Archive | July 2013

Highland Dancers Never Smile: Scottish Dancing as Serious Fun

Sergey Alferov, Shady Glen Dance School, Moscow

Sergey Alferov is a qualified historian, cultural anthropologist, Scottish step and Scottish country dance teacher, fellow UKA (United Kingdom Alliance of Professional Teachers of Dancing and Kindred Arts), devisor of the UKA Scottish Step dance syllabus (2011). Sergey teaches at Shady Glen Dance School (Moscow, Russia) and runs an online video channel dedicated to preserving and popularizing rare Scottish solo dancing <>. Since 2010, Sergey has taken part in numerous SOBHD Highland dance competitions in Scotland, Belgium, and Russia as a beginner, novice, intermediate, and premier dancer (competitor), having won enough medals and trophies for decorating a medium-sized Christmas tree.

You might have actually seen it. No, not the smile: it is very close to impossible, to see a smiling Scottish Highland dancer. At least, not in Scotland, not when performing a Highland dance, not if a person is a Scot. Of course, Scottish Highland dancing being an international leisure activity, with dancers from many countries coming over to compete in Scotland, one can easily witness an Australian smiling occasionally, a Russian who will definitely smile after making a mistake, an American having brought over a ‘cheesy’ (in some British adjudicators’ opinion) smile from overseas. A true Scot would still probably refrain from smiling. Scots will only smile wholeheartedly after they have done with their competition dances…

VIDEO 1: Highland Fling at World Highland Dance Championship followed by an interview with its winner, David Wilton:

When one starts reflecting on the issue, however, it turns out that there are quite a lot of reasons for a Scottish Highland dancer not to smile.

The first reason is (pre-)historical. Traditional Highland dance originates, as the name implies, in the Scottish Highlands and is deeply rooted in ritualistic and military dances of Highland clansmen. In other words, Highland dance can still speak to us about serious matters, and questions of life and death. These links may not be as direct as Romantic fans of things Scottish would love them to be, e.g., you can hardly expect Malcolm Canmore to have performed a four-step Sword dance with two-beat pas de basque and imperfect half-beat rhythm high cuts back in the eleventh century, when he is reported to have danced over a pair of crossed swords to celebrate his victory over Macbeth.

VIDEO 2: Male dancers perform a Scottish Sword dance:

Nevertheless, these links can be surprisingly obvious. It is widely recognised, for instance, that the Highland Fling, another dance from contemporary Highland dancer’s repertoire, has undergone several changes due to balletic, musical, social, and other influences since the beginning of the nineteenth century, when it was introduced as part of Highland Games competitions. Yet performing the dance to a solo bagpipe can still remind one of the dawn of time, totemic reminiscences, and the deer-hunting practices of pre-historic Celts: quite evenly present in every dancer’s hands, or ‘antlers’, and his or her strong deer-like jumps.

VIDEO 3: Mass Highland Fling:

The second reason for Highland dancers not to smile is semantic, and is closely linked to the first one: warriors and hunters are not supposed to wear an elegant smile when preparing to do battle. And this preparation is exactly what the two Highland dances above are somehow meant to represent. The longest part of another Highland dance, Sean Triubhas, portrays a Scot unhappy about a need to wear his ‘old trousers’ (hence the Gaelic title of the dance). Having successfully shaken off the unwanted garment and (magically, with one clap) replaced it with a kilt, a Highland dancer might be happy again, but alas!

VIDEO 4: The Sean Triubhas

This might be because contemporary Highland dancers have so many other issues to think about, including: maintaining their turnout, stretching their knees and pointing the toes, keeping correct rhythm (quite often more precise than just staying with the music requires), correct positioning, including pre-set height of each ‘working’ foot, etc. etc. Not being trained as professional performers – in terms of working with audiences and developing an ability to adjust to entertainment market requirements – Highland dancers train just for their own fun, concentrating on their own performance and continuous progress in their dance technique. This seems to be movement for the sake of movement and, if one looks at the numbers of Highland dancers in Scotland and worldwide, a highly enjoyable one.

The Sean Triubhas above was performed by then six-time world Highland dance champion David Wilton who, in spite of not being at a competition, could not afford to show anything but excellent, error-free performance thus setting a certain standard for his audience (most of them Highland dancers themselves). This is certainly not the position you can let go and produce a genuine smile in. Not unless you have been coached to do that no matter what happens, the question of genuineness still remaining open in the latter case.

So, from a semantic reason we drifted to a functional one. A smile can become part of Highland dance performance only if prescribed by competition rules (as it is in ballroom dancing or in certain aspects of figure skating) and demanded by most judges. Yet, as we see, such a requirement might not always be relevant from historical and cultural perspectives.

The fourth reason not to smile can be derived from religious history of Scotland. It is well-known that the Kirk disapproved of dancing, especially of ‘promiscuous’ ones, where men could touch women. John Knox’s teacher, John Calvin, believed back in the sixteenth century that all contemporary dance practices were a ‘provocation to whoredom’. In the nineteenth century Protestant preachers drifted from this reasoning to claiming that joyful dancing was sinful because it distracted sinners from thinking of their sin, and lead to feeling joy instead of feeling remorse. Only then the Joy of a truly different kind, the Joy given through our Lord’s Grace. Although Scottish Highlands had a strong Catholic element, and the Presbyterian Kirk was not that powerful there. It must have been considered much safer nonetheless for men to dance with men, not women, and vice versa, without demonstrating their joy too much, just in case.

This is where a competitive version of the Reel of Tulloch originates, with four dancers interacting without any emotions evenly expressed. These dancers were men only at some Highland games well into the 1970s when the tradition was finally abandoned because, one might think, there were not enough male dancers available. Nowadays, without that much of religious supervision, the dance can be done by lads and lassies together and smiling or not smiling remains very much an individual dancer’s choice.

VIDEO 5: Full Reel of Tulloch at Cowal

Our story would probably finish here if there was no such thing as National dancing. This is a group of various competitive Scottish dances originating in Scottish soft-shoe step dancing and character dancing as a performance art. Many, if not all, of them were devised by ‘dancies’, professional dance teachers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who were constantly adopting a wide variety of dance styles, old and new, to their Scottish students’ needs. When the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing were devising their set programme for competitions back in 1950s, some of Scottish step and character dances were accepted to be performed at SOBHD tournaments, excluding Highland dance championships – a superior kind of competitions – the most important of which are annual World championships within the frame of Cowal Highland Gathering. Since 2011 beginner competitors are not allowed to proceed to the next category based on their National dances performance, which adds to an inferior position of Nationals compared to Highland dances. Step dances and dance steps not included in the SOBHD competition programme are on the verge of extinction. Videos of many of them are being collected here:

Old Scottish steps demonstrated

Anyway, let’s get back to (non-)smiling. In some dances, such as the Irish Jig, a humorous representation of an Irish washerwoman (or fisherman?) scolding kids who have ruined her (his) work, a smile would be semantically irrelevant.

VIDEO 6: The Irish Jig

Yet many other dances would, in some observers’ opinion, look much more natural with a gentle smile. Top Canadian dancers do not seem to agree, performing one of the many versions of Blue Bonnets Over the Border.

VIDEO 7: Blue Bonnets Over the Border

The Scottish Lilt might be a perfect example of a dance where there seems to be no cultural or semantic obstacle to an elegant smile. The word ‘lilt’, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, has an ‘archaic, chiefly Scottish’ meaning ‘a cheerful dance’. I was about to write that it has no military connotations whatsoever, but then I remembered it is nowadays often performed to a tune ‘Battle of the Somme’. Why would a lively dance be performed to a tune commemorating one of the bloodiest battles in history? This still remains a mystery to me. Technically Scottish Lilt requires a certain ability to ‘let go’ and move gracefully, without any stiffness or exaggeration. Nevertheless, Highland dances being the core of a competitive Scottish dancers’ training, focused non-smiling attitude seems to be passed on to performing National dances without too much consideration. A long-established habit of regarding dance as a very serious matter appears to dominate the competition stage in Scotland.

VIDEO 8: Scottish Lilt

To finish on a brighter note, although there are quite a few reasons for Scottish Highland dancers not to smile, some of them relatively recent while others go back centuries, more than 50% of contemporary Highland dancers from Scotland do smile at some point when performing on non-competitive occasions, including such exquisite ones as Scottish Highland Dance Gathering at Disneyland Paris.

VIDEO 9: Scottish Highland Dancers at Disneyland Paris, November 2011


Pirates of the Puck: Ice Hockey, Commercialism, and Identity in Inter-war Scotland

Dr. Daryl Leeworthy, University of Huddersfield

Dr. Daryl Leeworthy is a lecturer in community history at the University of Huddersfield. A specialist in the history of modern Wales, he is particularly interested in sport, the labour movement, and the to-ing and fro-ing of culture, people, and ideas, across the Atlantic, especially to and from Britain, Ireland, and Canada. His first book, Fields of Play: The Sporting Heritage of Wales, was published last year and he is currently writing a social history of the inter-war years in Britain.

Living in Scotland between the wars was tough: with high unemployment and stagnation in the staple industries, the streets of major towns and cities became as a desolate landscape populated, in the words of Edwin Muir, by ‘idle, sullen-looking young men’ who hung about street corners for want of anything better to do. Even those who, by fortune, held onto their jobs faced the demoralising effects of the general economic suffocation and the sadness that accompanied it.

Many people have tales of surviving the Depression in their own family histories – few of us, after all, enjoy the rags to riches tales popularised, mythologised even, by programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are. My own family’s past is little different: they lived in a single-room tenement in the west-end of Paisley, then less urbanised than it is today; their clothes were made from hand-me-downs; and for five years my great-grandfather languished without work, occasionally turning to poaching to bring food to the table. They all knew the indignity of a dole official’s sneer and the look stayed with my great-grandparents for the rest of their lives. Few other periods in the recent past resonate so easily with our experiences today.

Amongst the many stories told to me by my grandmother are some about the sporting past of her hometown and nearby Glasgow. She told me of the ‘dates’ that her parents went on to the greyhound track, to the trips to cafés near George Square, and the occasional visits to the Citizens’ Theatre in the Gorbals during and after the Second World War. Now, you might wonder how that all fits with living on the dole but it’s worth remembering that the moral economy was rather stronger then and people genuinely did look after each other rather better. That’s how, up and down Britain and Ireland, people survived.

There was, though, another Scotland emerging out of the misery of heavy-industrial decline: a Scotland dominated by the service sector, with sport and entertainment a key feature. None other than William Beveridge, the intellectual force behind many facets of the post-war welfare state, noted the dramatic increase in the number of people working in sport and entertainment over the 1930s, so much so that between 1927 and 1937 it enjoyed the third largest increase in workforce in Britain. [1] That meant, in real terms, an insured labour force of 140,000, not far short of the 200,000 or so employed by the cotton mills that had been such a staple of Britain’s industrial revolution.

Many sports enjoyed rapid expansion as a result but few had quite the same trajectory of development as ice hockey, which came almost out of nowhere in the late-1920s to employ 1,000 people in Scotland alone by the outbreak of the Second World War. [2] With new, architecturally-ambitious rinks built across the central belt, imported players from Canada, and strong links to BBC radio, this was a sport that captured the possibilities of Scotland’s emerging commercial entertainment industry and did so, successfully, despite the economic challenges of the slump.

Putting it on Ice

Hockey on ice has been played across the British Isles for over one hundred years. Indeed, although we often think of ice hockey as the Canadian game, it has been an international sport for almost as long as it has been played. Cold weather, an annual event in Victorian Britain, brought people out onto the ice wearing makeshift skates or simply sliding around in their normal shoes. Eventually some of them picked up sticks and a rubber ball and started playing hockey or bandy with friends. Artificial ice, too, made an appearance in London in the 1870s. By the Edwardian decade enterprising players were importing rubber pucks and ice-hockey sticks from Canada. Down to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, similar games with similar equipment were played in France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Bohemia (today’s Czech Republic), Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, and even as far away as Australia.

Until the end of the 1920s, though, this was a game played primarily by wealthy elites and university students. They were able to afford the equipment (or, in the case of Canadian students, had their own), could afford the trips to the winter resorts of Switzerland, Austria, France and Italy, and could afford the fees to use the relatively exclusive ice rinks. In the words of one British Olympian, ice hockey was ‘fostered and supported only by the enthusiasm of the players themselves’. [3] To put not too fine a point on it, the best players in Britain at this time were the Canadian Rhodes Scholars at Oxford University. Nothing suggested that a commercial revolution was just around the corner.

So what changed? Above all it was a desire to provide for the popular expansion of ice skating that enabled ice hockey to develop in the 1930s: at the core of most ice rink developments was skating as a leisure activity that could appeal to the masses, particularly to women. Nevertheless, investors recognised that, in the words of one Edinburgh councillor, ice hockey ‘makes money’ and willingly developed rinks that were large enough for the fastest sport in the world. [4] The figures involved were truly remarkable given the economic context. Within just a few years, from 1936 to 1939, the amount invested in ice rinks in Scotland stood at nearly £500,000 providing for facilities in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee, Perth, Falkirk, Kirkcaldy, Edinburgh, and Paisley. Given historian Stephen Jones’ estimate of £1,000,000 invested in the development of ice hockey over the course of the 1930s, the level of provision in Scotland was, per capita, by far the largest across the British Isles. [5]

There was also a growing awareness of Scotland’s potential as a destination for winter sport. When the Crossmyloof Rink was opened on 14 January 1929, the Duke of Montrose, a leading figure in the nationalist Scottish Party (and founding member of the SNP), declared in this vein that ‘it seemed almost a scandal that people had to go to Switzerland to indulge in the old Scottish sport of curling’. [6] The buildings themselves were designed to attract patrons from across the islands. Neon lights lit up the façades in a similar fashion to cutting edge Odeon cinemas. Indeed, with their colourful exteriors, well-provisioned cafés and dining halls, floodlit ice and live jazz orchestras, the rinks were places to see and be seen, to take your girlfriend on a night out, and somewhere to test out those dancing skills. This was modernity in a freezer.

Skating for Supper

Ice hockey, then, exuded glamour. But, the players who filled the team sheets often came to Scotland in much less happy circumstances. Like Britain, Canada experienced a severe economic slump in the 1930s and emigration provided a way out of the hardship provoked by the decline in agricultural and industrial output. For men living in the prairie provinces of Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, or in the traditionally poor Maritime provinces of Canada’s Atlantic coast, the growing presence of ice hockey in England and Scotland offered a viable alternative to a life on the dole. The attraction was a simple one: the Ottawa press regularly reported that ice hockey players in the old country were earning as much as $60 a week (that’s £10); the British newspaper Ice Hockey World had it as much as $72 (or £12). [7] Not bad wages! Just to offer a comparison: even as late as the 1950s the top players in the Football League, including the Busby Babes of Manchester United, earned a maximum of £15 a week. Then as now, whether the game was at the centre of British life or on the margins, sporting labour was valuable and the labour market was an international one.

Without imported stars from Canada, ice hockey would never have undergone its commercial revolution but success came at a price: few Britons took up the game themselves, preferring instead to be spectators and consumers. They bought newspapers, programmes, team photographs, and hoarded cigarette cards. From such objects, Britons gained a mental geography of small-town Canada – the kinds of places rarely seen on maps hanging up in the classroom in school. Although the Scottish Ice Hockey Association implemented a strict limit of seven Canadians per club, ostensibly to encourage the development of domestic talent, the relatively sparse number of Scottish players ensured high ratios of Canadians. A typical team, such as the Kirkcaldy-based Fife Fliers, for example, had two Canadians for every one Scot on their roster.


Ice hockey in inter-war Scotland, then, was a sport that gave voice to the nation’s growing reliance upon the entertainment industry as a distraction from everyday concerns and as a form of employment.

It also gave voice more simply to the idea of Scotland as a nation of something more than Edinburgh and Glasgow with teams defining themselves as the representatives of cities and towns outside of that central core or distinctive regions such as the Kingdom of Fife, which otherwise were left out of the metropolitan story. Whereas soccer established Edinburgh and Glasgow as pre-eminent and rugby provided a means of expression for towns in the borders, ice hockey placed Kirkcaldy, Perth, Paisley and Dundee in the top rank of modern sporting endeavour, as the embodiment of the nation’s resilient, independent spirit.

Appropriately, when the national side toured England or lined up against Canadian clubs, players worse yellow jerseys reminiscent of the Lion Rampant and emblazoned with the lion itself. Rather than wear the blue and white of the Saltire, Scottish ice hockey settled for the iconography of a much earlier age. For all its novelty, its imported glamour, and its modernity, ice hockey willingly reached back into the past.


[1] William Beveridge, Full Employment in a Free Society (London, 1944), p. 63.

[2] The Scotsman November 15, 1939.

[3] Carl Erhardt, Ice Hockey (London, 1936), p. 10.

[4] Glasgow Herald, March 1, 1939.

[5] Stephen G. Jones, Sport, Politics and the Working class: Organised Labour and Sport in Interwar Britain (Manchester, 1988), p. 45.

[6] Glasgow Herald, January 15, 1929.

[7] Ottawa Citizen, October 13, 1937; Ice Hockey World, March 10, 1937.

The Early Years of Organised Curling Clubs in East Lothian (Haddingtonshire). What they tell us about “brither curlers”.

David Affleck, Independent Researcher

David Affleck retired from managing Social Work services in 1996. His long standing interest in how groups and communities function has since found an outlet in a number of social history research projects using transferable skills. Subjects of study range from Pittenweem Social History between 1800 and 1855, the first 100 years of the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society and the partnership between farmers of East Linton and the President of the Board of Agriculture to promote improvements and experiments in agriculture within the U K between 1793 and 1850. A keen club curler, he is currently analysing the early years of East Lothian’s constituted Curling Clubs.

This is a version of a paper originally given at the British Society of Sports History’s inaugural Scottish symposium, on 8 June 2013 in Glasgow.

The original title for my talk was to be A history of curling in East Lothian. As I reflected on the challenge of coming last in the programme and keeping you interested three things struck me. Firstly, curling is usually a team sport and teams can provide rich material for analysing group dynamics, one of my favourite interests. An editorial comment in the second edition of the Scottish Gardener of December 1852 referred to “party squabbles, discreditable cliques, splits in societies and fraudulent shows” as the alternative scenario to the theme of an article on “the pleasant side of Horticulture”! Secondly a recent BBC Scotland news programme asked the question as to why Scotland’s women curlers could win a world championship this year when the Scottish men’s football team cannot even qualify for Europe. The sport psychologist to the women’s successful team was asked to give the explanation. Thirdly, the person who plays last in a curling team could have the opportunity to win or lose a game with the last stone. Eve Muirhead did it this year in Finland when her team won the World Championship for Scotland. Being the last to play can in the sport of curling, can be an advantage.

The emergence of the organised club in the sport of curling began towards the end of the 18th century. There had been some clubs in the 17th century while the first reference to a game of curling was by a John McQuhin, a notary in Paisley and dated 16th February 1540/41. The organised game with standard rules arose from the formation of the Grand Caledonian Curling Club in 1838. It later became the Royal Caledonian Curling Club in 1843. Their adoption of the rules devised by the Duddingston Curling Club in January 1804 is still the basis for the modern world wide game.

My study started by looking at three East Lothian clubs in existence in 1838 when the national club was formed. The first was Dunglass and Cockburnspath, one of several clubs that depended on support of the estate proprietor, in this case, Sir James Hall of Dunglass. In his History of Curling, the Rev John Kerr said it was formed in 1831 but it did not affiliate with the new national organisation until 1851. Their surviving minute book dates from that time. By comparing the listed names of the first members with those submitted to the Royal Club at the time of the application to join and with the census of 1851, we know that the members were mainly farmers from Berwickshire. The Pease burn at Dunglass had been reported as a source for the early curling stones. Here are two examples. Sixteen of these stones belonging to Dunglass Curling Club were displayed at an exhibition in Glasgow in 1984-85 including the Jubilee stone presented to the RCCC in 1888 and weighing in at 117 lb. (53 kilo.) The modern game from 1838 had adopted the round stone. Were the Dunglass curlers still playing with the channel stones in 1851? John Kerr tells us they were the Sons of Anak, a quote from the Old Testament suggesting their opponents were “like grasshoppers in their sights”. Against opponents with the newer smaller round stones, it could have been a game of brawn versus brain. The absence of the earliest minutes means we do not know the answer but we do know that in 1900, they were not happy about a change of rules in a competition open to all East Lothian clubs so they opted to join Berwickshire instead. However, this sketch from their minute book dated 1887 suggests by that time they were using the standard round curling stone.

The second club was East Linton which was a founder member of the GCCC. The earliest entry in the surviving minute book starts in 1844. An attempt to rectify this has an entry dated 1838 but it is inserted after entries from 1846. The minute book makes no reference to the fact that its President, Sir David Baird, became the third President of the new national organisation in 1840/1841. While it listed the names of the original members for the period 1839 to 1843, Patrick Sherriff, the Secretary for the first four years is not mentioned. It is hard to believe that this was an error. The East Linton club had a social mix of age and occupation in its membership. It had an estate link which this early photograph indicates. This second early photograph of a match at Smeaton Lake is perhaps more representative of the membership. It was very competitive. When a new competition for this trophy was first played in 1859, the East Linton club were expected to win the trophy. They didn’t. It was won by a club from North Berwick who proceeded to have an inscribed silver medal attached to the trophy. In 1860, the second year of the competition, the men from East Linton won the cup and removed the silver medal attached. It was the cup they played for and nothing but the cup! Letters of complaints to the press followed. Today the cup is still competed for without any attached medal. The East Linton club is still competing today.

The third club Gladsmuir was founded in 1835. John Kerr reported it was founded by the Rev John Ramsay, the first curling historian and publisher of the rules of the Duddingston Curling Society. He was wrong. A local farmer and his friends had elected themselves at the first meeting. This was a dysfunctional club with members from a wide radius, riddled by mischief, inter-family strife, exercise of power by its first President, a John Deans who we now know was a thorn in the flesh to John Ramsay. He did not complain. By 1837, he had been unanimously elected President and supervised the construction of an artificial pond which would offer many more days of curling than waiting for deeper ponds to freeze. In 1841, he and four other members resigned leaving John Deans and his few associates to run a club which John Kerr said was more about dinner when the members were inclined rather than curling. It was not until after the death of John Deans in 1869 that a newcomer to the district with a belief in team spirit and the esprit de core associated with army life changed the club’s fortunes and put Gladsmuir Curling Club on the map.

In 1900 there were nineteen Curling clubs in East Lothian. Eight of them have now been analysed in depth. Two things then happened. A tour to Canada in 1902 which involved twenty-four curlers and their stones showed the value of the indoor rink. One in Glasgow opened in 1909 and was followed in 1912 with one on Edinburgh. The chairman of the Directors of that club was the President of the East Linton club. It had agreed to admit women in their membership in 1882 but it did not happen. In 1912, the first Ladies curling club was formed at the new Edinburgh rink.

What I have shared with you is a preview of some of the research material. You can read more about the early curling clubs in an article to be published in the British Association for Local History in August this year. Hopefully that will encourage further local research on curling clubs and their community links and improve our knowledge on the evolution of the game and the lives of the people who played a part in it.

The Wanlockhead Miners’ Library

Dr. Fiona Skillen, Glasgow Caledonian University

Dr Fiona Skillen is a lecturer in Sport and Events Management at Glasgow Caledonian University. Her research interests concern modern history, in particular aspects of sport, gender, and changes in popular culture. She is particularly interested in the influence which dominant discourses concerning gender and modernity had on women’s popular culture. Her PhD research focused specifically on the ways in which these discourses impinged on and were negotiated by women who wished to participate in sport within the interwar period. Her first monograph Women and Sport in Interwar Britain, (Peter Lang, Oxford, Forthcoming, 2013) is due out later this year.

Wanlockhead is a village in Dumfries and Galloway, and is perhaps best known for being Scotland’s highest village at 1,531 feet. However it is also home to the second oldest workers’ subscription library in Europe. This post summarises some of the highlights from a recent project undertaken by myself and funded by Musuems and Galleries Scotland to examine the social history of the library.

The Society for Purchasing Books in Wanlockhead, or the Miners’ Library as it became known, was founded on 1st November 1756. The founding of the Society is an area of debate amongst historians and locals alike. The Society was only the second of its kind established in Scotland. The first having been established in nearby Leadhills. The primary concern of the membership was to widen their interests and improve their knowledge.

Although very little information exists from the early days of the library a version of the constitution has survived and highlights the well organised nature of the group from the beginning. However it is the amended and much extended constitution of 1783 which gives us a greater understanding of the functioning of the library. The new constitution, extended from seven articles to thirty eight, carefully explains not only the duties of each office bearer and the day to day administration of the Society, but also explores a myriad of possible events and the correct procedures to be followed.

The constitution stipulated that fines were to be given to members for breaking the rules laid out in it. These included various things, such as not attending meetings, refusing to take up a position on the library committee when elected, not returning books on time, damaging books or losing books.

If books were to be transported any great distance outwith Wanlockhead the member would be issued with a bag in which to carry the books. The bag would be sealed by the librarian and it was expected to be sealed by the member for the return journey – travelling without a proper seal would result in a fine.

Although the library was established to promote education, learning and self-improvement it is clear that this ethos only extended as far as its immediate membership. The constitution states that any member found to be lending out their books to other people, even other members, would be fined heavily. Moreover, the constitution explicitly states that anyone caught reading from their books for the entertainment of others would also be fined!

The library was opened once a month for the exchange of books during the first 100 years of its existence, thereafter it opened every Friday evening between 6 and 7 o’clock. There were set limits on the number of books which could be taken out at any one time by members. Members could have no more than four small duodecimo volumes or one of the folio volumes.


The Miners’ Library, like most clubs and societies, had clear regulations and systems for maintaining its membership. Members were expected to pay a joining fee and an annual subscription. Membership of the Society was not cheap. In the early years the entry fee was set at 3/- and the annual subscription, paid in quarterly instalments, at 4/-. In 1783 the subscription was halved to 2/-. The annual subscription remained 2/- until 1921 when again it was raised to 4/-. When you consider that a miner’s weekly wage during this early period was around 9/- to 10/- this was a significant amount to pay out.

From the founding of the Society there were regulations in place to enable members to bequeath their membership to a member of their family:

Any member of the society dying his heir, legatee, or assignee shall have a right to his place and privileges of the same without entry money and upon paying the arrears due by the deceased member if he owed any and the usual quarterly payments for the time being when he chuses to claim said right, if he be found agreeable to the society.

The family trees compiled for this project clearly show that this was common practice.

What did they read?

The collection grew in two ways; firstly through the donation of books and secondly through the purchasing of books. Member were asked at general meetings to suggest appropriate items for the catalogue, items were then shortlisted. The selection of books was subject to strict rules. Books had to be deemed appropriate reading material for the Society.

In April 1837 a book was discovered within the collection which cause a great uproar. The arguments contained in George Combe’s ‘Constitution of Man’ were said to ‘to corrupt the principles and undermine the faith professed by the established Church of Scotland and professed by us as members of said church.’ After consultation amongst the committee the book was passed on to Rev John Hope and Rev Thomas Hastings to seek their opinion. Their response left the committee in no doubt about what needed to be done. The Ministers sensationally declared it ‘the most dangerous book they ever saw and declared it not deserving a place in this or any other library.’ The committee took a vote about whether the book should be retained in collection or removed, the majority voted in favour of disposing of the book. The book was then, rather dramatically ‘committed to the flames.’

The members of the Society read a wide range of different types of books. Certain subjects are more prevalent than others within the catalogue, it is perhaps unsurprising to find that religion dominates the collection and latterly that fiction becomes an important feature. Extensive analysis of the collection has been carried out by Dr John Crawford and Stuart James at the time of the library’s restoration. [1] From analysis of the catalogues and minutes it is clear that the Society amassed a collection of around 3717 books, although only around 2572 are housed in the library today.

Other roles of the Library

Another important role which the library could fulfil was that of bank. The constitution indicates that the library could, if it had sufficient funds, lend money to its members:

If at any time the society shall have money in their hands for which they have not immediate use, the same may be let out at interest but not without consent and advice of the Preses and Committee.

This may have been a particularly important function given the nature of the payment system in place for many of the miners. As will be discussed in more depth shortly, many of the miners were part of the Bargain system which meant that they were paid once a year. Having this facility to fall back on when money was tight and the annual payday a distant prospect may have been very important to the membership. Sadly, there are very limited accounting records for the early years of the Society so it is difficult to know just how often this system was called on.

The library played an increasingly important role within the Wanlockhead community during the nineteenth century. The library was one of the only buildings in the village big enough in which to hold large meetings. In 1858 when the Rev Thomas Hasting applied to the membership for permission to use the library for church meetings while the church was under construction. Over the years several organisations applied to use the library building for meetings, these included the Free Church in 1873, the village band in 188, the Quoiting club in 1876 and the Young Men’s Association. The library was not however only used for meetings games were also played in it, from 1882 a carpet bowling club was established in the building. The accounts of the society also suggest that the library could be hired out for social functions as well such as weddings.

Further reading

Hidden Treasures Museum, Wanlockhead.

J Crawford and S James, The Society for Purchasing Books in Wanlockhead, 1756-1979 (Glasgow, Scottish Library Association, 1981), p.24-45.

F Skillen, ‘Leisure, Recreation and Self-Improvement in a Scottish Mining Community. The Archives of the Wanlockhead Museum Trust’, Scottish Archives, (Issue 16, 2010, pp190-123)


[1] J Crawford and S James, The Society for Purchasing Books in Wanlockhead, 1756-1979 (Glasgow, Scottish Library Association, 1981), p.24-45.