This Saturday the Free Colliers will march through the streets of the Braes villages just as their forefathers have done since the brotherhood was formed 150 years ago.
The annual demonstration will be even bigger this year as the members recall the circumstances in which James Simpson and his colleagues launched their new organisation in 1863 in the aftermath of a disastrous miners’ strike.
At the time the men were represented by local associations and there was no proper national union. Any man brave enough to speak out against falling pay rates was liable to be identified, sacked and kicked out with his family from their colliery-owned homes.
The ending of the Crimean War in 1856 brought falling demand and, as prices fell, the coal owners reduced miners’ wages from five to four shillings per day. In 1858 a widespread strike followed. In the Falkirk area the Redding colliers took the lead, and when Mr Austin, the manager, started bringing in workers from outside the district the strikers were determined to stop them.
Hundreds assembled on Redding Muir and burned two effigies supposed to represent some of the new workmen.
Fearing violence the manager called in the Army and the following day the 7th Dragoons arrived to keep the peace. Most of the fury was directed at the few colliers who remained at work and houses in Redding and Easter Shieldhill were attacked with stones and windows and doors were broken by a huge crowd of strikers. For a time there was a danger of the houses themselves being set on fire.
Arrests were made and the men involved were fined the equivalent of a week’s wages.
In the end, the power of the employers supported by the authorities was too great and, amid great hardship, the strike dragged on for 12 weeks before the defeated colliers returned to work for the lower rate.
This disastrous outcome was a bitter blow for the miners and their associations. In Redding, James Simpson tried to find a way to allow the colliers to continue the struggle but keep themselves safe from the wrath of the masters. Secrecy was crucial, and this led him and his colleagues in 1863 to form a new kind of association of ‘free colliers’ which would bind the men together, ensure that only members had access to meetings and that business transacted was known only to them.
The devotion of the colliers to William Wallace, symbol of the freedom from serfdom they had gained only in 1799, made the choice of name very easy.
So 150 years ago this week the Sir William Wallace Grand Lodge of Scotland Free Colliers was born to carry on the fight which the associations were unable to do.
They inspired 65 other lodges of colliers in every part of the Scottish coalfield to do the same.
It is their courage that the marchers salute each year as well as the sacrifice of thousands who slaved in damp and dangerous conditions to help build the world we often take for granted.