Scots Roots

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


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