This Saturday the Free Colliers will once again march through the streets of the Braes villages just as their forefathers have done since the brotherhood was formed over 150 years ago.
Today the annual demonstration serves to remind the present generation, and especially the young ones who watch the bands and marchers, of a very important part of our history.
When James Simpson and his colleagues launched their new organisation back in 1863 in the aftermath of a disastrous miners’ strike it was a very dangerous act and, on Saturday, we have another chance to salute their courage and determination.
At that time the miners were represented by local associations and there was no proper national union.
Any man brave enough to speak out against falling pay rates or encourage others to take action was liable to be identified, sacked and kicked out with his family from their colliery-owned homes.
Such threats kept the coalfields quiet for a time but the ending of the Crimean War in 1856 brought falling demand and, as prices fell, the coal owners combined to reduce miners’ wages from five to four shillings per day.
In 1858 there was a widespread strike and in the Falkirk area the Redding colliers took the lead.
When, the manager of the colliery 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.
More effigies were burned and for a time there was a danger of the houses themselves being set on fire.
Arrests were made in both places by the police and military 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.
Not only had they failed to stop the pay cut but their combined strength had proved ineffective.
In Redding James Simpson tried to pick up the pieces and find a way to allow the colliers to continue the struggle but keep themselves safe from the wrath of the masters.
He knew that 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 the Sir William Wallace Grand Lodge of Scotland Free Colliers was born to carry on the fight which the associations were unable to do. At a crucial time they took up the struggle and inspired 65 other lodges of colliers in every part of the Scottish coalfield to do the same.
Only the Redding colliers remain in existence to remind us of the struggle of our forefathers for the justice and equality we take for granted today. x