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The Invisible Seams: Scottish Lithuania

The migrant labourers of industrial Scotland were part of an intricate system of extraction and exploitation, which now exists mostly in the memory, but one group of workers has disappeared from that memory – Lithuanian migrants.

If you observe a worker, what you cannot see is the invisible system that runs inside. Organs and veins thread through the body to create an interconnected web. If all appears to be working well – if the red blood travels through the vast system of vessels to reach the heart, lungs or liver – the body is suitable for work. These seams of life power the worker, who in turn powers the machines, together rolling onto the production line that sustains an ever-growing capitalist metropolis. It is then both surprising and not, that the communists choose red – the colour of the life force itself that is necessary for the working (wo)man to function – to represent a society based upon the united body of the proletariat. Red – the colour of that initial particle setting the wheel of work to turn, first from within the body, then through the life of the labourer and, finally, of labour within the growth of capital.

In the complex network that powered the industrial success of 19th and 20th century Scotland (and Great Britain as a whole), migrant workers became like blood cells, travelling across the complex network of vessels in order to power the body. When Scotland’s industrial output was nearing its peak, the largest migrant groups were coming from Ireland, Italy and Lithuania. While Irish and Italian workers left a permanent imprint of their existence, Lithuanians seem to have disappeared without a trace from public consciousness in Scotland. The poetic exploration below attempts an ultrasound scan upon the body of Lanarkshire, the epicentre of industrial production, in order to reveal the different blood vessels – arteries, veins and capillaries – and a Lithuanian worker cell within. This will be done by following different seams, across, below and above ground, until they manifest themselves in the shape of the cities we know. The essay is illustrated with video stills from “In the eyes of LISA” (2019), a video work which is in an attempt to revive the memory of the  once flourishing Lithuanian migrant community in and around Glasgow that has been pushed into invisibility.

From Below

The heavy industries that put Great Britain and Scotland at the forefront of the global market would not have achieved such success if not for coal,  or “black gold” as it was often called. In order to harness the earth’s power, an extensive industry was set up to exploit its blood vessels. Running inside the body of land, coal was distributed through seams at varying depths, with capillaries close to the surface and the wide powerful arteries buried deep inside. Glasgow, it may be said, was built on a coalfield; the city as a beating heart that hauls blood up from the depths. Like an alchemical process, the black gold was transformed into the city that flourished. The rock-solid Victorian buildings that remain are its perfect manifestation. 

At its peak, between 1880 and 1920, Lanarkshire’s coal powered huge industrial growth at home and abroad. This success depended upon two resources: the exhaustible coal and what may have appeared as an inexhaustible supply of foreign labour. “In 1910, 220 of Scotland’s 499 collieries were in Lanarkshire” and an overall estimate of 47,000 men and women worked in the industry. Around the same time the Lithuanian community was at its peak too, with approximately 7000 Lithuanians living in the County of Lanark alone. The majority of them were employed in the coal, brick and iron industries, making up a small, yet nevertheless important, fraction of the labour force. Lithuanian workers were sought, found and exploited by agents on the hunt for cheap labour. Two of the most profitable companies, Merry & Cuninghame and Dixon Works, were known to employ such practices.

The history of coal extraction goes back a thousand years, starting with the exploitation of outcrops of coal bed above ground. When primitive tools couldn’t scrape the exterior scabs, the surface and drift mining of the 16th century moved deeper into the bowels of the earth. At varying depths and in various locations dotted around Lanarkshire, different types of coal would be chiseled away, creating a grid of underground passages running parallel, above and below one another, at times even crossing, as if meeting a ghost from the past. Some mine seams were reminiscent of roads and highways, others of narrow tree-lined lanes. The sad flora of the mine works – the timber props often called ‘mine trees’ – provided not oxygen, but safety from the earth collapsing onto the miners’ heads.

Before coal wended its way across Glasgow and Lanarkshire, lower paid migrants were bringing it up to the surface – first it was Irish migrants and, from the end of the 19th century, Lithuanians escaping the poverty and oppression of the Tsarist Russian Empire. It was unskilled and often treacherous work that required handling heavy shuffles to load up the hutches. In the early 19th century these were then hauled to the surface by women and children; later this task was performed by ponies. Upon arrival to the daylight, the coal would flow into yet another system of interconnected paths – canals, railways and roads, carrying it across the industrial landscape in order to feed growing production demands. More buildings, more steel, more bricks, more coal and more labour that Scotland alone couldn’t provide.


The ghosts of earlier extractions appear on the surface too, in the form of abandoned pits: the traces of already exhausted coal deposits. The seams alongside the Monkland Canal, which ran through the east end of Glasgow, were worked and abandoned at different times, but the scars of pits and bings remain. The many current paths we tread are in fact the vessels of coal’s journey reproduced, like an extension of the mechanism below the ground – from the seam itself to its haulage. The Monkland Canal operated from the mid 18th to mid 20th centuries  and was the primary route for the vast coal reserves to travel from Lanarkshire into Glasgow. The barges carrying coal would float between coal deposits and the city, going back and forth in order to feed into the different industries of brick and iron alongside the canal – the alchemical process of shifting bodies materialised.

The development of the railway owes its birth to coal mining too. Railways emerged as if from the earth itself, rising from the coal face to the surface and forging out into the wild while transforming, as one observer saw it, “the garden of Scotland…into a noisy, smoke and fire filled ‘no worse place out of hell.” No wonder newly-arrived Lithuanian migrants were shocked by this hellish scenery: 

“I thought I had passed through the gates of hell when I first entered Carnbroe Ironworks. The smoke, the smell and the heat were what I had imagined the fire and brimstone of the Devil’s Hell would be like. All the men I saw were dirty faced, wiping the sweat from their brows with dirty hands and the noise was such that everybody had to shout. Our bible and catechism taught us about Satan’s eternal fire where the damned souls were punished forever and I thought I had found it.”

Initially in combination with the canals, the railway fed coal into the unceasingly burning fires of Lanarkshire and Glasgow to power the growth of Scotland’s economic capital. The railway tracks that wound across the county of Lanark supplied the increasing demand from the collieries, iron, steel and brick industries for black gold.  Meanwhile the shares and directorships of the railways and finance companies were held by the biggest coal masters too. A capitalist heaven for the masters, hell for the rest.

Into Solid Matter

Another essential element in the hidden chain of coal transformation takes the form of a brick. Where there was coal there was clay too, making Lanarkshire abundant in natural resources that powered the development of industrial cities. Some brickworks were supplied with coal using the existing railroad seams and others  owned collieries as part of the works becoming like a miniature world in itself. Glenboig Union Fireclay Company  stood at the top of the hierarchy of Scotland’s brickworks. Glenboig’s bricks were celebrated worldwide, not least in Glasgow. The products produced by Glenboig, Carfin and other Lanarkshire brickworks were primarily of industrial nature and need. Almost every kiln and furnace in Glasgow was lined with these quality bricks, enabling the production of iron, steel, ceramics, glass, copper and more. The company also produced the majority of Glasgow’s sewerage piping – the hidden guts of the city.

In the early 19th century, Glasgow’s growth as an industrial centre resulted in the construction of a huge variety of buildings, with diverse purposes, from workers’ rows to elaborate banks where production of cast iron structures was utilised. Clyde Ironworks that was established as a result of the growing need for iron structures, was also one of the later ‘happy customers’ according to Glenboig’s customer testimonials book. Yet, due to the turn of the 19th century’s building trends, the exposed cast iron structures have gone out of fashion and the veins of the building – iron, and later steel –  were hidden underneath hypnotising sandstone walls. “It was a bit like the Victorian ladies’ fashions, where you were never meant to know anything about the metal caged crinolines under the stylish dresses!” says Gerald Blaikie in his extensive research on Glasgow’s architecture.

Yet it may seem more like an attempt, whether conscious or not, to hide the metal veins of the building, containing the blood of the workers along the path of metamorphosis from coal to the city. The blood is both metaphorical and literal – as many workers, Scottish and Lithuanian alike, died or were injured in the coal and metal industries. Lithuanian blood cells have permeated almost every stage of the alchemical process, from coal to brickworks to furnace but silently faded away once integrated within the built structures of Glasgow city. It is hard to say whether the disappearing traces of labour reflect the community that, due to the institutional and everyday bullying, has ‘successfully’ integrated with the Scottish society, or the disappearance of the strong community reflect the unacknowledgment of their work. 


To be able to build and produce at the speed that Scotland did, migrant workers were essential. The foreign underpaid workforce increased the competitiveness of Scottish industrial markets, both at home and abroad, without the increase in costs associated with domestic labour. Scottish firms such as Merry & Cuninghame, Dixon Works, and Glenboig were avoiding increasing wages or providing social securities to the local workers by importing cheap, politically unconscious, and culturally unaware Lithuanians. Many Lithuanians who arrived were peasants, used to hard work on the land, yet inexperienced in an industrial setting, additionally needing to navigate the barriers of language, religion, and customs. 

Lithuanian men and women were often employed as strikebreakers; theirs was the fresh blood that powered the body of the Scottish capitalist metropolises. They kept the wages low and the production output high. Yet little did their employers know that a few years after their integration in Scottish industries, the Lithuanians would become part of a politically charged ‘militant’ proletariat. Though initially negative about the presence of Lithuanians in the workforce, in 1913 The Glasgow Herald noted that “the Lithuanian had proved to be no blackleg… he gives no trouble to the officials of the miners’ union and loyally supports the native miner in labour disputes.”

Unsurprisingly, Lithuanian workers’ political involvement was frowned upon by the industrialists and governing institutions. As a result of surveillance targeted at Lithuanian political activity, a great number of ‘dissidents’ were expelled from Scotland. Together with the Aliens Registration Act of 1914 and the Anglo-Russian Military Convention of 1917, the expulsions achieved the desired result: the silencing of the Lithuanian militant voice in Scotland. Even more drastically, it practically wiped out the Lithuanian community from Lanarkshire altogether. In this context, it is no surprise that the removal of these migrant workers from the country was accompanied by their removal from contemporary visibility, with the result of a present-day lack of acknowledgment of the Lithuanians’ role in the development of modern Scottish cities. Like the iron structures that run behind the beautiful Victorian plaster walls, the essential work of the migrant has been hidden from the public eye.

Ironically, it is only when a building has been neglected by historical currents and starts to crumble, that the grand imperious and imperial narratives slowly decay and an opening appears to be seen behind the facade. The former Linen bank building on the High Street in Glasgow, where the Civic Room gallery is based, is one such place where we can peek at the iron stratum that forms its underlying structure. The exposed metal veins of the building speak of the ‘out of sight’ matter that holds the building in place. It is both an opening and an invitation to recognise the labour behind the decorative walls holding not only the building but the metropolitan city itself together. 

The migrant worker — a Lithuanian worker in Scotland in this case—has been instrumental in coal’s transformation into city walls. Workers chiselled at hard rock inside the bowels of the earth, they heaved coal up into the daylight, they loaded the furnace fires already laid with bricks already marked by foreign fingerprints. 

You can visit ‘In the eyes of LISA’ project’s website for further documentation here. The video trailer can be found here.

Image credits: Marija Nemčenko, ‘In the eyes of LISA’ (2019) video stills. Camera: Matthew Arthur Williams and Marija Nemčenko.

About the Author

Marija Nemčenko is a Lithuanian artist, creative activities facilitator and writer living and working in Glasgow and Kaunas. She is part of BRUT collective, working towards de-mystifying brutalist architecture and its public space.