IV. Serfs – Colliers and Salters.

[Sketches Contents]

THE charter of William the Lion enjoins to all in whose land or possession the Abbot of Scone shall find cum lawes et cum herbes pertaining to the lands of the Abbey, to restore them without delay (Regist. de Scon, No. 36). The term, more carefully written in the ancient Register of Dumfermlin – Cumerlache, Cumberlache – in connexion with a similar precept of David I., is there translated on the margin, by the scribe of the Register – for the benefit of such of the convent as knew no Gaelic – fugitivi (Regist. de. Dunfermlyn, pp. 6, 17), and the royal writs seem merely to be for enforcing the common law for recovery of runaway serfs.

Something has been said of nativi and serfs in Scotland in the Middle Ages (p. 141), and of their value and the progress of their manumission. Lawyers know that it was decided by the Scotch Court earlier than the English, that a negro slave brought from the plantations where the law enforced slavery, became free by coming to this country (Case of Knight, Jan. 15th, 1778.)

I see no reason to believe that the bondage of colliers and salters was a vestige, or at all derived from the mediæval serfdom. Stair, who cared little about native customary law, jumps from the Roman and Jewish law of servitude to modern times, and, taking notice of the English villains, says that “in Scotland there is no such thing.” Erskine has a chapter on the law of colliers and salters, whom he calls “necessary servants,” but pushes it no higher than the Act of Parliament, 1606, c. 11, which, indeed, from its phraseology, appears plainly to be the introduction of a new condition, and not the declaration of an old common law custom.

The strange fact of our own age and country having witnessed servitude as degrading as negro slavery, attracted the attention of two writers [Hugh Miller & Lord Cockburn], whom I must be permitted to quote. Hugh Miller describes a village of colliers in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh:-

   “One of these villages, whose foundations can no longer be traced, occurred in the immediate vicinity of Niddry Mill. It was a wretched assemblage of dingy, low-roofed, tile-covered hovels, each of which perfectly resembled all the others, and was inhabited by a rude and ignorant race of men, that still bore about them the soil and stain of recent slavery. Curious as the fact may seem, all the older men of that village, though situated little more than four miles from Edinburgh, had been born slaves. Nay, eighteen years later (in 1842), when Parliament issued a Commission to inquire into the nature and results of female labour in the coal-pits of Scotland, there was a collier still living that had never been twenty miles from the Scottish capital, who could state to the Commissioners that both his father and grandfather had been slaves, that he himself had been born a slave, and that he had wrought for years in a pit in the neighbourhood of Musselburgh ere the colliers got their freedom. Father and grandfather had been parishioners of the late Dr. Carlyle of Inveresk. They were contemporary with Chatham and Cowper and Burke and Fox; and at a time when Granville Sharpe could have stepped forward, and effectually protected, in virtue of his own statute, the runaway negro who had taken refuge from the tyranny of his master in a British port, no man could have protected them from the Inveresk laird, their proprietor, had they dared to exercise the right, common to all Britons besides, of removing to some other locality, or of making choice of some other employment. Strange enough, surely, that so entire a fragment of the barbarous past should have been thus dovetailed into the age not yet wholly passed away! I regard it as one of the more singular circumstances of my life, that I should have conversed with Scotchmen who had been born slaves. The collier-women of this village – poor overtoiled creatures, who carried up all the coal from under ground on their backs, by a long turnpike stair inserted in one of the shafts – bore more of the marks of serfdom still about them than even the men. How these poor women did labour, and how thoroughly, even at this time, were they characterized by the slave nature! It has been estimated by a man who well knew them – Mr. Robert Bald – that one of their ordinary day’s work was equal to the carrying of a hundredweight from the level of the sea to the top of Ben Lomond. They were marked by a peculiar type of mouth, from which I learned to distinguish them from all the other females of the country. It was wide, open, thick-lipped, projecting equally above and below, and exactly resembled that which we find in the prints given of savages in their lowest and most degraded state, in such narratives of our modern voyagers, as, for instance, the Narrative of Captain Fitzroy’s Second Voyage of the Beagle.‘ During, however, the lapse of the last twenty years, this type of mouth seems to have disappeared in Scotland. It was accompanied with traits of almost infantile weakness. I have seen these collier-women crying like children when toiling under their load along the upper rounds of the wooden stair that traversed the shaft, and then returning, scarce a minute after, with the empty creel, singing with glee. The collier houses were chiefly remarkable for being all alike, outside and in: all were equally dingy, dirty, naked, and uncomfortable. I first learnt to suspect, in this rude village, that the democratic watchword, ‘Liberty and Equality,’ is somewhat faulty in its philosophy. Slavery and Equality would be nearer the mark. Wherever there is liberty, the original differences between man and man begin to manifest themselves in their external circumstances, and the equality straightway ceases. It is through slavery that equality, among at least the masses, is to be fully attained.”1

Another writer, to whom all must look with gratitude who feel an interest in Scotch manners, and the changes taking place so rapidly around us, has written of the last British slaves thus:-

   “There are few people who know that so recently as 1799 there were slaves in this country. Twenty-five years before, that is, in 1775, there must have been thousands of them; for this was then the condition of all our colliers and salters. They were literally slaves. They could not be killed nor directly tortured; but they belonged, like the serfs of an older time, to their respective works, with which they were sold as a part of the gearing. With a few very rigid exceptions, the condition of the head of the family was the condition of the whole house. For though a child, if never entered with the work, was free, yet entering was its natural and almost certain destination; for its doing so was valuable to its father, and its getting into any other employment in the neighbourhood was resisted by the owner. So that wives, daughters, and sons, went on from generation to generation under the system which was the family doom. Of course it was the interest of a wise master to use them well, as it was to use his other cattle well. But, as usual, the human animal had the worst of it. It had rights, and could provoke by alluding to them. It could alarm and mutiny. It could not be slain, but it had no protection against fits of tyranny or anger. We do not now know much of their exact personal or domestic condition. But we know what their work makes them, even when they are free, and within the jealous benevolence of a softer age. We know that they formed a separate and avoided tribe, as to a great extent they still do, with a language and habits of their own. And we know what slavery even in its best form is and does. The completeness of their degradation is disclosed by one public fact. The Statute passed in 1701, which has been extolled as the Scotch Habeas Corpus Act, proceeds on the preamble that “Our Sovereign Lord, considering it is the interest of all his good subjects that the liberty of their persons be duly secured,” yet, while introducing regulations against “wrongous imprisonment and undue delays in trials,” the statute contains these words:- “And sicklike it is hereby provided and declared that this present Act is noways to be extended to colliers or salters.” That is, being slaves, that they had no personal liberty to protect. These facts enable us to understand the hereditary blackguardism, which formed the secondary nature of these fixed underground gipsies, and the mysterious horror with which they were regarded, and which, in a certain degree, attaches to all subterranean labourers. The first link of their chain was broken in 1775, by the 15th Act of George III. cap. 28. It sets out on the preamble, that ‘many colliers and salters are in a state of slavery and bondage.’ It emancipates future ones entirely, that it, those who, after the 1st of July 1775, ‘shall begin to work as colliers and salters.’ But the existing ones were only liberated gradually; those under 21 in seven years; those between 21 and 35 in ten years. The liberation of the father was declared to liberate his family. And the freed were put under the Act 1701. But this measure, though effective in checking new slavery, was made very nearly useless in its application to existing slaves, by one of its conditions. Instead of becoming free by mere lapse of time, no slave obtained his liberty unless he instituted a legal proceeding in the Sheriff Court, and incurred all the cost, delay, and trouble of a law-suit; his capacity to do which was extinguished by the invariable system of masters always having their workmen in their debt. The result was that, in general, the existing slave was only liberated by death. But this last link was broken in June 1799, by the 39th George III. cap. 58, which enacted, that from and after its date, ‘all the colliers in Scotland who were bound colliers at the passing of the 15th George III. cap, 29, shall be free from their servitude.’ This annihilated the relic. These two statutes seem to have been neither the effect nor the cause of any public excitement. I do not see either of them even mentioned in the Scots Magazine. People cared nothing about colliers on their own account, and the taste for improving the lower orders had not then begun to dawn.” – Lord Cockburns Memorials of his Time.

The following extract is from Ruddiman’s Weekly Mercury, September 16, 1778:-

   “Last week the colliers under the Earl of Abercorn wrote a letter to his lordship, thanking him for the active part he had taken in Parliament to relieve them and their brethren in Scotland from perpetual slavery, under the oppressive power of which they had long groaned,.. and entreated his lordship to allow them to come up in a body, before the house, to testify their gratitude for so humane and so noble an action. Accordingly, on the 11th September, about fifty colliers, accompanied by about 2000 spectators, marched to Lord Abercorn’s house, at Duddingstone, with colours flying. There they were hospitably entertained, and, after spending the day in innocent amusement, they departed, saying that the 11th September would be a day held in remembrance by them and their posterity.”

1  The Act for manumitting [freeing] our Scotch colliers was passed in the year 1775, forty-nine years prior to the date of my acquaintance with the class at Niddry. But though it was only such colliers of the village as were in their fiftieth year when I knew them (with, of course, all the older ones), who had been born slaves, even its men of thirty had actually, though not nominally, come into the world in a state of bondage, in consequence of certain penalties attached to the emancipating act, of which the poor ignorant workers under ground were both too improvident and too little ingenious to keep clear. They were set free, however, by a second Act, passed in 1799. The language of both these Acts, regarded as British ones of the latter half of the last century, and as bearing reference to British subjects living within the limits of the island, strikes with startling effect. “Whereas,” says the preamble of the older Act – that of 1775 – “by the statue law of Scotland, as explained by the judges of the courts of law there, many colliers, and coal-bearers, and salters, are in a state of slavery or bondage, bound to the collieries or salt works where they work for life, transferable with the colliers and salt works; and whereas the emancipating,” etc. Etc. A passage in the preamble of the Act of 1799 is scarce less striking: it declares that, notwithstanding the former Act, “many colliers and coal-bearers still continue in a state of bondage” in Scotland. The history of our Scotch colliers would be found a curious and instructive one. Their slavery seems not to have been derived from the ancient times of general serfship, but to have originated in comparatively modern Acts of the Scottish Parliament, and in decisions of the Court of Session, – in Acts of Parliament in which the poor ignorant subterranean men of the country were, of course, wholly unrepresented, and in decisions of the Court in which no agent of theirs ever made appearance in their behalf.”