Monday, 19 April 2010

Visit To Wanlockhead Lead Mines

18 April 2010
Burns visit to the lead mines at Wanlockhead with Maria Riddell in early 1792 has been the subject of much discussion on the Federation’s website Forum recently. In a letter to her mother, Maria provides a very detailed account of the conditions in the mine which lends authenticity to her statement that she did indeed visit the mine. However, local historian and Secretary of the Thornhill and District Burns Club, Ian Millar, has a strong suspicion that Burns did not accompany her and would have been on excise duty in Dumfries on that day and not ‘gallivanting’ round Upper Nithsdale with Walter Riddell and his wife young wife Maria. As yet, he does not have sufficient written evidence to prove his claim but is building up a body of circumstantial evidence which he hopes will tilt the balance in favour of his claim.

In order to further my knowledge about the subject I joined Ian and a few other Burns enthusiasts to visit the mines and discuss further the basis of his claim.
Following a most informative underground tour of Lochnell Mine with our guide Robert, we visited one of the most fascinating aspects of Hidden Treasures Museum of Leadmining, the Wanlockhead Miner’s Library.
The library houses a collection of books which have been recognised to have "Great National Importance" and can be seen as a symbol of the lead miners' culture and education. It is the second oldest subscription library in Scotland, and indeed Europe, and was established on the 1st November 1756. The library was funded by subscriptions from the miners, but a contribution was also made by mining companies in order to encourage 'self-improvement' in the miners. According to our informative guide, David Duncan (below), there was a hidden agenda, as the mining companies believed that the library would help to cut down on the unruly behaviour which existed at the time! In the middle are mannequins representing the librarian (left) and William Gass who, as the excellent audio presentation tells us, is trying to join the library by transferring his late father William Meikle’s membership certificate to his name. The library was considered very progressive in that it allowed women to subscribe.
Although we have no record of Burns having visited the library, he would almost certainly have known about it and went on to help establish and run one himself along roughly similar lines in the form of the Monklands Friendly Society at Dunscore Parish in 1789.

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