Scots Roots

March 24, 2017, 5:58 pm
Filed under: Photographs, Scottish History, West Lothian | Tags: ,

Almondell 1Almondell and Calderwood Country Park in West Lothian was once the setting for Almondell House, the country retreat of the Honourable Henry (Harry) Erskine (1746 – 1817), a younger son of the 10th Earl of Buchan. Almondell was then a private estate belonging to the Erskine family and here, in stunning surroundings of woodland and a river valley, Erskine designed and built his mansion in 1786. The building had major flaws in its design and construction however, and was demolished in 1969.

Almondell 2Almondell House had a two-storey centre section flanked by pavilion-roofed wings and stood where today the car park for disabled visitors is situated. This is a short distance from the Visitor Centre which occupies the former coach house and stables. Next to this, part of the walled kitchen garden still stands.

Almondell 3

Old stable block, now a Visitor Centre.

Almondell 4Erskine was an outstanding lawyer and politician with a great social conscience and was known as the “poor man’s advocate”. His illustrious career included two spells as Lord Advocate for Scotland, Dean of the Faculty of Advocates and Member of Parliament, first for Fife, and then for Haddington and Dumfries. But an architect Erskine certainly wasn’t.  “The roof would not keep the water out,” said his son, “and the foundations would not let it away.”

Almondell 5Almondell 6All the same, a young relation of Erskine, Henry David Inglis Esq., always looked forward to holidays at Almondell. He wrote in the Edinburgh Literary Journal of the mail coach setting him down (always with his fishing tackle) at Almondell gate, about three quarters of a mile from the house, and “the beauty of that secluded domain.” And, best of all, a melon from the garden’s melon-bed.

To get to the house from the south, Henry Erskine commissioned Alexander Nasmyth, the Scottish painter, architect and landscape designer, to build a bridge over the river Almond. Parts of the bridge collapsed into the river in 1973 but it was restored in 1997.

Almondell 7

Nasmyth Bridge

The house and estate remained in the family until the 1950’s. A fire caused extensive damage to the building in the 1960’s which hastened its end.

In 1971, the estate was officially designated as West Lothian’s first country park.

Almondell 8Copyright © Yvonne MacMillan and Scots Roots 2017


House of the Binns, West Lothian
February 24, 2017, 11:40 am
Filed under: Photographs, Scottish History, West Lothian | Tags: ,

House of the Binns 1The Binns estate, near Linlithgow, is situated on two hills from which it derives its name and the current House of the Binns was built by Thomas Dalyell in 1612. Thomas was an Edinburgh butter merchant who made his fortune as Deputy Master of the Rolls in the court of King James VI and I in London.

House of the Binns 2Thomas’s son, General Tam Dalyell, was a famous Royalist commander in the Civil War who later became the first colonel of the Royal Regiment of Scots Dragoons, also known as the Royal Scots Greys.

The remains of the steading where the General billeted his troops and the Sergeant’s Pond where they watered the horses can still be seen if walking round the grounds.

House of the Binns 3

The Steading

Extensions were made to the house in the 18th and 19th centuries by Sir Robert Dalyell and his son James.

The tower on the hill, a folly built by Sir James Dalyell in 1826 apparently as the result of a wager, commands a superb panoramic view of the Firth of Forth to the North and the Pentland Hills to the South.

House of the Binns 4

The Tower

The house has remained the home of the Dalyell family to the present day, although it was gifted to the National Trust for Scotland in 1944 provided that subsequent generations of the family would retain the right to live there.

House of the Binns 5

House of the Binns 6

St Michael’s Church, Linlithgow
October 16, 2016, 11:29 am
Filed under: Photographs, Scottish History, West Lothian | Tags: , ,

St Michael's Church, Linlithgow 1Standing on a hill next to the old Royal palace at Linlithgow, St Michael’s church can be seen from miles away in all directions – thanks, in particular, to its distinctive crown-topped tower.

St Michael's Church, Linlithgow 2Built in the 12th century, the church has seen many changes. It was used as a garrison storehouse by King Edward I of England in the years prior to the Battle of Bannockburn. It was badly damaged by a great fire in 1424 and took more than a hundred years to rebuild. Much of the money for its rebuilding came from the Stewart monarchs who liked to worship there.

St Michael's Church, Linlithgow 3Mary, Queen of Scots, was born at Linlithgow Palace in 1542 and was baptised at St Michael’s.

In 1646, Oliver Cromwell’s roundhead troops arrived in Linlithgow and men and horses were billeted in the church.

St Michael's Church, Linlithgow 4Further repair work was needed in the early 1800s when it was realised that some of the ceiling beams were rotten. In 1821 the old stone crown which sat on top of the tower had to be removed because it was too heavy. This crown was eventually replaced in 1964 with a 58 feet tall crown made of light anodised aluminium.

St Michael's Church, Linlithgow 5

St Michael's Church, Linlithgow 6

Linlithgow Palace
June 8, 2015, 3:20 pm
Filed under: Photographs, Scottish History, West Lothian | Tags: , ,

Linlithgow PalaceLinlithgow PalaceSituated 15 miles west of Edinburgh, Linlithgow was a royal palace built and developed mainly by the Stewart kings and queens over the 15th and 16th centuries.

The palace provided a convenient stopping point on the journey between Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle.

James V was born at Linlithgow in 1512 and his daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, was born here in December 1542.

The palace fell into decline after James VI moved his royal court to London in 1603 following the union of the crowns.

Linlithgow PalaceFire destroyed much of its interior in 1746 and today it is maintained as a visitor attraction by Historic Scotland.

Linlithgow Palace

To see more, please click on Scottish Castles.

Jousting at Linlithgow Palace
July 25, 2014, 3:47 pm
Filed under: Photographs, Scottish History | Tags: , ,

Here’s a short film of jousting at Linlithgow Palace. Linlithgow was a royal palace used mainly by the Stewart kings and queens. Mary, Queen of Scots, was born here in December 1542.

Copyright © Scots Roots Research 2014

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

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