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Aw That Hunterston: the forgotten battle that paved the way for Orgreave

Forty years on, an ex-miner tells MATT KERR about the brutal police tactics used against Scottish pickets at a crucial coal terminal, part of the hidden history of state violence and media manipulation during the miners’ strike

I REMEMBER the sunshine blazing in our living room window in Stanley Road, Saltcoats, as my dad came home from work and plonked himself down on his seat. My sister and I would usually try to climb onto his lap.

It could have been any day really, but this one sticks in the memory. The television was switched on for the news and we watched images of miners apparently attacking police in what looked like open warfare. I watched it, transfixed. When the scenes ended and the news returned to the studio, my dad said something that still rings in my ears: “Do you believe what you just saw? Don’t. Don’t believe it. Don’t believe the state news.”

It stuck for years in part because at the time I didn’t really understand it, and partly because he wasn’t in the habit of being in that sort of mood when he got home.

I was five years old, and I’d just seen the battle of Orgreave.

There are other sketchy memories of that time, my grandpa had been a blacksmith at Cardowan until it had closed, but he and my granny lived in a house built for mineworkers and fuelled by the coal that came from his pit pension. I remember when I was first trusted to go to the old Anderson shelter where the coal was kept to carry some in — the weight felt incredible as I tottered my way back into the house with the shovelful, determined to prove myself.

Coal was held in awe. It was dirty, but (according to my granny) clean; everywhere, but the very stuff of diamonds.

My great-grandfather had been buried alive three times digging this magical stuff out of the ground, but he was still with us then, a hulk of a man who left school at 12 and used to time himself doing the Herald crossword, educated by life and the union.

If Clarissa Eden once whined that the Suez flowed through her drawing room, then coal ran through our living, in more ways than one.

Within a couple of years, the great strike would be over and there would be a gaping hole in the earth where my dad and I had watched the telly that day, machinery pumping hundreds of tonnes of concrete into the shaft of a long-forgotten pit.

Forty years later, I got a phone call from an ex-mineworker by the name of John Doolan. He had worked at Killoch when the great strike began, but he’d had enough of reading about Orgreave.

“Orgreave wouldn’t have happened without Hunterston; that’s where they tested the tactics,” he said.

Saltcoats was just a few miles from the Hunterston iron ore terminal. For years virtually the only sign of it from the road was the huge conveyor belt 100ft in the air, built to take the ore directly onto mile-long trains that used to shake our flat day and night on their way to the Ravenscraig steelworks, but during the strike it became the source of Scotland’s scab coal and coke.

Doolan kept a scrupulous diary during the strike. Dates, times, votes, costs of postage, all noted jotted down in a battered diary.

Over a pint, he told me that as the strike got under way on March 12, Ayrshire mineworkers immediately realised — along with the government and National Coal Board — the strategic importance of Hunterston in undermining the strike, and a railway workers’ boycott of handling any coal from the huge conveyor meant that the scab lorries a whole generation of us were brought up to hate — Yuill and Dodds — were being used in the dozens to shift coal off the site.

By April 10, the Ayrshire Strike Committee had resolved to take the Hunterston picket national. “Prior to that it was just the Ayrshire miners, but we had to have a show of strength, we had to get somewhere,” Doolan said.

“The Ayrshire representatives to the Scottish strike committee raised the issue, made sure that the issue of Hunterston Ore Terminal came up, and it became a Scottish strike committee decision to picket Hunterston and to organise a mass picket on May 8.” Organise they did.

A month before Orgreave, hundreds of pickets were bussed in from across the country, from Fife, the Lothians and across the coalfields of Lanarkshire to the Ayrshire coast, but despite the best efforts of organisers — who even this early in the strike were avoiding telephone communications and relying on word of mouth — the police did the same …  and then some.

Dozens of police vans brought hundreds of officers to the site, alongside dozens of mounted police — and they weren’t there for any picnic.

The police guarded the road on horseback and in cordons three or four officers deep as their colleagues roamed the bankings gathering intelligence on where the pickets had come from.

Soon the cordons became a dozen deep as pickets found himself on the receiving end of truncheons, a “cavalry charge” and arrests, while speeding scab lorries enjoyed full police protection.

“Some people said there were soldiers there with police uniforms,” Doolan said.

“I don’t know, but I do know the police were brutal and they were very, very serious. If you were getting arrested, you were going to court and you were getting charged and they were throwing the book at you.

“It was an escalation beyond anything we had seen before, and it was a sign of things to come.”

What did come was what was to become a normal part of the strike from then on. The next day, miners across the country boarding buses to return to Hunterston found themselves prisoners in their own communities.

“On May 9 in all the strike centres in Scotland, the police cordoned off the roads so that the buses who were going to carry the people for the mass picket the next day.

“It was an unprecedented and phenomenal mobilisation by the police.

“We had the miners’ bus at the Glenburn Club, there’s 40 of us turned up and before the bus gets out of Glenburn Rd, there’s a police blockade, so we couldn’t even get out of Prestwick.

“So the police came on the bus and said to the driver to ‘either empty the bus or if you go to move the bus forward we’re going to arrest you’.”

A mass picket never returned to Hunterston.

While I did hear that some comrades spent morning after morning getting up early to use their telecom vans to block or slow down the returning Yuill and Dodds lorries until one was run off the road by one of the scabs, the efforts of people like them in local supporters’ groups and sister unions like the TGWU, in the end, did not stop the flow of scab coal.

“By the time we got to October, it was only the most militant still going to Hunterston, and there were a few incidents where the place got a bit smashed up,” Doolan told me.

“When the pickets left Hunterston and returned to their own pits, we knew the writing was on the wall. I was urging comrades not to get arrested and become a martyr for martyr’s sake at that point, they still had jobs to go back to.

“By the time of the February 2 meeting with Michael McGahey and Eric Clark at Cumnock Town Hall, we knew it was over.”

I’ve long thought I had memories of a confrontation at Hunterston, but was never sure — and somehow as someone who grew up down the road, I’d barely heard it mentioned until Doolan got in touch.

That’s quite something.

It should be astounding that a battle for survival and brutally enforced state monopoly on violence never popped up in schools just 10 miles away. It should be astounding that it’s not mentioned in what passes or commemorations of the strike on TV or most newspapers, but it’s not, is it?

For the last 40 years, not just miners, but all workers have been told they are the enemy within, drip-fed self-loathing, force-fed a diet of indifference, and told that they are the problem and not the parasitic few.

Don’t believe them.

Hunterston may be derelict and the pits may be gone, but we are still here.

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