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Coal oil and Shale oil worldwide

Exploring the context and influence of the Scottish industry

Oil has always been an international industry. To properly appreciate the significance and impact of the Scottish shale oil industry it is necessary to consider the marketplace in which the industry competed, and the links that existed between Scottish oil businesses and those elsewhere in Britain, and overseas. The Scottish oil industry influenced development of oil enterprises in many parts of the world, but was itself shaped by fierce competition from imported oils.

This section of the website will explore shale-oil and coal-oil production elsewhere in the world that was inspired or influenced by the Scottish oil industry. It may also touch on the Scottish contribution to petroleum production overseas. So far, only the North Wales coal-oil industry have been researched in any detail, although unordered notes are presented here covering some other areas where oil was produced from coal or shale..

As always, all assistance with this ambitious research project would be very welcome; please let us know if you have an interest in progressing areas of research that can be published through this website.


A Brief History

There are many claims to being first to produce mineral oils on a commercial scale. During the first half of the 19th century there were many locations around the world where crude oils were collected in quantity from natural seepages and hand-dug pits. Sometimes this crude oil was exported; (for example, small quantities of "Rangoon oil" from Burma were regularly imported into Britain), and occasionally this oil was roughly refined into various oil products. The rise of the gas industry, and the production of coke for iron smelting, also led to experimentation in the heating of coals and shales. At many locations, lubricating oils and tars were produced in small quantities in variations of these processes.

Scotland's claim to having the world's first commercial-scale oil industry stems from James Young's patent of 1851, which provided Young and his partners with a monopoly in the production of oils from cannel coal. Young chose to base his operations in Scotland to be close to supplies of Boghead cannel coal. Young's fame, and that of his new "paraffine" lamp oil, quickly spread thanks to a succession of high-profile court cases in which he successfully defended his patent. A network of sale offices were opened throughout Europe and Young's patent licenced for use in many countries. A substantial coal-oil industry flourished briefly on the north east coast of the USA, inspired by Scottish practice and initially fueled by supplies of Boghead cannel coal shipped across the Atlantic. Many new coal-oil businesses were equipped with specialist equipment manufactured in Scotland

The expiry of Young's patent in 1864 fuelled a huge proliferation of new coal-oil businesses in many areas where cannel coal was worked. Investors in these new enterprises seemed oblivious to the gradual influx of cheap American petroleum that followed drilling of the first oil wells in Pennsylvania during 1859. When Atlantic trade was restored following conclusion of the American civil war, the British and European markets were flooded with cheap American oil, leading to the bankruptcy of most coal-oil businesses.

In the meantime, James Young had turned his attention to production of oil from shale, reserves of which lay fortuitously close to his works in Scotland. After difficult beginnings, technology was developed to efficiently process this mineral, and a substantial shale oil industry became established in Scotland. This know-how was soon applied throughout the world. Scots promoted shale businesses overseas, supplying equipment, and often much of the workforce of these operations. Entire communities of Scottish shale workers relocated to Australia from the 1880's, and oil operations were also established in Canada, South Africa, and other parts of the British Empire

Shale oil production increased in many other parts of the world during the early years of the 20th century. Scottish expertise and experience was important in these developing industries and Scotland remained the centre of excellence for shale oil technologies into the 1950's


creative commons

We are happy to licence use of many images, extracts, and other resources of this website under a Creative Commons attribution, non-commercial licence (Scotland). See full copyright statement. Such material should be attributed to Almond Valley Heritage Trust and, where practical, a hyperlink provided to www.scottishshale.co.uk.