in the heart of the kingdom to Kirkcaldy, Leven and Methil on the coast.

Lively villages housing miners and their families sprouted alongside. Miners’ welfare clubs provided a social hub and gala days, brass bands and marches were times to celebrate.

However, according to Methil Heritage Centre archivist Gary Nurse, the final pit closures in the late 1980s struck an industrial blow that left deep scars.

“The miners for Wellesley Colliery here called it ‘the city under the sea’, it covered 50 miles out, right under the Forth,” says Nurse, who for years was employed to recycle colliery ashes to be made into bricks. “Coal was the main employer in the area.

“There was employment for everyone. There were brickworks, and the docks were busy shipping out the coal.”

There are thought to have been at least 62 pits in the area, and their gradual demise left a gaping hole that has proved hard to plug. According to the 2016 Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, the Levenmouth area, which includes Leven, Methil and Buckhaven, are among the most deprived in Scotland with particular issues surrounding low income, education and crime.

“At its peak, Methil’s high street was like Princes Street in Edinburgh, packed with shops of every kind you can think of,” he adds. “Trade was booming and people came from all over the place. Now it’s like a ghost town.”

Aid, however, could be coming from a rather unlikely source. The community of Benarty – made up of the villages of Glencraig, Crosshill, Lochore and Ballingry in central Fife – also struggled since the loss of local pits.

A regeneration plan launched there 25 years ago, however, is finally seeing success. An office has now been opened in Methil to help encourage positive changes there too.

“Benarty was very badly hit by the pits closing,” says Pauline Grandison of the Coalfields Regeneration Trust. “But out of that came Benarty Regeneration Action Group.”

Launched to provide training, employment and business development in the area, it has expanded to support a range of local initiatives aimed at improving local people’s health, wellbeing, inclusion, and to reduce crime and anti-social behaviour.

A community lottery raises thousands of pounds a year towards running a community shop, and a former school has been redeveloped as a workspace with 18 businesses.

Former miner Michael O’Hare, who worked in pits around Fife until 1996 and is now a member of Benarty Forum, says mining communities were almost abandoned in the wake of closures.

“There has been a lack of investment not just in the Benarty area, but all the mining areas,” he says. “They’ve all struggled.

“There was doom and gloom here in the late 80s and early 90s, it was hard to come out of the mining industry and not have anything to go to.

“But there’s now a good vibration and buzz around. There’s a good enthusiasm about the area and a strong community spirit.”

The original black gold: how coal powered life in Scotland

Scotland’s rich coal reserves powered industry, warmed homes and provided jobs for centuries.

By the 1680s, every second vessel leaving Scottish ports carried coal. As the industrial revolution dawned, demand grew.

Hundreds of pit villages stretched from Ayr and Dumfriesshire across the central belt, through Lanarkshire – known as the "Black Country" for its countless pits – on to Fife and into Lothian.

Until the 18th century, coal miners were tied by an Act of Parliament which meant they could not work for anyone else without their master’s consent.

New laws in 1887 outlawed the employment of young children in mines, but colliery owners retained huge control over miners’ lives, accidents were common and living conditions were dire.

Terraced miners’ rows began to appear in the early 1900s, laying the foundations for strong mining communities living a stone’s throw from pitheads.

Miners’ welfare institutes provided support and the "Gothenburg" public house system appeared, returning profits to shareholders to use for the good of the community. Brass bands, gala days and miners’ marches bonded communities.

The output of coal in Scotland had tripled between 1878 and 1913 and the sector was nationalised in 1947. However, a drop in production was already under way.

The miners’ strike in 1984 heralded the final chapter. By the end of the 20th century, output had reduced to 6.5 megatons, compared with 42.5 megatons at its peak.

Scotland's deep coal mining industry ended in 2002 when Longannet in Fife was forced to halt production after a catastrophic flood.