PICTURE the scene: thousands of workers down mines, blasting and shovelling. Men and pit ponies pulling rock-laden hutches or bogeys to the surface, where they are taken by rail to massive brick-built furnaces where the rock would be crushed at extremely high temperatures to produce oil.

These bizarre-looking contraptions, known as retorts, represented the leading edge in the 1850s. The dark, tyrannical tableau they created was home to the world’s first end-to-end oil industry, nestled in the flat lands between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Better known for coal, farming and weaving, West Lothian had been transformed into an industrial powerhouse as the world’s first great oil producer. Thousands of immigrant workers poured in, looking for jobs. Would-be entrepreneurs snapped up land in pursuit of easy profit. This was Victorian Scotland’s very own Klondike. 

Why West Lothian and why the 1850s? The “here” is simple: it so happened that West Lothian sat on an enormous pile of shale rock. And in 1851 Glasgow-born chemist James Young – better known later as “Paraffin” Young – worked out how to extract oil from rock to an industrial scale, ahead of everyone else.

Mechanised Victorian industry needed lubrication, and Young wanted to find safer, cheaper alternatives to whale oil and tallow. People needed easy-to-use lighting, and Young’s paraffin gave them just that. He mined the rock, processed the oil and even manufactured and retailed the paraffin lamps. He became a millionaire, almost overnight, one of the first industrialists 
to do so.

West Lothian today is subject to various contentious shale gas exploration bids by Grangemouth’s operator, Ineos. The multinational has been handed licences by the UK government to frack for underground shale gas across hundreds of square kilometres of central Scotland. At present, there is a moratorium on fracking in Scotland but there is believed to be shale gas deep below the warren of exhausted shale mine workings. Whether it might be extracted economically is another matter, as is the controversy over the “fracking” technology it would require, and whether that might ever be permitted due to environmental concerns.

Six decades after the closure of the last shale works at Westwood, near West Calder, there is one distinctive legacy. West Lothian’s modern landscape is still marked with shale’s unique footprint, the “red mountains” or shale bings standing at Broxburn, Winchburgh and Addiewell. Hand-built, literally, they are the towering  remains of an industry that employed more than 10,000 people and played a key role in our modern economic history.

The bings themselves are remarkable works of wonder. Where once there were nearly 30 of these giant reddish-pink ash-heaps – reputedly bearing 200 million tons of spent material, enough to swamp the city of Edinburgh – there remain a handful, including officially protected “historic monuments” such as the spectacular Five Sisters at Addiewell.

Motorcyclists on scramblers head to Greendykes near Broxburn at the weekend, an enormous bing whose outline resembles a Caledonian version of Australia’s famous Ayers Rock. They ride like daredevils over and across the man-made mountain, amidst sightseers and hikers, and even the occasional botanist, attracted by the rare flora and fauna to be found in the heavily alkaline soil. Apparently the bings even have their own rare orchid. 

Having begun 165 years ago as Scotland industrialised quickly in the steam age, shale oil spent decades in steady decline. Even then, by-products such as fertiliser and detergent continued to be produced. As dozens of bings were removed, the spent ash was used for the construction of major new roads like the M8 and the Forth Road Bridge approaches. The ash was mixed into building materials for new towns like Livingston. It constitutes those ubiquitous red “blaes” football pitches, so a few of us who played juvenile football may have some of the stuff embedded in our knees.

The industry has left communities who hold a significant stake in Scotland’s industrial history, but one that is less than well-known.

Tell folk in downtown West Calder or among the surviving miner’s rows of Tarbrax that you want to talk about shale and they exclaim “about time!” These villages have been denied the celebration accorded to better known industrial areas like Clydeside, their past kept alive by a fascinating small museum in Livingston and an excellent local history library, but rarely glorified in the media. Somehow shale is a blank in the national memory.

It was not always so. The Scottish industry once represented the state of the art. Initial production in 1851 narrowly pre-dated the development of the first US oilfields in Pennsylvania. But much of the technology was developed in Scotland and patented worldwide. Those patents were the real source of Young’s magnificent fortune. He was not wasteful: a strict Presbyterian, he lived relatively modestly, funding the adventures of his lifelong friend, the missionary David Livingstone.

Young’s first works at Bathgate, built amidst great secrecy, quickly ran out of torbanite, a natural oil-bearing shale which was highly flammable. But the discovery of cheaper but lower-yielding common oil shale nearby, and the expiry of several of Young’s initial patents, created a bonanza. Speculators bought or rented land for exploration. Mines were being sunk all over the county. Thousands of men and their families flooded into the area from the rest of Scotland, and further afield, in search of work and a decent wage.

The town of Broxburn became home to hundreds of retorts, with rock being crushed and heated around the clock. Production reached 10,000 gallons of crude oil a day. “It all happened very quickly. There are accounts of half built cottages and muddy roads, and odd shaped works with flares coming out all over the place,” says Robin Chesters, director of the Scottish Shale Oil Museum.

The landscape was transformed. Agricultural land was mined, farmhouses abandoned, miners’ rows built hurriedly. Several villages such as Addiewell owe their existence to shale. 

“The priority was to get the oil works built and the mines sunk, so for a long time a lot of the population must have been living in poor conditions,” observes local historian Sybil Cavanagh.

Tara Dolan, trade unionist and shale villager, remembers family tales handed down through the generations. “My family are originally from Ireland, my grandfather’s from Cavan and my granny from Mayo,” she recalls. “We are in West Lothian because my grandfather came to work in the shale industry. He was working in Tarbrax pit there when they got married in 1911. 

“He went from pit to pit for better wages, so their first child John was born in Tarbrax, but the next was born in Livingston, then Bathgate, Dechmont, Addiewell, before they moved to New Breich. He was always moving pit.

“My granny said her stuff was never off the cart, she’d no sooner got her house the way she wanted it than she’d have to move again. They had eight children and only two were born in the same place.”

Work in the mines was physically tough, and conditions were different from more conventional coal mining, where the coal company owned everything. The structure of employment was quite different. Often the men who worked the face – who blasted the rock and dug it out – were self employed. They bought their own blasting powder, and paid the drawers – usually younger men, and often sons or relatives – who loaded the “hutches” with up to a ton of rock at a time. 

Former miner Eddie McLean, who left the industry when the final mine closed in 1962, remembers underground conditions well.  “You made holes for the blasting. The fuse and explosives went in and you shouted ‘fire!’ and hoped everybody heard you,” jokes Eddie. “We shifted 20 hutches a day. It was a dangerous job, no doubt.”

Paradoxically, the eventual downfall of shale lay in its technology, because so much effort had to be made to extract the oil. The process worked well, but it became increasingly inefficient compared to oil from new sources in the Middle East. In parts of Iran and Azerbaijan, the black stuff literally oozed from the ground. 

In decline during the early 1900s, the industry was saved when Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, awarded a massive contract to supply the Royal Navy. But post-war, the downward trend returned swiftly and dozens of mines closed. In villages like Tarbrax, miners were fired, and re-hired only to help demolish their own homes. No job, no house.

Shale’s painful lack of competitiveness was underlined between the wars, when Grangemouth refinery was built. Soon it became plain that oil from far-off Iran cost less than the stuff produced 10 miles away at Broxburn.

The surviving companies were merged into Scottish Oils, which in turn became part of Anglo-Persian (later BP). Rationalisation followed, and the industry limped on. It produced gasoline, and a big range of lubricants. It revived a little in wartime. But its end was inevitable.

Scotland’s shale story has languished in the history books. The villages, and those magnificent bings, are memorials to an industry that led the world. “The bings distinguish West Lothian as being a special place. There is still a strong sense of community,” says Robin Chesters. “There is that pride that Scotland was there first.”

Maurice Smith is the producer of Scotland’s First Oil Rush, a documentary to be broadcast on BBC TWO Scotland at 9pm, Tuesday May 17.

Shale Oil

  • Shale rock is derived from the breaking down of organic matter into layers created millions of years ago in lagoons, when Scotland’s land mass was much closer to the Equator
  • Shale oil was extracted from rock that was mined, then crushed at extremely high temperatures in contraptions known as “retorts”
  • The original rock was known as “torbanite”, which was highly flammable but in limited supply. The industry took off when cheaper shale was found to the east of Bathgate
  • The retorts, and the refining system – which produced industrial oils, lighting, gasoline, kerosene and candle wax – were designed and patented by James “Paraffin” Young
  • The shale oil industry declined because much cheaper oil supplies became available from the Middle East.


  • Whereas shale oil was mined in West Lothian, shale gas is obtained by hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, a system developed in the United States.
  • Fracking involves drilling to depths far greater than shale was mined. Large amounts of water and chemicals are forced into the deep-lying shale to release gas from within.
  • Although there is undoubtedly shale deep under West Lothian, it is not known whether it holds economically justifiable amounts of gas
  • There is currently a moratorium on shale “fracking” in Scotland, although operators led by Ineos are keen to explore its potential
  • Ineos is spending millions preparing its Grangemouth processing plant to accept specially built tankers carrying US shale gas