Linlithgow’s Soilmen




In these strange times when we have been restricted in so many of our normal activities, walking has become part of the daily routine. It’s led me to explore more of the local area, and it was during a recent walk that I ended up taking a trip back in time and uncovering some fascinating history.

While walking along a path next to a newly ploughed field, I was intrigued as to why the soil was glistening. On closer inspection, I discovered pieces of porcelain scattered across the field, shimmering in the sunlight. The next week on the same path I decided to collect some of the porcelain, with a plan to create some lockdown artwork. Armed with a load of broken china I had plenty to work with, but the mystery remained – why was the field full of it? I knew Linlithgow had a rich industrial past, but I was fairly sure pottery wasn’t one of the trades. I decided the only person to consult was local historian Bruce Jamieson. One e-mail later I had my answer – the fragments of pottery I had found were possibly from chamber pots!

Prior to the development of plumbing, a very unpleasant trade of disposing of human excrement was developed. By the 18th century, people would put their faeces into chamber pots, empty them into a cesspit and cover it over with soil and ashes. When cesspits became full, they were dug out by Night Soilmen. They worked through the night (so as not to offend high society!) digging out cesspits and then transporting the waste out of the town and selling it onto farmers to fertilise their fields. This system of disposing of waste ran through until the early 20th century. Chamber pots would often end up in the cesspits and get transported with the human sewage.

My day job is in HR, so I’m used to dealing with a range of people and jobs. However, it would take a great deal of negotiating with trade unions to get agreement for men, armed only with a cart and a candle to clean out human waste and dispose of it in the night. There was no P.P.E. back then, but the Night Soilmen were heroes of their time doing an essential job.

By June Martin