Mining the facts: articles and non-fiction with Donald Reid – 4 November 2020

On Wednesday twenty of us gathered by Zoom to hear Donald Reid’s talk. I didn’t know what he was going to tell us except that it was related to writing non-fiction. However I ended up with seven pages of notes, because he provided so much information on topics he is passionate about.

Donald retired after a career in the police force in Ayrshire and around Glasgow. He began writing in 1993 and so far has written 22 books on aspects of local work and history.

His writing career was sparked by a speaking engagement in a primary school in Bellsbank. One of the boys said, ‘What’s coal?’, which stunned him. He realised the industrial history that was a living thing to him was being lost, and if he didn’t do something about it, the memories would disappear altogether. The names of coal mines like Pennyvenie, Minnivey, Bogton, Beoch, Lethanhill, Craigmark, Corbie Crags and numerous others would be forgotten.

He calls himself a ‘local scribbler’, but there’s more to it than that.  He was brought up in Dalmellington, and a number of his books are concerned with the lost mines and mining communities of the Doon Valley, with others about sport and recreation at the time, the engineering used in the mines and railways, and other historical facts.

Donald’s first book was The Last Miners of Doon Valley, for which he interviewed men who had worked in the many coal mines in the area. The last colliery in the area, Pennyvenie, closed in 1978, when some of the 3,000 miners were redeployed to Barony or Killoch pits. Those who could not retrain had to go onto the dole.

Some nuggets I gleaned from his slide show:

  • The engineering required for a mine includes winding gear, tipplers and a self-acting incline.
  • Loch Doon Castle was moved from an island to the west side of the loch in 1935 to make way for a hydroelectric scheme.
  • £3,000,000 was spent on a school of aerial gunnery in Dalmellington during the first World War.
  • The aerial skyway that transported carriages of coal from Bogton mine to Minnivey was bought by Butlins at Ayr, and redeveloped into the gondola system that moved people between the camp and the beach. Anyone remember that? I do.

Among other facts, we heard about the scandal of Loch Doon, the many features of Craigengillan Estate (including a planetarium), the legacy of brass bands in collieries, ironworks at Waterside, how deep pits and opencast pits function and why the latter are worse for the environment, and how the advent of steam brought the development of steam cranes, one of which can be seen at Waterside in the Ayrshire Railway Preservation Group’s site.

Donald recommended his favourite poet, Robert W. Service, the Poet of the Yukon. He picks up one of Service’s books every morning and reads a poem at random to start the day. Maybe in these days of uncertainty Service’s poems about home, love and the importance of family are just what we need.

I have hardly scratched the surface of his talk, and would ask members of the club who weren’t there on the evening to have a look at the Zoom recording. Donald’s books can be found in Waterstones in Ayr. He proudly admitted that one Christmas his books outsold Harry Potter, although only in Ayr’s Waterstones store.

In the Q&A session Donald answered questions about aspects of life in mining days, and about his writing methods. He recommended reading the online Glasgow Herald archives for local information on communities and details of daily life, because those articles tend to provide more detailed information than today’s newspapers.

He has published both with publishers and by self-publication. For self-publication he suggested obtaining funding from outside sources and gave us useful tips on the sort of information to provide for potential funding bodies. Being part of the Barrmill Jolly Beggars Burns Club, he usually requests funding through them, providing a one-page activity and marketing plan with his application.

All income from his books goes to local communities, because he sees himself as a recorder of the past, and his writing as a charitable activity. For this attitude and other things he has done, the town of Beith has awarded him Citizen of the Year and Lifetime Achievement Awards.

Jennifer West

One comment

  1. Joanne Bailey

    Well done Jennifer in capturing the essence of the night so succinctly.

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