Scots Roots

William Gillon (1840 – 1915)
William Gillon

William Gillon

On July 16th 1915, William Gillon, J.P. died at his home in Campbeltown having been in failing health for some time.  He became seriously ill on Wednesday, 14th July and never recovered, passing away on the Friday morning at three o’clock.

William is the elder brother of James Gillon, J.P. of Armadale (see James Gillon article) and the son of Alexander Gillon, a miner in Coatbridge, and Janet Sneddon.

Born at Gartsherrie, Coatbridge, on 12th October 1840, by the age of 10, William had left school and joined his father down the mines.

He was a religious man and liked to write poetry. He became the first precentor* in Armadale Free Church and served there for four years and then, for a season, was precentor in Bathgate Free Church.

In July 1864, he married Mary Anderson and they had three children, Alexander, Allan and Janet, in Bathgate before 1870 when they uprooted themselves and moved to Campeltown in Argyllshire where Mary had been born.

By this time William had had enough of mining and decided to take up the business of grocer and seedsman in Campbeltown. The business went from strength to strength and over the following years, William and Mary had a further five children, Agnes, William, James, Mary and Ralph.

William led a busy life, particularly in church circles – he was the senior elder and for many years acted as session clerk at Lochend Church; he was superintendent of the Sabbath School for over 40 years; he was the founder of the congregational Dorcas Society, which had its beginning among the children of the Sunday School; and he was president of the Lochend Band of Hope.

A large part of William’s time was devoted to visiting the aged, the sick, and the infirm, and his calls were always welcome.

He served on both the Town Council and the School Board and for many years was a Justice of the Peace for the County. He was also, at one time or another, on the Management Board of several local institutions or societies, such as the Cottage Hospital and the Bible Society.

Mary Anderson

Mary Anderson

He was an author of some repute, and poems from his pen frequently appeared in the Press. He set many of his hymns to appropriate tunes, and occasionally set the compositions of other authors to suitable music. Many of his hymns were composed for special occasions and were distributed at the Sabbath School and elsewhere.

William’s obituary in the West Lothian Courier of 13th August 1915 concludes:

“By Mr Gillon’s removal, the town has lost a citizen than whom no one was more beloved or more highly esteemed. He was a man whose presence had at all times an elevating influence, one who by precept and example set a worthy standard before his fellows that will keep his memory green for many years to come, and the fruits of whose consistent life, a life of quiet and unobtrusive Christian service, cannot be appraised by his contemporaries and must long remain.

Mr Gillon was predeceased by his wife, who died on 31st May, 1914, and is survived by four sons and three daughters, to whom sincere and widespread sympathy will be extended in their fresh bereavement. Two of the sons, it may be mentioned, are presently serving in His Majesty’s Forces, James being with the Army Service Corps in Egypt, while Ralph** took part with General Botha’s  Northern Force in the recent operations in German South West Africa.”

William was buried in Kilkerran Cemetery, Campbeltown on Monday, 19th July 1915, before a large crowd.  Lochend Church bell was tolled during the funeral hour.

*The precentor is the person appointed to lead the congregational singing.

* *Ralph was killed in action the following year, July 1916, in France.

Kilkerran Cemetery, Campbeltown

Kilkerran Cemetery, Campbeltown

Copyright © Scots Roots Research 2014


Commonwealth War Graves – Ashaig Cemetery, Isle of Skye

Ashaig CemeteryThe Cunard White Star liner RMS Queen Mary left New York in September 1942 carrying 10,000 troops bound for the Firth of Clyde in Scotland.

On 2 October 1942, near the north west coast of Ireland she was joined by the escort ship HMS Curacoa, a 4,000 ton British light cruiser, for the final part of the journey to the Clyde. To make themselves less of a target for torpedoes from U-boats, both ships zig-zagged through the water. However, this course of action brought the two ships perilously close to each other.

Each captain thought the other was bound to take evasive action. Neither did.Ashaig Cemetery

The Queen Mary was huge compared to the Curacoa and ploughed straight through the middle of the smaller vessel, cutting it in two. The Curacoa sank within minutes along with most of its crew. The Queen Mary carried on to Gourock with some damage to its bow. Wartime regulations meant that she was not permitted to stop to help any survivors from the Curacoa because she would then have been vulnerable to U-boat attack.

Of the 440 crew of the Curacoa, 100 men survived . Most of the rest went down with the ship but in the following weeks bodies were washed up on various shores around the west coast of Scotland and the Hebrides. Around 20 of these seamen were washed up on Elgol and Sleat on the Isle of Skye and were buried at Ashaig Cemetery near Broadford.

The wreck of the Curacoa, lying off the north west coast of Ireland, remains a war grave to this day.

Ashaig Cemetery


Agnes Somerville 1865 – 1941

AGNES SOMERVILLE was born on 16th December 1865 in Braidwood, a small village a couple of miles to the south of Carluke in Lanarkshire. Her father, John Somerville, the local joiner, had married Helen Meikle some seven years previously and Agnes was their first and only daughter. She had three older brothers, Robert, John and William and one younger, Thomas.

William Gillon

William Gillon

By the time Agnes was 6, John Somerville had moved his family to West Calder where his wife’s family farmed. Agnes grew up in West Calder and in 1891, at the age of 25, she married William Gillon, a butcher, son of local grocer Robert Gillon. William had worked for his father for many years but had just branched out on his own that same year and set up his own butcher’s business a few miles to the east in Currie.

The following year, William and Agnes had their first child, daughter Helen, and a son, Robert, followed two years later in 1894. By the time daughter Elizabeth came along in 1897, the family had moved to nearby Balerno, opening another shop there but keeping the one in Currie as well.

In August 1902 tragedy struck. William contracted double pneumonia and died at the age of 43. Agnes somehow managed to keep the business going and, in time, her daughter Helen and son Robert both became master butchers.  

All went well until, in early 1916, Robert was called up to join the army. He applied for exemption on the grounds that his mother was a widow and he attended weekly markets and bought for the business which was the only business of the kind in Currie Parish. It was a certified occupation and he was indispensible to the business, he maintained. In March 1916, the local tribunal refused his application as there were not sufficient grounds to support the application.

Both Robert and his mother appealed the decision, Robert writing “I am in the service of my mother Mrs Agnes Gillon, Butcher, Balerno. She is a widow and I am her only son. She carries on the only butcher’s business in the parish of Currie. I attend the weekly live stock markets and buy for and manage the business. I am claiming exemption on the grounds that I am indispensable to my mother’s business and that I am one of the principal means of her support. She is not so able as formerly to attend to all the details of the business and without my help I consider the business would fall behind or would probably have to be given up which would mean not only an inconvenience to our community but a personal hardship to ourselves. I am also engaged in a certified occupation. Signed by me, Robert Gillon.”

Agnes echoed Robert’s sentiments “I am a widow carrying on the only butcher’s business in the Parish of Currie. Robert Gillon, for whom I am claiming absolute exemption, is my only son. He attends the weekly live stock markets and buys for and practically manages the business. As I am not so able as I used to be to give my full attention to the business, it would be very serious hardship if I did not have his help. In fact as it is simply impossible in these times to get a substitute, it is a question whether without his assistance I could carry on the business and then financial loss and straitened circumstances would follow. I do not know whether I could get any other to do the work my son Robert does. I also claim exemption on the grounds that he is engaged in a certified occupation.”

Robert's willThe appeal was dismissed by the tribunal on the grounds that the slaughterman and van salesman in the same business were already exempt and it “should not be impossible for the applicant to make other arrangements for the carrying on of the business, in view of the close proximity of the Edinburgh Slaughterhouse.” They also felt “that it is more expedient in the national interests that the attested man should be employed in military service than be engaged in his present occupation.” 

So Robert joined the army and on 14th October 1916 he wrote out his soldier’s will, leaving his worldly goods to his mother. He was subsequently shipped out to France to serve with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers as a private in 2nd Battalion. A year later, on 4th October 1917, he died at Zillebeke in Belgium, at the age of 23. Zillebeke lies just to the east of Ypres and was very heavily bombarded by German artillery. Robert was ‘presumed dead’ and has a grave in Enclosure 4 at Bedford House Cemetery near Zillebeke. In all, 45 Balerno men fell in the First World War from a village listed as having a population of 674 in 1912.

Although she must have been devastated by the loss of her son, Agnes again managed to keep the business going aided by daughter Helen.

Agnes's graveAgnes died in Balerno on 4th December 1941 at the age of 76 and was buried in West Calder Cemetery alongside her husband.

The gravestone reads:

Erected by Agnes Somerville

In loving memory of her husband

William Gillon who died at Balerno 13 August 1902 aged 43 years

The above Agnes Somerville died 4 December 1941

Also their son Robert Gillon, Killed in Action 4 October 1917

Also their daughter Helen M. Gillon 10 September 1979.

Copyright © Scots Roots Research 2013

The image of Robert Gillon’s will is reproduced with the kind permission of The National Archives of Scotland.

(This article was also published in The Oak Tree, the Journal of the West Lothian Family History Society.)

Alexander McMillan (1860 – 1932)

Alexander McMillan Alexander McMillan was born on 18 January 1860 in Grantown on Spey in Morayshire, the son of the village policeman.

Shortly before 1860, Alex’ father, John McMillan had been the school teacher at Kintail in Ross-shire but, in a fairly dramatic career change, had moved to Grantown, along with his wife Elizabeth and his three children, Ann, Donald and Johanna, to become its police constable.

In 1861, the family stayed in a small property at the West End of Grantown but by 1871 they had moved to the much larger Courthouse at the Square, having increased in number with the addition of several more children, Chirsty, John, Marjory and Margaret. The 1871 Census shows that part of the Courthouse was also used as the local prison.

By 1873, the family had moved to Cowdenbeath in Fife, where Alex’ youngest brother, Charles, was born and then to Markinch where his father continued to serve as a police officer until his retirement.

The next we hear of Alex is in 1881, aged 21, lodging at School Street, West Calder in West Lothian, and working as a teacher. School life is hard and the school in West Calder appears to be on the verge of falling down.

Before 1875, West Calder had a couple of main schools, the Public School and the Subscription School, both usually short staffed, often just one teacher and a couple of pupil teachers. In 1875, the managers of the Subscription School decided to hand their school over to the new School Board and the two schools were joined under the name of West Calder Public School with one building being used for senior pupils and the other used for juniors. A business meeting of the School Board in 1885 records that the West Calder schools had 6 teachers, 1 pupil teacher and 633 pupils. However, throughout this period, steady and prolonged criticism was made of the dilapidated state of the school buildings and the general conditions under which the staff worked.

On 19 October 1883, Alex married Elizabeth Gillon, daughter of Robert Gillon, a grocer in the village. Presumably, Alex was a reluctant bridegroom as their son, John, was born two days later on 21 October.

His family was further supplemented by Elizabeth, born in 1885, Annie, born in 1887 and Robert, born in 1891.

Addiewell Oil WorksSome time before 1885, Alex gave up teaching, possibly because the salary wasn’t enough to support his growing family, and he took a job as a clerk with Young’s Paraffin Light and Mineral Oil Company, one of the district’s largest employers, at the nearby Addiewell Oil Works.

Alex was very much involved in West Calder village life. In his younger days he was a keen athlete, being a very good short distance runner. He was Secretary of West Calder Football Club when the village had a senior team which could hold its own with the best of the country clubs in the East.

In March 1885, the Courier reports on a meeting of the West Calder Mutual Improvement Society – “the business of the meeting being a mimic parliament on the subject before the house – a vote censure on the Government’s Egyptian Policy. Mr Kennedy, teacher, was Premier and had as members of his Cabinet………Mr McMillan, Lord Advocate”.

He was one of the earliest members of West Calder Bowling Club and also of the Volunteers (a citizen army of part-time soldiers which was a precursor to today’s Territorial Army). He filled, for many years, the position of secretary of the local Horticultural Society and was a prominent member of the “Thistle” Lodge of Free Masons, secretary of the Lodge Friendly Society and Scribe E of the Royal Arch Chapter. He was one of the founding members of the Burns Club and held the position of treasurer for many years. In the earlier days of the West Calder Games, he acted as secretary. When a branch of the Farmers Union started in West Calder, they appointed him secretary and treasurer. He identified himself with almost every local organisation and offered valuable service.

Alex’ daughters Margaret and Joanna were born in 1894 and 1899 respectively. By 1899, he had moved to Union Street, still recorded as a mercantile clerk.

Shortly after the turn of the century, he became the owner and inn-keeper at the West End Hotel in West Calder where regular meetings of the West Calder ‘Clachan’ Burns Club were held.

In February 1908, the Midlothian Advertiser reports “On Friday evening the West Calder ‘Clachan’ Burns Club celebrated the anniversary of the National Bard’s birth under the hospitable roof of the West End Inn……… Mr MacMillan had prepared a sumptuous repast to which ample justice was done, more especially as the fare was ‘hamely’ and inviting. “Mack’s Hoose” has seldom sheltered a happier company…….Mr MacMillan proposed “Oor Ain Club”. He stated that the club was formed in 1883 and that although many of their original members had gone to other towns, and others were pushing their fortunes in foreign lands they still kept in touch with “their ain club” at hame. They had members all over the world, some in Australia, others in Canada, and several in South Africa, and some of them had minded them on that occasion by wishing the club a very happy evening. He hoped the club would go on and prosper in the years to come”.

During that period Alex, now in his 40s, became president of the Bowling Club. In 1906, following the opening of the new tennis court adjoining the bowling green, the Advertiser reports “Mr A. MacMillan, president of the Bowling Club, then stepped forward and opened the Bowling Club for the season. In doing so, Mr MacMillan said the past season of the club had been a most successful one. They had only lost one of the many matches played. The membership also had been very satisfactory and the funds were in a healthy state. They had not succeeded in bringing home any of the trophies but they hoped to do something in that line this season. He trusted that they would again have a good membership and that the game of bowling would continue to flourish in the village”.

Disaster struck in 1910 and Alex had to give up the hotel due to his wife Elizabeth’s failing health.

According to the Advertiser: “On Friday of last week a large and representative company met in the West End Inn to make a presentation to Mr and Mrs A. MacMillan on the occasion of their leaving the Inn.

Mr Robert Thomson, J.P., presided and Mr James Millar, Pumpherston Farm, acted as croupier. Refreshments were served to the company.

In making the presentation, Mr Millar said in joining with them that night to honour their esteemed guest, Mr MacMillan, which he did most heartily, he felt his inability to do anything like justice to their desires, or to the worthiness of the occasion ……He did not think they were met to honour their guest because of the high quality of the fluids he purveyed to the public, or for the manner in which he had conducted what one might call an exceptionally difficult business, although he had done so with great credit to himself and honour to the trade, but rather for their admiration for him as a man, with a personality which commanded their respect, and for qualities of head and heart, which won their admiration.

Mr MacMillan, in reply, said he felt very much the honour which had been done him, and the presence of such a representative company. The Chairman and the Croupier had made reference to the very pleasant relationships which had always existed between him and the farmers and others who met on his premises from time to time. He was pleased to think that what he had tried to do for their comfort had been so highly appreciated, but he felt that he had only done his duty. He was very pleased to see they had remembered Mrs MacMillan, as she was more entitled to any credit than he was. The burden of the work as a rule fell upon her. They were aware that she had been unwell for some time, but he was glad to be able to state that she was improving, and doubtless their kind remembrance of her would do much to cheer her in her illness.”

Sadly, Elizabeth McMillan died of heart disease in December that same year, at the age of 48.

In the following years, Alex remained committed to the Bowling Club and to the Burns Club, the newspapers regularly reportGravestoneing on games played and toasts given.

He continued at Addiewell Works until he retired, working mainly as a clerk in the mining office and in later years in charge of the weighing of the shale supplies as they came from the pits.

His son John became a mining engineer, based at the Niddry Castle mine at Winchburgh, son Robert was a plumber locally and two of his daughters were teachers at West Calder in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Alex McMillan died on 9 June 1932, aged 72, due to a perforated ulcer.

On 17 June 1932, the Midlothian Advertiser gave a brief history of his time in the village and reported “The funeral took place to West Calder Cemetery on Sunday afternoon and was attended by the members of the “Thistle” Lodge of Free Masons who carried through the service. The pall bearers had been his pupils when he was a teacher in West Calder School. A very large company of mourners was present to pay their last tribute of respect to one who was well known and had been associated with the public life of the village for over half a century”.

Copyright © Scots Roots Research 2013

(This article was also published in The Oak Tree, the Journal of the West Lothian Family History Society.)


James Gillon (1842 – 1917)

James Gillon (1842 – 1917)Born at Gartsherrie in Old Monklands in September 1842, James Gillon was the son of a miner and by the time he reached his 9th birthday he himself was working under ground, his first job being to pump water from a pit, at which he worked from 6 in the morning until 6 at night for the princely sum of 6d a day. He later became the custodian of pit ponies and when he got a little older he became a coal miner at Cambusnethan, joining his elder brother William (who was noted on the 1851 Census as a coal miner at the age of 10) and his father, Alexander Gillon.

Around 1862, the whole family (that’s Alex Gillon, wife Janet and 6 children) moved to Armadale. Shortly before the move, James had accepted the precentorship at Shotts Kirk, but he was so enthusiastic in fulfilling his duties that he tramped the road between Armadale and Shotts (about 8 miles each way) at least twice a week and even after a long shift in the mines, he thought nothing of facing a lengthy hike to attend a choir practice. Music was his great hobby, and on many occasions this relaxation helped him greatly in his many duties for, as he said himself, music “chased away all the ills of the day as with a magic wand”.

He served three years at Shotts Kirk as precentor and then accepted a similar appointment at Whitburn Free Church until, in August 1865, he was appointed precentor at Armadale Free Church (succeeding his brother William) where he continued in office for the following 32 years.

On 5th June 1863, he married Margaret Esson at Cambusnethan and moved to Whitburn.

Having gained a wealth of experience in the mines from a young age he used it to his advantage and became a contractor in the Shotts Iron Works ironstone mines around Armadale Railway Station, and later was a pit foreman, becoming subsequently manager of No. 2 Pit, Barbauchlaw, when it was taken over by Youngs Paraffin Light Co. He continued in this capacity for many years until the pit stopped, when he retired from underground activities.

In 1874, James and Margaret Gillon and their family of six children took up residence in Armadale and around 1877 he bought the property at the east side of Armadale Cross, comprising a draper’s shop and a dwelling-house. Around this time he retired from the mining industry and set up a grocery and provision business, firstly in West Main Street, and later in East Main Street, his wife, Margaret, mainly attending to the business, with the aid of her sons, until they left and started their own businesses elsewhere.

The business was a success and James was able to invest in property. The 1884-1885 Valuation Roll records him as the owner of two houses in Bathgate and a cottage in Armadale, where his mother is the tenant, as well as his shop and house in Armadale.

James Gillon (1842 – 1917)James played an important role in the religious and civic affairs of Armadale. In addition to his long service as precentor, he was Superintendent of the Sabbath School for seven years, and for many years he conducted a young women’s Bible Class. In politics he was an ardent LiberaI, and for some time president of the local Liberal Association. He served for ten years in Armadale Town Council and three years on Bathgate Parochial Board. He completed 23 years service on Bathgate Parish School Board and for more than 10 years he acted as chairman. He became a Baillie and was also a Justice of the Peace for the County. In 1905, James and his son Charles, now a councillor, were involved in setting up Armadale’s new sewage purification scheme.

The West Lothian Courier describes James as having “a fine, genial presence; a kindly, pawky humour; a cheerful countenance, …wherever the Baillie went he smoothed away all difficulties”.

On June 5th 1913, James and Margaret celebrated their golden wedding anniversary with many of their friends but, sadly, Margaret died three months later at the age of 71. The West Lothian Courier reported that she had been apparently hale and hearty the previous evening and going about her ordinary duties in characteristically cheery style.

The following year, James had a serious illness and was taken to a nursing home in Edinburgh suffering from a severe pain in his foot, which resulted in the leg being amputated above the knee. In view of his advanced years, and handicapped as he thus was, he was forced to give up his public positions but never failed to take a keen interest in all that was going on. When the weather was suitable he was to be seen either sitting at his front door in a bath chair or being pushed about the streets, where he was cheered by meeting and talking with his many friends.

James died in Armadale on 8th September 1917 at the age of 75.

His funeral at Bathgate Cemetery was attended by a large number of friends, colleagues and relations, including his son James, who was in the Royal Flying Corps, and reached home from France on the day of the funeral.

James Gillon (1842 – 1917)

Copyright © Scots Roots Research 2013

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.

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