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Sea Coal

In our household I was always the one to be first out of bed in the mornings. In my teen years this was usually about four o'clock or so.  Being first up it became my job to clean out the fireplace from the remnants of the previous evening's fire then set and light a new fire to heat the house in the morning.  For fuel we used almost entirely sea coal. Not many people know what sea coal is. It's coal that washes up on the beaches. There must be exposed beds of coal on the sea floor out in the Firth of Forth. After storms at sea, coal washes in and is to be found  along the high tide line. There was never a lot of it at any one time or place on the beach but enough to supply the needs of those in the village who appreciated sea coal.  It was common practice to always carry a bag with you when you walked the beaches to carry home your black gold.

Sea coal is like no other type of coal. In appearance it's sparkling clean and shining jet black.   Fist size chunks are like large black diamonds.  In the fireplace it can be ignited by heating with the very minimum amount of kindling. Mined coal, which we also bought for heating the house, came from the Wellesley coal mine at Buckhaven and was delivered to us by a horse drawn coal lorry. The coal seams of the Wellesley coal mine extended out under the Firth of Forth and although it was very good coal it did not have the properties of sea coal. Mined coal must first be heated to a relatively high temperature before it will give off gas that will ignite.  When mined coal is completely spent there will be a fair amount of residual ash.  The process of combustion of mined coal also generates a considerable amount of smoke and soot.  Hence the nickname of Auld Reekie bestowed on the town of Edinburgh before the days of North Sea oil. Sea coal has quite different properties. As sea coal is first heated it enters a semi liquid stage and bubbles as it's gases ignite. It burns with an extremely hot flame and produces a clean flame that gives off a far greater amount of heat than mined coal. Burning so cleanly there is very little residual ash or chimney soot or smoke. When the fire has finally burned itself out, what's left in the fireplace is only a very small amount of powder.

In the long dark winter nights when the sea was loud, Earlsferry boys of an age group spent some of their  evenings in caves such as the one that Jimmy Linton and I made that was just above the high tide mark at the east end of the Dome Park.  The back half of the cave that we made was the natural rock face of the rising shoreline. On the seaward side, to complete the surrounding walls of the cave, we built up a rock wall from nearby boulders. To roof our cave we covered over the top  with bits of driftwood planking. To make our creation wind and water proof we chinked the spaces between the sidewall boulders with seaweeds. The back of the rising rock wall became the place where we formed our sea coal fireplace.  To cover the narrow doorway we used a piece of canvas that was supported by iron rods which at one time had been part of the iron fence  that separated the Lilburn field from the West Sea Road.  At times, along with sea coal, we burned driftwood and sun dried aromatic sea weeds that we gleaned from the high tide line. Yes, there were times that we did smell like smoked kippers.  With the flickering flames we needed no other light.  Without a doubt we must have looked like sea gypsy creatures that crawled up out of the sea. Now, thinking back to the 1930's when Jems and I were about ten years old, in spending our evenings like this we must have instinctively been going back to the ways of our ancient primeval ancestors.