FOR years they were regarded as unsightly blots on the landscape, manmade mountains of pink-hued industrial waste rising randomly from the West Lothian countryside, the last remains of Scotland’s first great oil rush. 

Now, however, West Lothian’s towering shale bings are set to be celebrated in a heritage project aimed at reviving interest in a remarkable breakthrough that brought light to darkened homes across the land and, incredibly, turned the tiny community of Addiewell into the site of the world’s biggest oil refinery. 

A new 16-miles long Shale Trail which links sites, features and communities connected to the area’s once extensive oil shale industry, is being created in a bid to highlight its impact on Victorian Britain, and help a new generation understand the origins of its remaining 19 bings. 

The £300,000 trail, from West Calder in the south-west to Winchburgh in the north-east, will be accompanied by interactive signposts for walkers which will dig into the history of the shale below the footpath, how its mineral oils were extracted in huge refineries which once spanned the country, and then put to use in paraffin lamps, candles and lubricating oil that kept the machines of the industrial revolution – and two World Wars - turning. 

The trail will also highlight how West Lothian’s bings have evolved from mountains of waste to thriving sites of biodiversity, with scarce lichen and moss species found on some slopes along with orchids, alpine plants alongside hares, red grouse, badgers and blue butterflies.

More than 350 of West Lothian’s recorded 800 plant species have been found on the oil shale bings. 

The thriving biodiversity of today is at odds with what was once a filthy and often dangerous process of extracting shale from underground and turning it into the liquid gold that would transform the lives of Victorians and radically alter the West Lothian landscape. 

Glasgow-born chemist James ‘Paraffin’ Young had been using shale found among West Lothian’s coal deposits to produce lubricating oils and naphtha for use as a cleaning solvent when he finally developed a way of extracting paraffin. 

“Imagine yourself in 1850,” says Robin Chesters, Director of Almond Valley Heritage Trust, one of a group of organisations involved in planning the Shale Trail, said: “If you were rich, you could afford whale oil candles. But the poor folks didn’t have any light in their homes, no-one knew about petroleum and oil made from fish and whales was very expensive. 

“James Young was among a host of people who saw a commercial possibility in producing oil from coal or similar substances and perfected the process. 

“He almost invented the market for domestic paraffin oil lamps, and during the 1850s and 1860s, he was a household name. He brought light to the masses.”

Scotland’s first oil rush was rooted in prehistoric times, when a vast lagoon covered a massive area of shale coal across West Lothian, stretching under the Forth towards Burntisland and west towards Lanarkshire.

The discovery near Bathgate of torbanite  - fine-grained coal, rich in oil which could burn for weeks - ignited Young’s innovative mind. 

Having patented his process of extracting oil in liquid form – a process that’s been likened to drawing blood from a stone - Young opened the world’s first oil refinery near Bathgate and began lighting up Britain.

He was already massively rich when the expiry of his patents in 1860 sparked a massive ‘oil rush’. 

“During the 1860s there was oil mania, everyone thought they could be an oil tycoon and began digging up their garden. Huge amounts of money were lost,” adds Mr Chesters.

Scores of hastily-built refineries sprung up from West Lothian across to Burntisland, and over the course of the following century would extract some 164 million tons of oil shale.

One oil shale mine and refinery in Broxburn transformed the tiny village from farming community into an oil-fuelled Klondyke, with more than 10,000 gallons of crude oil produced every day. Meanwhile, the even smaller village of Addiewell ballooned from just 23 people to 1300 in the space of just six years. 

The fuel they made was sold across the country, with some shipped from the docks at nearby Grangemouth bound for Scandinavia and Europe, helping to lay the foundations for today’s massive petrochemical plant.

But while some oil barons grew rich, others risked death on a daily basis as rocks were blasted to release the shale - one explosion at Burngrange mine near West Calder left 15 men dead. 

Others faced the miserable task of digging out the vital mineral using pickaxes and piling it on to horse-drawn carts to be taken to refineries run by the likes of the Pumpherston Oil Co. Ltd, Broxburn Oil Co. Ltd, James Ross & Co. and Young’s Mineral Oil and Paraffin Light Co. Ltd.

Eventually, around five large firms emerged to produce up to 10% of Britain’s oil from their West Lothian refineries.

“People were moving to West Lothian from Ireland and the Highlands, new communities were springing up around these shale works,” adds Mr Chesters. “Life was harsh for shale workers, with special hazards such as paraffin cancers. Many shale miners felt slightly superior to coal miners who had to suffer more difficult underground conditions.”

Shale oil produced in West Lothian played a key role in the First World War and provided lubrication to keep the wheels of industry moving. 

However by 1925, economic interests had changed and fuel began to arrive from overseas, making shale-produced oil a less attractive option. 

The shale industry limped on until 1962 under a single British Petroleum banner amid concerns that its complete demise would leave up to 20,000 workers without jobs. 

The Shale Trail, which coincides with suggestions that shale could again be used to fuel the nation and extracted uses controversial fracking techniques, is set to be launched next year. It has received funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the EU-backed LEADER programme. 

Heath Brown, Shale Trail Heritage Manager, said: “There have been lots of housing developments across West Lothian over recent years, and this heritage of the mining and shale industry that was once so prominent has been largely lost.Today there’s not much evidence of all the major petrochemical plants that were once in the area, other than the bings, and people coming to live in West Lothian from other areas may not even know about its industrial heritage.

“This project will link communities to their industrial past and enable people of all ages to explore and learn about how the past shale history in West Lothian has shaped local landscapes, our economy and today’s natural environment.”