This flowing and colourful poem was donated recently by Blantyre Project reader, Maureen Potter. During mid November I visited Maureen at her home in East Kilbride and was kindly loaned a wonderful poetry book, which was given to her ancestor Robert Potter, by the accomplished Scottish poet, Robert Tait in 1919. Although Tait was not a Blantyre man, his poem about the Blantyre Coal Mining Explosion of 1877, deserves to be retold to all. Seen through the eyes of a man remembering his childhood, the poem tells of the changes to Blantyre and of the rescue attempt. This is especially interesting to me as my great grandfather John Bowie was one of the brave rescuers.
Here by the rustic style I lean,
My eye is cast on the somber scene,
The merle sits mute on the slender spray,
And the wren hops nigh ‘mid the sedges gray.
The redbreast chirps in the old beech tree.
In the midst of decay, where he sang with glee,
In the gay May –time when the sun shone bright
On the tree that were robed with the blossoms white.
Now does he mourn for the joys gone past,
Dreads he the chill of the Winter blast;
Soon may he cower ‘neath his snow brushed wing,
How will he fare till the time of Spring?
Sad is the change at the fall of the year,
Cheerless the scene when the flowers are sere.
What of the scene that around me lies?
In the distance near does a village rise.
‘Tis the Blantyre homes, where in boyhood glee
I sported around my father’s knee.
There in the glow of the cheerful hearth
Sweet was the sound of the jocund rhyme,
On the mirkstone nights of the Winter time.
Then what could I know of the care and strife,
Of the hardships found in the miner’s life,
Of the irkstone toil, of the burdens bore,
Of the trouble that entered the cottage door?
Nothing I knew of the toiler’s dread,
Of the perilous mine where he earned his bread,
But those were the days when I wove my dream
When all seemed bright as a golden beam
But soon, ah! Soon, did it pass away.
Like the flower that fades on the Autumn day.
All of the past I remember well,
And sad is the story I now would tell.
On a morn like this when the winds were chill,
The redbreast perched on the window sill
Close by, where the frost on the pane had beenm
And woven a dazzling Winter scene,
Snugly I lay in my cosy nest,
Musing awhile on the poor redbreast,
That moment a shock and a thundering crash,
Rattled the doors and the window sash.
All was aglow with a radiant gleam,
Bright as the sultry Summer’s beam
People arose and began to throng,
Crying awhile as they rushed along.
What could it mean, was it danger near?
Mother and all of us shook with fear;
There, in the glare of the rising light,
Cheeks were turned to an ashen white;
Something I knew my mother did dread,
Many and bitter the tears she shed.
The came a sire who was aged and grey
Bent with the toil of his former day,
God, look to the men, was his mournful cry.
As the flames from the shaft of the mine rose high.
Though I was an urchin of tender years,
My eyes were dimmed with glistening tears,
Mother, she kissed me and sadly said –
“Tis feared that the men in the mine are dead”
“Oh mother! Is Father and Jim down there?”
She clasped my hand, and breathed a prayer
To Him who reigns in the realms above,
To look to the ones whom we all did love.
Soon to the mine we had gathered near,
Anxious to know of the loved ones dear.
Many the friends were assembled round.
Lamenting for those in the underground.
Oh! Was there a man who would dare to go,
Into the terrible gulf below?
Was anyone nigh who was void of fear?
Was it vain to seek for a volunteer?
The flame died low, then a call was made,
And a few went forth with a will to aid.
Well I remember the gallant band,
How on the cage they took their stand,
Hanging a ‘tover the gulf with hope,
Risking their lives to the winding rope.
Soon they were gone from the light away,
Into the mine where the wreckage lay.
Onward they went with the lantern dim,
Into the course where the dust lay grim,
Over the falls of the rock they went,
Not one moment was idly spent,
Toiled they with might till they’d gained their way
Close to the wall where the miners lay,
Picture the men of the bravest stamp
Fighting the deadly after damp
Eagerly searching the while around.
In the perilous ways of the underground.
Close to my mother’s side I kept,
Wearily waiting, we watched and wept,
Then did the bell give a warning sound.
And the heroes were raised from the underground.
When safely they came to the morning light,
They gazed on a thousand faces white.
And the visage pale those gallants wore.
Foretold of the saddening news they bore.
Silence the moment, and then ‘twas broke,
And hands were clasped as the words were spoke.
As the tale was told in a sobering breath,
All in the mine were asleep in death,
Sadly we cried, but we cried in vain,
For the ones who would ne’er return again.
Those souls had gone to the radient sphere,
Where the leaves ne’er fall, nor the flowers turn sere.
Into the throng had the preacher came,
A friend to us all, I revere his name,
He kissed my cheek and he straiked my hair,
He said, “Sweet boy, they are safely there,
Where ne’er doth an eye with a tear be dim,
In the beautiful land is Father and Jim.
As the years do gently dwine away,
I wander here in October gray,
I linger alone in the Calder dell,
Where the rush bends over the moss fringed well.
Still, there is naught to allay my grief,
In the fading flower or the fallen leaf,
Nought of a joy in the somber scene,
Nor the haunts where in bygone days I’ve been,
I seek not a sight nor a sound to cheer,
My mind is the gloom and the silence here.
The merle has flown from the slender spray,
The wren has gone from the sedges gray,
But the redbreast chirps in the old beech tree,
And the thought of the past shall remain with me,
Through the years to come, in the gloom or shine,
I’ll remember the scene at the Blantyre Mine.