IT all began on a summer’s evening in 1846 when a standing-room-only crowd in a Canadian town witnessed a demonstration that would revolutionise lighting and heating around the world.

In Charlottetown, the capital of Canada’s Prince Edward Island, medical doctor Abraham Gesner distilled coal to create a clear fluid which when put into an oil lamp gave off a bright yellow flame.

He called the liquid kerosene, better known as paraffin once it found its way to the UK.

While the use of the lamps took off in the latter half of the 19th century, it would eventually become a fuel of choice and the paraffin heater was born.

Now a Scottish museum is intent on keeping the memory of the heaters alive through a new event aimed at families and a nationally significant collection which dates from the start of the 20th century through to the 1980s.

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Having ruled out attempting to demonstrate the use of the heaters on safety grounds, the Almond Valley Heritage Centre in Livingston is using the discovery of the legend of the Paraffin Pixies to allow children to appreciate what their parents and grandparents grew up with.

The pixies were friendly fictional creatures who lived inside the heaters and awakened to spread little parcels of heat and light on chilly winter evenings. All sorts of historical evidence was “uncovered” by the museum that documented the existence of the little beings.


This included 1930s newsreels promoting pixie-friendly designs of heaters and reminiscence of those recalling their childhood encounters with the Paraffin Pixies.

Almond Valley says it constructed a replica safe “heater”, over three metres high, to provide a new outdoor home for the surviving fictional population.

And so was born the Winter Realm of the Paraffin Pixies, a new after-hours event which began in December and continues into the first week of this month.

Dr Robin Chesters, director of the Almond Valley Heritage Trust, said: “In an age of central heating, both the joys of heat and exposure of this unique household appliance have been largely forgotten in a modern world.

“Displayed in neat chronological order within the museum, our old heaters tell a story of technological progress and changing tastes in design during the 20th century.

“Although perfectly displayed on high shelves, they can convey little about the experience of using and living with paraffin heaters to the young families that make up most of Almond Valley’s audience.

“Without the spark, warmth and feeling of togetherness that they created for families on the coldest evenings, it may be difficult for a modern audience to fully experience and understand the historical importance of such an unusual object.

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“Consideration was given into whether it would be possible to restore similar models and other older generations of heater, allowing families to experience the heat and unique smell of paraffin.

“This idea could not be brought to life, and was quickly dismissed on a host of safety grounds.”

But he says the new safe giant heater will act as an ornamental centrepiece to their event, sending out beams of light in all directions and telling the story of the pixies in a giant shadow theatre.

“This unusual and magical experience has already been enjoyed by many parents, grandparents and children who leave with a smile on their faces.

“The scent of paraffin and flames flickering close by, provide a little more appreciation of a bygone age when paraffin heat brought comfort and warmth to the family home,” said Dr Chesters.

The Almond Valley Heritage Trust already hosts the Museum of the Scottish Shale Oil Industry, which represents an enterprise pioneered by one of Scotland’s great Victorian heroes, James “Paraffin” Young.

Mr Young, who was born in the Drygate area of Glasgow, is perhaps most famous for discovering how to extract paraffin from oil.

He patented the process in 1851 and went on to establish an oil works in Bathgate.

It was the world’s first oil refinery and gave Young his nickname.

The discovery gave birth to an industry that transformed the landscape of West Lothian, leaving huge piles of shale across central Scotland.

At the height of its success, there were 40,000 people employed at 120 refineries in the region and three million tons of shale and coal were mined and treated.

The discovery made Young a wealthy man but there was more to him than that: he became friends with David Livingstone and financed some of the great explorer’s expeditions.