Although there were various local ventures in the early 18th century, mining was not an important part of the economy until the mid 1800s. Mineral resources around Cumnock were alternatively exploited and exhausted whereupon small mine after small mine was intensively worked and then shut down. The opening in 1872 of the Ayr-Cronberry railway line, in addition to the completed Kilmarnock-Dumfries line, ensured easy transport not only of coal but of ironstone for Lugar Ironworks in Auchinleck Parish.
With an increase in mining jobs came the need for housing. Miners’ Rows were built by the coal owners and were situated near the railway and the pits. Working and living conditions were poor, with miners beholden to their employers for houses and provisions which had to be bought at the company stores. When a miner left his job, he was evicted from his house. In 1871, as a result of the Trade Unions Act, workers began to organize themselves to fight for a better deal. James Keir Hardie became their leader and in 1880, miners all over Ayrshire came out on strike for a 10% increase in their daily wage of 4 shillings. The strike lasted for 10 weeks causing much hardship, with still no gain at the end of it for the miners. As a result of the strike, however, the Ayrshire Miners Union was formed in 1886 and a year later the Scottish Miners Federation came into being.
By the end of the 19th century, Cumnock was almost entirely dependent on mining for employment. Realising that this was a risky situation, the Town Council sought to diversify by trying to sell the town as a holiday resort. Guides and advertisements made it known that holiday homes were available for rent in the summer and that there were attractions such as interesting walks and areas of natural beauty for cycle rides. A bus tour to Ochiltree (5 miles away) was available for those less mobile. Despite their efforts, Cumnock did not become a Mecca for holidaymakers.
The decline of mining
During the early 20th century, mining continued to play an important part in the economic growth of the district although only two pits were operating in Cumnock Parish in 1930. Bairds & Dalmellington Ltd was the main employer at that time. When the coal industry was nationalised on 10th January 1947, production became concentrated in new large pits such as Barony Colliery in Auchinleck and Killoch Pit in Ochiltree. Any small pits still existing were privately owned. Miners travelled to work in the large modern pits and men from other depleted coalfields moved with their families to live in the area. New housing was built for the arrivals and also to replace the miners’ rows which were recognized as being sub-standard.
A familiar problem continued in the 20th century – a dependency on coal for employment and a determined effort was made to bring new trades to the Cumnock area e.g. shoe manufacture, jeans, knitwear, trucks and carpets.
The expected prosperity forecast by the National Coal Board did not materialize and the industry went into decline in the 1960s and 1970s, with the death knell sounded after the Miners’ Strike in 1984 when deep mining came to an end. At present open-cast mining continues to gouge what remains of the “black gold” from the area’s outcrops. Now there is little evidence of an industry which not so long ago was the lifeblood of the community. Throughout the district there are memorials to visit which tell us of people and events in the past and of the men who lost their lives in coal mines, but soon there will be no recollection or understanding of that once great industry.