Alumni Services

Mining the past

Photographs of a long-lost degree programme sent in by an alumnus prompts a trip down memory lane.

Miners football
The miners football team. Neil Duncan (top left).

Coal production in Scotland in the 1950s was at between 22 and 23 million metric tons per year. Despite output dropping gradually from 1951, employment did not peak until 1956 when the industry was employing over 80,000 people.

It was this economic backdrop that encouraged Neil Duncan to embark on a BSc in Mining Engineering at the University in the early 1950s.

Student life

Neil, an Edinburgh local who attended George Heriot’s School, lived at home throughout his time as an Edinburgh student and admits to largely sidestepping the usual student activities.

Exceptions to this were during one charities week when his eight strong mining class took a float, in 1954 when two of the class decided to take part in the rectorial election campaign and the miners football team, who competed in a league despite having no kit to distinguish them from the opposition.

Neil Duncan mining
Top (L-R) John Lipetz, George Innis, Neil Duncan. Bottom (L-R) Alec Sutherland, Charles Guthrie, Alan Merson. Missing, Bill Broadfoot.

Mine rescue

The photo that Neil sent to our office and which promoted this feature shows six of the seven 1956 graduates in rescue apparatus on the roof of Heriot-Watt’s Mining School building in the Grassmarket. You can see the photograph in full on our Edinburgh alumni Facebook page.

Obtaining a Captain’s Certificate in Mine Rescue was a compulsory part of the degree course and one where mining engineering students from the University of Edinburgh joined mining diploma students from Heriot-Watt College.

The building included the mine rescue station, in which life-saving skills were also taught to engineers from collieries across southeast Scotland. The mine rescue station contained simulated mine galleries with rubble floors which could be filled with smoke from burning tires. Neil particularly remembers a concrete chamber which was heated and students challenged to respond to the situation by building sandbag stoppings.

Neil Duncan mining
University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt College students. Neil Duncan (top right).

The second photograph shows all 12 students in rescue apparatus along with the director, William Davidson, whose home was on the upper floors of the mining building above the rescue station.  

All change

At Heriot-Watt the teaching of mining was phased out from 1971 and replaced by the institute of offshore engineering which was established in 1972 with an emphasis on land and marine conservation well as oil and gas exploitation.

We didn’t ask Neil Duncan what he would choose to study if he was applying to the University today. Given the safety aspects of his engineering degree which he recalls so vividly, we would like to suggest that the MEng in Structural and Fire Safety Engineering might be of interest.


Neil Duncan is now based in Canada where he is enjoying his retirement after working within the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Alberta.

Related links

The School of Engineering

The School of GeoSciences

MEng Structural and Fire Safety Engineering