Scots Roots

West Lothian Family History Resources

Do you have ancestors who lived in West Lothian? What sort of work did they do?

West Lothian, the second smallest mainland county in Scotland, is located on the southern shore of the River Forth, centrally between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and is made up from what was for many centuries most of Linlithgowshire and part of Edinburghshire.

Linlithgow, birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots, was once the principal county town but has now been surpassed by Livingston, a new town which started to be built in 1965 and is now the second biggest town in the Lothians after Edinburgh.

West LothianCoal, limestone and ironstone were mined in West Lothian for many centuries but it was primarily a farming county, mainly arable, until the mid 19th century. The landscape and population of West Lothian changed dramatically after 1850 when James Young, a Glasgow born and educated chemist, patented a method for producing oil from coal and opened the world’s first oil refinery near Bathgate. Young later discovered that shale was also oil bearing so he bought up the mineral rights to vast reserves of oil shale throughout West Lothian and, although mining finally ceased in the 1960s, large heaps of spent shale can still be seen dotted around the county. (See Shale Mining in West Lothian for further information.)

Also in the 19th Century, the railways came to West Lothian and the Union Canal passed through on its way from Edinburgh to Falkirk. The building of these took a number of years and many men, often local but also from the Highlands and from Ireland, laboured on their construction.

Recent years have seen a demise in the old mining industries and a rise in electronics, pharmaceuticals, communications and light industry.

If you have ancestors who lived in West Lothian, what sort of work did they do? You can be sure that they will have worked from an early age for long hours and for many years because State pensions and a national retirement age didn’t appear until the 20th century.

There is a wealth of information both locally and nationally to help you discover your West Lothian family history. Here is a selection:

ScotlandsPeople Centre, General Register House, 2 Princes Street, Edinburgh EH1 3YY.  Based in Edinburgh, this is the main centre for researching births, deaths and marriages in Scotland.

West Lothian Local History Library, County Buildings, High Street, Linlithgow EH49 7EZ. Tel: 01506 282491. Books, photographs, maps, newspapers, cencuses, old parish records, valuation and voters’ rolls, exhibitions relating to West Lothian and beyond.

West Lothian Archives and Records Centre, 9 Dunlop Square, Deans Industrial Estate, Livingston EH54 8SB. Tel: 01506 773770. Holds records reflecting the history of local government and the wider community – including minutes, reports, registers, drawings, photographs and plans.

Almond Valley Heritage Trust, Millfield, Livingston, West Lothian, EH54 7AR. Tel 01506 414957. Restored 18th century Livingston Mill and farm together with the Museum of the Scottish Shale Oil Industry.

Annet House Museum, 143 High Street, Linlithgow, EH49 7EJ. Tel: 01506 670677. Exhibitions on the history of Linlithgow including a Victorian garden.

Linlithgow Canal Centre, Manse Road Basin, Linlithgow EH49 6AJ. Tel: 01506 671215. Canal Museum housed in a former stable exhibiting records, photographs and artefacts associated mainly with the Union Canal. Boat trips available.

Bennie Museum, 9/11 Mansfield Street, Bathgate EH48 4HU. Tel: 01506 634944. Provides a flavour of the history of Bathgate, a typical small Scottish Burgh.

West Lothian Family History Society. Holds regular meetings and assists with local family history research.

West CalderOther useful links:

Genuki – West Lothian

Cyndi’s List – West Lothian

West Lothian Message Board

War Memorials

Linlithgow Civic Trust

Linlithgow Heritage Trust

West Lothian GenWeb Project

Scots Roots Research is based in West Lothian and will be happy to search local archives, take photos etc. Please click Scots Family History Research above for further details.

Copyright © Scots Roots Research 2012


Shale Mining in West Lothian

James ‘Paraffin’ Young patented a method for producing oil from coal and shale and, in 1851, he opened the world’s first oil refinery near Bathgate in West Lothian. The shale oil industry lasted for just over a century and it’s estimated that 164 million tons of oil shale was mined in the life of the industry.

The industrial revolution in the late 18th century led to the demand for oil to lubricate the machines in the mills and factories. The supply of whale oil couldn’t keep up with the increasing demand and the search began to find an alternative mineral source.

In 1850, James Young, a Glasgow born and educated chemist, patented a method for producing oil from coal. In 1851, he opened the world’s first oil refinery at Whiteside, near Bathgate, where he developed many new processes to manufacture naptha and lubricating oils and later paraffin. His friend, Hugh Bartholomew had drawn his attention to the ‘cannel’ coal found in the area which was burned in little pans by the people of Bathgate to light their homes.

Young spent two years experimenting with the design of a suitable wick for oil lamps and worked to eliminate the explosions that had given oil lighting a bad name. He was successful and started to market the lamps with the paraffin oil to light them. His name was so closely linked with the product that ‘Paraffin’ became his nickname.

The Scottish oil industry boomed in the years between 1853 and 1863 because Young had patented his extraction method of obtaining oil from coal, so he had no rivals in Britain and there were no foreign rivals until around the 1870s when America’s oil rush got under way.

As supplies of the ‘cannel’ coal started to diminish, Young discovered that shale was also oil bearing although not quite as rich in oil as the coal from his Bathgate mine, so he bought up the mineral rights to vast reserves of oil shale throughout West Lothian.

Five Sisters bingShale is a hard sedimentary rock and was found in workable seams stretching in a broad band from the Firth of Forth, between Blackness and South Queensferry, to West Calder and Tarbrax in the south. The rock was baked in huge retorts to extract crude oil which was further distilled or refined to produce a number of products such as paraffin, candles and petrol.

The process of retorting crude oil left huge amounts of waste. On average 10 barrels of oil manufactured required the extraction of 8 tons of shale and left 6 tons of burnt shale waste. The spent shale was tipped on to a spoil heap near the mine which, over the course of the hundred years or so that the works operated, formed enormous shale ‘bings’ or tips all over West Lothian.

In 1864, Young began construction of a major new works at Addiewell to exploit the local supplies of oil shale. It opened in 1866 and by the early 20th century the Addiewell works covered 75 acres.

The foundation stone at Addiewell was laid by David Livingstone, a great friend of James Young’s, when he stayed at Young’s home, Limefield (near West Calder), during a leave from his African explorations – which were largely funded by profits from the Scottish shale oil industry. The two had met when they were students in Glasgow.

Also in 1866, Young launched the Young’s Paraffin Light and Mineral Oil Company and, although he remained in the company, he started to take a less active part in its operation.

Many tried to copy Young’s success and, when his patents ran out, oil works were opened across West Lothian. In the Broxburn area alone in 1864-65, 650 retorts were in operation or being built and men flooded into the area to find work – men from all over Scotland and most of all from Ireland. Broxburn had a population of 661 in 1861 but by 1891 it had increased to around 5,900.

Few of the new oil works were successful and by 1900 only seven major companies remained. These companies were brought under government control during the First World War. After the war, the companies were merged to form Scottish Oils, a subsidiary of the Anglo Persian Oil Co. (which became British Petroleum in 1954) but oil imported from overseas made production from shale uneconomic leading to major closures of mines and oil works.

In 1924, Scottish Oils opened a new oil refinery at Grangemouth on the Forth to process crude oil imported from the Persian Gulf. Because of the competition on its own doorstep, the shale oil industry again suffered badly but started concentrating on other by-products such as detergents.

Government support kept the industry alive and saw it through the Second World War but once wartime shortages were over, works were again run down and closed, the last one surviving until 1962, when the government started charging the same excise duty on home produced oil as it did on foreign oil.

The shale oil industry lasted for just over a century and it’s estimated that 164 million tons of oil shale was mined in the life of the industry.

The Five Sisters bing, near West Calder, is the lasting legacy of the Westwood works which closed in 1962. The bing is now an Industrial Heritage Site.

If you have ancestors in West Lothian, there is a good chance that they will have had some connection with the shale mining industry. If nothing else, they can’t fail to have noticed the enormous shale bings scattered around the countryside.

Miners' rows, WinchburghHousing for the mine workers was provided by the oil companies and new villages sprang up all over West Lothian. Large families, sleeping three or four to a bed, were expected to live in rows of houses containing little more than a room and kitchen. They often took in lodgers to raise a bit more money. Widows, in particular, might take in up to eight lodgers often sleeping four to a bed in two shifts, the night shift getting into the beds that the day shift had just left. When the sheets were washed is anybody’s guess.

My great grandfather was a clerk at the Addiewell oil works and lived in West Calder. My grandfather was an engineer at the Niddry Castle oil works in Winchburgh and lived in the miners’ rows at Midhope Place in Winchburgh. My father and his eight brothers and sisters were raised there.

Copyright © Scots Roots Research 2012

Scottish naming patterns
November 21, 2012, 1:36 pm
Filed under: Genealogy, Hints and Tips | Tags: ,

The use of traditional naming patterns gradually declined during the 19th century. Not everybody followed the pattern anyway but it’s surprising how often you come across it:

The first son was named after the father’s father.

The second son was named after the mother’s father.

The third son was named after the father’s father’s father.

The fourth son was named after the mother’s mother’s father.

The fifth son was named after the father’s mother’s father.

The sixth son was named after the mother’s father’s father.

The first daughter was named after the mother’s mother.

The second daughter was named after the father’s mother.

The third daughter was named after the mother’s father’s mother.

The fourth daughter was named after the father’s father’s mother.

The fifth daughter was named after the mother’s mother’s mother.

The sixth daughter was named after the father’s mother’s mother.

If a child died in infancy, his or her name was frequently given to a subsequent child.

It was also common to give sons and daughters a middle name denoting the maiden surname of the mother.


If your Scottish ancestor was a farm servant or an agricultural labourer, then he or she is likely to have been employed on one or more of Scotland’s fermtouns (farm towns).

Most people researching their Scottish ancestry are likely to come eventually upon a relative who was a farm servant or an agricultural labourer. Before the industrial revolution and the availability of work in towns, a substantial percentage of the population lived and worked in the countryside.

Fermtoun 1During the industrial revolution, the population increased rapidly so it was necessary to increase the amount of food grown. The subsequent agricultural revolution wasn’t so much a revolution as a gradual change that took place over the years between 1750 and 1900.

Before the 18th century, the open field system was used with people living in small settlements or fermtouns of up to 20 households growing their food on surrounding strips of common land. The fields closest to the settlement (the infields) would be the most fertile and used for growing crops. The fields further away (the outfields) were less fertile and provided rough grazing for the animals and, wherever viable, some patches of oats.

Changes in Scotland started to accelerate from the 1760s. The old infields and outfields were gradually removed and replaced by fields enclosed by hedges and walls. The developments in agricultural mechanization during the 18th century needed large, enclosed fields in order to be workable. More of the land was able to be used for cultivation but the dynamic of the fermtouns changed as the smaller tenant farmers lost their tenancies and they and the cottars who lived on their land had now to resort to selling their labour to make a living.

Crop rotation with land left fallow or used for grass produced more fodder to feed livestock and reduced the need for permanent pasture. Drainage was improved. Turnips were grown to provide feed for sheep and cattle in the winter.

Fermtoun 3As farms grew in size, more people were needed to work them. Farm steadings began to be built around a courtyard design – the farmhouse and the barn would be at opposite sides with accommodation for animals, workers and machinery forming the other two sides and, usually, a dung heap in the middle. Later, mainly because of the dung heap, the farm house would be built apart from the other outbuildings.

Farm workers usually stayed together in a communal bothy forming part of the outbuildings although some farms built separate accommodation for their married workers near to the farm steading.

Some of the larger fermtouns might have up to 20 pairs of horses and needed the men to work them and look after them.

Other workers living on a fermtoun might include the grieve (foreman), a bailie (often several) to look after the cattle, ploughmen, the dairy maid, house maid, kitchen maid, oot-woman (who did the outdoor work), labourers, the orra man (handyman), the soutar (shoemaker), although he probably worked for a local shop and visited the fermtoun in the evening to repair shoes. There would also be visiting masons.

At harvest times, hundreds more were employed on a temporary basis as they took to the fields in the summer for the berry picking and in the autumn for the ‘tattie howking’ (lifting potatoes).

Larger fermtouns might have a dedicated smiddy or the blacksmith might have his own premises suitably placed to serve a number of farms.

The blacksmith not only shod the horses but made, repaired and sharpened the ploughs, harness and other implements and rimmed cartwheels. The hand plough, drawn by a pair of Clydesdale horses, continued to be used until around the 1950s.Fermtoun 2

Farm workers were rarely employed on a permanent basis and often lived quite a nomadic life. They were usually hired on a temporary basis at a feeing market, usually held every 6 months in May and November. On accepting the fee, the farm servant would be bound to the farmer for the next six months or a year. He probably wouldn’t see much of his fee in hard cash but would be provided with a roof over his head and some basic food and fuel. If he was a married man, he might be lucky enough to be taken on by one of the larger farms that provided accommodation for his family. Otherwise he would have to stay in the bothy with the single men while his family stayed elsewhere, perhaps with the wife’s parents. You often come across cases of the family of a farm worker living apart from him in abject poverty and relying on the parish for sustenance.

Most parishes had fair days, a brief holiday usually lasting a few days, where labourers and farmers came together before harvest time. Farmers came to buy and deal. Pedlars sold their wares. The recruiting sergeant would be there trying to tempt the labourers away from their lives of drudgery. Drink was taken. Men and women did what men and women do, often with predictable embarrassing results nine months later.

The time of the fermtouns passed with increasing mechanisation as implements were devised that could sow and pick far quicker than squads of labourers and, in time, even horses were replaced by tractors. People also began to be attracted to jobs in the cities which were better paid and usually more permanent with less of the drudgery of working in the fields in all weathers.

Copyright © Scots Roots Research 2012

The Highland Clearances

In the hundred years between 1760 and 1860, a whole race was largely dispossessed and dispersed, often in the name of ‘improvement’ and actively supported by the law and the church.

Unlike today, in the 18th century the Scottish Highlands were hugely over-populated. Many people lived in poverty on poor land that produced little. Rent was usually paid in kind or in service to the clan chief.

During the years following the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the clan system in the highlands of Scotland came under severe pressure. Much of the old way of life was banned by the government. Very few clansmen had taken part in the rebellion of 1745 but they were all punished. They were no longer allowed to wear tartan or to keep arms. The powers of the clan chiefs were diminished and they were forbidden to have their own armies.

Up until Culloden, a clan chief could count himself rich based on the number of men at his disposal. After Culloden, with the loss of his powers over the clan, his parental interest in his clansmen diminished and he needed paying tenants rather than soldiers.

SlettelIn the latter parts of the 18th century, chiefs started leasing their lands to graziers from the south – firstly to cattlemen and their black Highland cattle whose meat was required to feed a growing population, then, as Britain entered into long wars against the colonists in America and Napoleon in Europe, there was an even greater demand for meat and sheep were introduced to the Highland glens. These were not the scrawny sheep that the clansmen knew but black-faced Lintons and Cheviots which were hardy breeds that could live through the harsh Scottish winters and yielded more wool and mutton than their predecessors.

Lowland graziers looked for more and more land and the profits it would bring them and Highland lairds had debts to pay so, inevitably, the land was sold or leased to the graziers and the former tenants were forced to move.

Hundreds of small, uneconomic townships, each usually consisting of around half a dozen families, were cleared away, the confused inhabitants being packed off either to poor land around the coast or to a new life in Glasgow or the colonies.

Where resistance was met, special constables were drafted in and people were forcibly evicted. Houses were often burnt down or demolished after the tenants left to prevent their return. On some occasions, buildings were set alight before the tenants were out of the door.

When the Marquess of Stafford married Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland in 1785 the whole of her estate in Sutherland became his and he and his wife set about making improvements to the land. Although this included the building of many roads and bridges it also led to the emptying of the glens by his factors and the introduction of thousands of sheep.

Some of the factors hired by the landlords – Patrick Sellar in Strathnaver and Donald Robertson in Strathglass, for example – leased some of the land from which they were evicting their employers’ tenants and became rich as sheep farmers themselves.

Many of the dispossessed left the country. At first this was mainly the young and healthy men. The rest – the aged, the infirm, women and children – were usually left to make what they could of their new lives on wasteland or by the sea.

Famine and disease followed dispossession and, in time, thousands rejected the poor land offered to them and emigrated to Nova Scotia, Canada or the Americas and later to Australia, many dying on the way.

KirtomyBetween 1800 and 1803, 10,000 people left the Highlands for Nova Scotia and Canada. In 1831, 58,000 people left for Canada, 66,000 in 1832. In the years that followed, emigration to New South Wales gradually overtook emigration to Canada.

In 1851, the people of Knoydart were cleared straight on to a boat bound for Australia. They weren’t asked whether or not they wanted to go – their landlord wanted to avoid paying them poor relief.

The major periods of clearance were from around 1780 to 1820 and 1840 to 1854 but they continued throughout the 19th century until 1886 when the Crofters’ Holdings Act was passed by the government to give crofters security of tenure and other rights in response to social unrest.

The Scottish Highlands remain fairly empty to this day but the remains of many of the cleared villages can still be seen, often in some of the most beautiful parts of Scotland. We have visited a few of these on our trips around Scotland and more photographs can be viewed by clicking this link: Photos – Cleared Villages.


The cleared villages shown in the photographs are:


32 families were cleared by the MacDonald’s ground officer in 1854 – mostly women and children, as the men and older boys were on the mainland working at the harvests to earn money to pay their rents. The women and children were evicted, furniture was thrown out and doors were barred. They were left to fend for themselves amongst the rocks through the cold autumn until the men came home – not that their lot improved much then.

ACHANLOCHY (‘the small field by the loch’), STRATHNAVER, SUTHERLAND

A village of around seven families, one of about fifty settlements in Stathnaver, it was cleared in 1819 and the land rented to John Paterson of Sandside as part of a sheepwalk. There is now very little to see but on close inspection you can still find the remains of dwellings, outbuildings and corn kilns, now mostly moss covered and overgrown.


A village between Armadale to the east and Kirtomy to the west. It can be walked to from either direction but the best path in is from Armadale. The remains of several buildings and enclosures are clearly visible.


A village to the north of Skullomie, near Tongue. A coastal walk with great views. Again, the remains of several buildings and enclosures are clearly visible.


Not a cleared village but built by Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland (and named after her) in the early 19th century to house some of the people cleared from Strathnaver.

If you have ancestors in Scotland and would like to know more about them, Scots Roots Research will gladly do the research for you and set it all out in an easy to follow report. Please click Scots Family History Research above for further details.

Copyright © Scots Roots Research 2012

Census dates in Scotland
November 14, 2012, 9:32 am
Filed under: Genealogy, Hints and Tips | Tags:

Dates of censuses in Scotland which contain useful information:

1841 – 6th June 1841

1851 – 30th March 1851

1861 – 7th April 1861

1871 – 2nd April 1871

1881 – 3rd April 1881

1891 – 5th April 1891

1901 – 31st March 1901

1911 – 2nd April 1911.

Genealogy in Scotland

If you have roots in Scotland, there is a wealth of information available to help you trace your Scottish ancestors – either in person by visiting the Scotland’s People Centre in Edinburgh or online via the internet. The number of websites providing details of Scottish births, marriages, deaths, burials etc. seems to grow daily although, it should be added, many of the most worthwhile are pay-to-view.

Compulsory civil registration of births, marriages and deaths started in Scotland on 1 January 1855. Prior to 1855 the Established Church of Scotland was responsible for keeping parish registers.

Eliza and Grace GillonScottish statutory birth, marriage and death certificates from 1855 onwards have been digitised and can be searched (but note that some of the more recent records cannot be viewed online for reasons of data protection). These certificates can provide lots of useful information – men’s occupations, women’s maiden names, addresses, parents’ names, cause of death etc.

Most of the pre-1855 old parish records have also been digitised and can be searched but here much depends on the standard of record keeping in individual parishes and on how regularly your ancestors went to church. Sometimes a fee was charged for recording an event, so people often just didn’t bother. Old parish records don’t provide as much information as statutory records, usually recording baptisms and the proclamation of banns rather than births and marriages. Entries for deaths are often just a name and a date so it’s not easy to be sure you have the right person. However, on the positive side, some parish records go back as far as the 16th century.

Scottish census records have also been made available. The first official national census of the population was taken in 1801 but it contained mainly facts and figures and no details of individuals. The first census to be useful for family history research was taken in 1841 and thereafter every 10 years. Censuses from 1841 to 1911 can currently be viewed. Censuses are very useful for family historians and record the address, names of family members, ages, occupations, where born etc.

If you intend to start delving into your own Scottish past, you should start by writing down everything that you already know, incorporating anything gleaned from relatives, certificates, family bible, obituaries etc. Add photographs, if possible. (This free starter pack  should help you record the details.) Now you should be in a position to either continue your research online (or on your next visit to Scotland) or hire someone else to do it for you.

If you intend doing your own research, you may eventually become swamped by the amount of information available and the time it takes to find, download and record it – and deciphering some of the old handwriting can be a job in itself. Scots Roots Research will gladly do the research for you and set it all out in an easy to follow report. Please click Scots Family History Research above for further details.

Some useful Scottish genealogy sites:

Copyright © Scots Roots Research 2012

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