After West Linton along to Abingdon and up miles of windy road (a road that winds not wind-buffeted) to Wanlockhead, the highest village in Scotland, 1531 feet above sea-level in the Lowther hills (if you chance to be walking the Southern Upland Way you might pause for breath here). Wanlockhead today prides itself on the possibility of panning for gold and on its old lead mine and museum. Also on having the second-oldest subscription library in Europe (the oldest being in its near neighbour and rival Leadhills across the county border).
Lead ore and other minerals have been mined here since Roman times. The first modern smelt mill was constructed in 1682 and between 1756 and 1765 nearly 3,500 tonnes of ore were extracted. Production later increased with the introduction of new technology and in 1902 a railway was constructed to link with the main Glasgow-Carlisle line. Despite a small revival in the 1950s there has been little mining activity here since the 1930s.
This is very much an unplanned village with cottages tucked hard against the many contours, located to suit the whim of occupants. Sheep wander. The stream wanders (no gold-panners today). Insulated with lentil soup, off to explore.
First, to the museum (minerals, Covenanters, information on life and times with those human-scale models now essential in the modern visitor centre). Then a short walk to the mine and, hard-hatted, along the main passage hewn out of rock, irregular sides and roof still showing the marks made by the small groups of men who worked in near darkness chipping and setting explosive and pumping out water. The sides still glisten with water. Gone are the young boys who pulled sleds of ore out to the light.
Just where miners descended to even deeper tunnels the tour ends. We stand beside two more life-size models and try to imagine. Then back out to the light and the sheep and a row of cottages hinting at home life mid 1750s, 1850s and 1910.
And finally up to the Miners’ Library, a subscription library established in 1756 and holding over 3000 volumes, classics, journals as well as technical books. 1756 is a year that means something to me, that’s the year my Plenderleath diary begins. I can connect. More costumed figures and a tape to help us relate to the people for whom this small building, open once a month, was important.
But it is just as I am leaving, when I pick up a leaflet with the signatures of the ‘originating miners’ that they and their individual lives become real. These men spent much of their lives in the dark. Look at the signatures, literate hands, far from the stage of leaving a mark with a shaky ‘X’. And universal education was over 100 years away. How did these men come to be here living this hard life? Books must have meant much to them. John Edmond, Schoolmaster, was a signatory, there was a school for their children.
Now we write fewer letters; with the disappearance of cheques, the entering of pins, signing your name happens less and less. I write this on a computer and the software shapes the letters… What signs, links will prevent us appearing an amorphous blur when we are the past?
More about Wanlockhead is at http://www.leadminingmuseum.co.uk