The West Lothian Oil Rush

If you look down the somnolent mainstreet of post-industrial Pumpherston, it’s difficult to believe that West Lothian was the centre of the world’s first oil boom, but it was. James “Paraffin” Young didn’t discover paraffin in 1851, but he was the first to exploit it under the protection of patents. James Young became very rich, and transformed the way houses throughout Britain and further afield were lit after dark. He also changed the economy of West Lothian.

Previously, it was an agricultural county of rain-leached, rushy fields. In 1800 a total of 15,000 people lived here while the population of Scotland as a whole was 1,500,000. James Young’s interest lay, however, in what was underneath the surface of West Lothian, in its oil shale. By 1881 its population had soared to 43,000, largely because of the industry’s need for people to mine and process the shale. Places like Pumpherston, Bathgate, even high and isolated Tarbrax, over the border in Lanarkshire, had their moment of economic importance.

James Young was born in the Drygate of Glasgow in 1811. His father was a cabinetmaker who took his son as his apprentice. He enrolled at Anderson’s College, later to mutate into Strathclyde University, when he was 19, and caught the attention of Professor Thomas Graham of “Graham’s Law” fame. Professor Graham took him to the University College, London, as his research assistant in 1837.

Two years later, when he was twenty eight, Young was appointed manager of a chemical works on Merseyside. In 1847 he was alerted to a coal mine on the Derbyshire estate of the brother -in-law of a friend who had been a student with him at Anderson’s College. Crude oil was saturating the coal of this pit. Young investigated, and succeeded in distilling from the petroleum a light lamp oil, and a thicker substance, suitable for lubricating machinery. He gave up his job, and went into business for himself selling the results of the oil’s separation.

He was trying to make it a success at an opportune moment. Britain was gripped by its Industrial Revolution, and the population was growing. Its machines needed lubricating, and Young had the answer. That we automatically think of a mineral oil for greasing a mechanism is due to Young’s legacy. There were no off-the-shelf products available. Tallow or something vegetable was the answer. “Castrol”, the well- known brand of mineral grease owes its name to its vegetable origins; it was a play on “Castor Oil.”

The rise in the population produced an increasing desire that the technocrats should produce an answer to the seemingly unsolvable conundrum: how do you lighten the darkness that comes with nightfall? It’s difficult now, with illumination a click of a light-switch away, to imagine the curtailment of activity it must have brought.

The increase in population meant the number of middle-class people grew. These were the targets of the paraffin oil manufacturers, and later of the gas and electricity companies. How could you have family gatherings round the piano, if you couldn’t illuminate them?

James Young had produced an oil for lamps that burnt more brightly, and he changed the design of lamps. Previously the reservoir of unburnt oil had to be on a level with the burner, but now it could move below it. Paraffin was thin enough for capillary action to take it up the wick to the burning-edge. Lamps could be more compact.

Before, the only oil which burnt brightly was that from the head of the sperm whale. This was very expensive, and became more so as the nineteenth century progressed and whales were increasing hunted to extinction in the northern hemisphere. “One candle power” was defined as the light produced from a 2 oz. spermaceti candle, made from the head-liquid of sperm whales.

James Paraffin Young candlesAn important aspect of Young’s process was that it produced paraffin wax, which was made into candles which burnt brightly. By the end if the nineteenth century they had supplanted tallow candles, formerly the workhorse of the candle world. Tallow candles guttered and smelt. Paraffin wax was cheap, and the candles had a smooth sheen that caught the eye.

James Young decided to move to Bathgate, to the Torbanehill coalfield, in 1851. He had been supplied with a sample of its coal by another classmate who had become manager of a Glasgow gas works. Networking was to play its part in James Young’s career. The gasworks manager had heard that the residents of Bathgate used to use pans of “cannel” or “parrot” coal as a source of light (“cannel” because it gave off light like a candle, “parrot” because it constantly chattered like a parrot as it burnt)

He set up an oilworks in 1851, which over the next fourteen years helped to ensure his renown and brought paraffin to the fore. “Paraffin” (originally with an “e” on the end) by which the product became known in Britain and Ireland, and “kerosene” which it was called in most of the rest of the world, started off life as trademarks which became genericized, in the way that “hoover” now refers to any vacuum cleaner.

Young became the owner of a well-known lamp works, which earned him his nick-name of “Paraffin.” He had the fractionation process sewn-up in international patents, which he didn’t hesitate to defend. Prior claimants like Selligue of France, or Gesner of Canada (who called his product “kerosene”) faced legal action. While over in America collecting his royalties in 1859, Young actually visited the world’s first oil-well in Pennsylvania.

There was a flaw in James Young’s monopoly: the cooking, or retorting, process which the coal, later the shale, had to undergo before the crude oil was ready for the refinery. American crude flowed out of the ground, a pre-prepared feedstock. This didn’t matter initially. Native Scottish endeavour and improvement saw the retorting process squeeze every last drop of oil out of the shale, but it wasn’t sufficient after Britain got its hands on its own source of oil from the ground from Persia (now Iran), after the First World War. From this time, the West Lothian shale industry declined.

Young’s patents were to end after1864. He was to move from Bathgate to Addiewell, to a site which covered 50 acres (25 hectares) which was built in 1863. Everything about the new works was described in superlatives by contemporaries.

The end of his patents led to a mushrooming of small oil works. There were at least sixty across Central Scotland. Most had closed down after a year or two, but this constituted Britain’s first and only oil rush.

The Bathgate works had originally contained only three retorts. At Addiewell there were 354. The main oil line was a yard in diameter.

The foundation stone was laid by another of his class-mates at Anderson’s College-David Livingstone, the missionary and explorer. A publicity coup of this nature can’t be exaggerated, for Livingstone was a leading celebrity of his day.
Most importantly, these works were designed to use oil shale, which underlay the eastern half of West Lothian. Young had undertaken trials at Bathgate using the new material, for supplies of cannel coal were running out, and he was confident he could get oil out of shale.

shale bingThe vast bings of waste which the exertions of the retort men created are unique to West Lothian. They are stable and non-toxic. They supply verticals in a flat landscape.

They create controversy: some say they are a fitting memorial to James Young and the countless thousands who created them, others find them the debris of a past industry, which should have been cleared away long ago. Some have been abandoned nearly ninety years ago. The Five Sisters bing near West Calder is now listed as an ancient monument.

The shale weathers to the familiar red colour, although it was blue-gray when it came out off the retort. This is why the chief constituent of a bing is called “blaes,” the Scots for “blue stuff.”

The shale oil industry went from strength to strength in Victorian Britain. It supplied lighting and lubrication, even petrol latterly. It exported widely. Its collapse came quickly when the oil of Persia came on stream after the First War, and the oil from Iraq in 1935. Both were client states of Britain’s.

The last shale mine closed in 1962.The writing had been on the wall for a long time.

The Scottish Shale Oil Museum at the Almond Valley Heritage Centre has the definitive collection of artefacts, and a good website.

If you enjoyed this article you may also like to read about the botanical wonders of the shale bings.

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