FIFE has been torn tae targets bi the energy industry an hertless commerce fir lang enough. It’s hud its fause dawns afore, an as close as we are tae independence, the mair deprived airts o Fife shaw little sign o impruivement.
The gas flare at Mossmorran in Cowdenbeath is a sicht tae behold. It is ae hunner-metre tall stack, flanked bi twa eichty-metre anes, ilk wi a baa o savage reid an yella flame skooshin oot the tap. Gin ye havnae seen it wi yer ain een, it leuks staggeringly similar tae the Eye o Sauron fae the Lord o the Rings films. It leuks apocaplyptic. When gas is bein flared aff fae the factory ablow the hail o sooth Fife an the north bank o the Lothians owre the firth are bathed in a sickly sundoon reid. The puir craiters unfortunate enough tae bide ablow or aroon the flare hae nae choice but tae thole it. The irregular, unannounced flarins gie oot excessive licht pollution an loud stress-inducin noise, wi sudden midnicht flarins rattlin gear in hooses sax miles aff.
It is a beacon tae the primacy o energy owre the inhabitants o Sooth Fife, o profit owre people. The flare is a safety feature, but ane that is yaised faur mair frequently than is acceptable.
This current wrang is just ane in a litany o wrangs done tae communities an fowk in Fife in the last fower centuries. The impact has been deep, an cannaebe resolved owrenicht, or wi a simple turnin doon o the flare tae a peep. Mon an lets hae a leuk at the history…
We ken hou the industrial era coupit the region heilster-gowdie. Its earth wis howkit up fir coal, the skinklan black seams ablow grun tane awa, selt fir great proft an burnt in the aye-clatterin machines o the dey. Train lines breenged through fairmlaun tae muive the coal aff tae mercat, an bring in polis tae control the miners. But this exploitation o human an laun wasnae unique tae the industrial era. Fir mony hunners o years, there were fowk in Fife enslaved. Aye, enslaved. Thon is no owre strang a word.
Fife miners were enslaved in that they were bound tae their pit, an couldnae ging onyplace else tae wark. Gin they skived aff or went tae anither pit, then the owners were alloued tae round them up an force them back unnergrun. Fife miners an their faimlies o the saxteen, seventeen an pairts o the eichteen-hunners were “fixed to the soil almost as effectually as if they had been bought in the slave-market of New Orleans or born in the hut of a negro on some Virginian plantation” as ae protestor pit it in 1897.
It gies ye a fair auld stamagast tae ken that it wis an independent Scottish Pairliament that pit these legal binds on the shakkles o the Fife miners. The 1606 “King James the Sext Act Anent Coalyiers and Salters” no only gied the pooer tae own an reclaim runaway miners, but it also “giues power … to all maisters and awners of Coal-heughs … to apprehend all vagabounds and sturdie beggers to be put to labour”. Sae the cheils in chairge o the pits could literally snatch fowk aff the streets an put them intae wark doon the mines wioot consent. An this law wasnae some deid letter, it hud teeth.
In a situation gey sib tae that in the American colonies, newspapers in Fife fae the 1700s an 1800s are fu o notices declarin that pit warkers hae tane tae their heels an fled aff intae the hills. In 1806 ye hae a note “tae aa coal maisters” that sax cheils, “all bound colliers at Baldridge Colliery, near Dunfermline, have absconded”. The notes politely speir at the ither coal pit operators tae gie the men their jotters, clype on them tae the local polis or haun them back owre direct tae the pit that owns them.
Conditions o the cheils wha warkit doon the mines didnae impruive owre muckle in the next hunner years fae the prentin o these notices. This year merks the fiftieth anniversary o the deith o Joe Collie, miner, makar an playwright, wha records the life o 1920s miners in aa its dulesomeness an drudgery. He wis there tae record when Fifers stertit tae fecht back against these hunners o years o debasement. In the 1920s an 1930s, they hud their ain wee Communist Revolution, merkit bi twa muckle lock-oots an regular protests. An Corrie wis the Fife Vladimir Mayakovsky, providin Socialist agitprop fir the revolution. Times, it seemed, were-a-chyngin. A Communist MP wis electit tae West Fife in 1935, Corrie himsel becam a success, wi his wark owreset intae English, Russian an French.
Thon wee revolution wis near a hunner year ago. Devolution wis twinty year syne. Yet the same unkennin, uncaring attitude tae the warkers, as weels tae the general health o Fife, thrives on. We’ve aaready seen ae exaimle, the gas flare at Cowdenbeath. Noo let’s examine anither: conditions o wark at the Amazon depot by Dunfermline.
Amazon hae run their muckle steel kist o a warehouse oot by Dunfermline for mony years noo, an regularly hit the heidlines wi Dickensian employment practices. Owre wark an owre muckle pressure on the heids o warkers leads tae unsafe conditions.
Amazon foonder Jeff Bezos is worth $133.3 billion, appairently. Guid on ye, Jeff. Ye’ve seen the gap atween rich an puir grow tae larger nor it wis when Fifers were trapped by law doon the mines, an beggars were common property.
Sae, whit o the new Fife the Communist Revolution o the 1920s an 30s ettled tae realise? A gas flare that blazes like an angry star abuin Cowdenbeath, a million-square-fit warehouse, an Methil bein in the tap 5% maist deprived airts in Scotland.
An independent Scotland wad nae doot gie us the pooer tae chynge sic historic an contemporary injustices as these. But mind it was an independent Scotland that pit the Fifers, an ithers aroon Scotland, in chains in the first place. It needs nae just the pooer but the will tae dae guid. Independence is vital, but it’s just the stert. I’ll lea the last wirds tae Joe Corrie, Fife miner an makar, fifty years deid this year, in Scottish Pride.
It’s fine when ye stand in a queue
at the door o the ‘Dole’
on a snawy day,
To ken that ye live in the bonniest
land in the world,
The bravest, tae.
It’s fine when you’re in a pickle
Whether or no
you’ll get your ‘dough’,
To Sing a wee bit sang
o the heather hills,
And the glens below.
It’s fine when the clerk says,
‘Nae ‘dole’ here for you!’
To proodly turn,
and think o the bluidy slashin
the English got