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It's Scotland's Oil !

by Tom McVicar - posted August 2012

Now a Canadian citizen, Tom McVicar began his working life topside at Westwood pit with the hutch mender. Soon after, not liking the cold, he transferred to Westwood works as an office boy. He was there for 10 years, having reached the dizzy heights of wages clerk. His father, Thomas Brown McVicar, was the underground manager at Westwood pit until he retired.

It's Scotland's Oil ! That was the slogan of the Scottish National Party (SNP) when oil was discovered in the North Sea in the 1970's - it was also the slogan that almost had me cancelling my membership. Linking a finite source of oil to the quest for independence made no sense to me; apart from which, the slogan was a century behind the times. It should have been the chant in 1862 when my hero, Glasgow chemist, James 'Paraffin' Young, began distilling oil from shale in Bathgate, West Lothian. Without Dr. Young I probably wouldn't exist.

Reams have been written about how Dr Young patented his system of 'cooking' the shale in retorts and began an industry that lasted for a hundred years. How, from the grey, flattish, sedimentary shale rocks, (they were great as skimmers) Young's Paraffin Light & Mineral Oil Co, Ltd., mined over 3 million tons of shale per year at its peak, exporting lamp oil, paraffin, naphthalene, lubricating oil, grease and sulphate of ammonia - (a fertilising agent.) For a number of years, Scotland led the world in the production of oil and naphtha, and its 'light oil' was world renowned, as were Dr. Young's patented oil lamps.

It is also well recorded how the shale was so rich in oil to begin with, that it produced 40 gallons per ton, but as the good stuff was used up, the poorer quality shale, which by then had to be mined from deeper and deeper pits, produced less oil per ton; eventually producing only 16 gallons of crude oil per ton. This didn't matter during WWII, as the country was desperate for oil; in fact the government reduced the excise duty for every gallon the company produced.

In the late 1950's, the company, by this time known as Scottish Oils, faced closure due to the importation of cheap oil (there's an oxymoron for you!) from Iran. The company made a valiant attempt to survive, not only did it produce the world's first liquid detergent, 'By-Prox,' but it increased throughput by building a new experimental retort from an American design. The new retort worked, inasmuch as each ton of shale began producing 22 gallons of oil, but it was too late. The Westminster government revoked the 2/9d per gallon subsidy. Westwood, the last pit and works, closed in 1962, leaving behind a countryside blighted by spoil heaps, 'bings.'

What isn't written about is Young's P.L & M. Oil Company's, most precious product; a product that was also being exported around the world - people. Skilled people, geologists, miners, blacksmiths, electricians, engineers, and chemists who emigrated across the British Empire, especially to Canada. The shale companies had a lot to do with boosting the respect in which Scots are held around the planet. Come to think of it, perhaps the shale oil industry also had a lot to do with how we got our reputation for parsimony - after all, we were squeezing money out of rocks.

At one point, Young's employed 10,000 people. Ten thousand people not counting spouses and children. The P.L. & M.O. solved the problem of where to put all these workers by building villages for them - complete villages dedicated to one particular mine or works. I was born in one such village, Livingston Station, before the family moved to Mossend, another company village of around 300 homes. My Father and his Father before him were born in Young's houses. Three generations who not only lived and loved in company villages, but worked in the pits.

Most of the villages were razed after the pits closed down, such as Gavieside; Livingston Station; Mossend; Happyland; Burngrange and Limefield. There are still villages with the original names, but with no, or few, Young's homes, such as Addiewell; Breich; Blackburn; Harburn; Brandy Braes; Hermand; Cobbinshaw;. Uphall and Broxburn also had Scottish Oils homes. (Google any of these villages names, and add 'Canada,' and you will be surprised by the number of Canadians looking for ancestors from these villages.)

Even in the 1940's, which is the earliest I can remember, the rows of houses were basic, but they provided shelter, a place to start a family - in our case that would be my two older sisters and I. We had a single electric light in each room, but no plug points. There was a toilet (shunky) but no bath - the 'bath' was a portable zinc one we hung out in the garden until it was bath time.

That meant every day for our father, who came home after a hard days graft, exhausted and sometimes unrecognizable under the dirt. The bath would be brought in, placed in the middle of the floor, and filled up with water heated in pots and pans on the range. The scullery had a single cold water tap.

There was no such thing as central heating or double glazing. There was a single fireplace in the living room. In winter we went to bed with our day clothes on top of the bed clothes in an attempt to keep warm (in the 1940's the winters were pretty cold in central Scotland.) We also used to place the bed's legs in small basins full of water and pour naphtha onto the water until it formed a skin across the surface. This prevented the silverfish that carpeted the floor every night, from taking over completely, and we made sure to take our boots to bed with us.

My paternal grandfather worked as a shale miner. He was killed in a roof fall. Because of the nature of the shale seams, shale mining was inherently safer than coal mining as there was less chance of firedamp (methane), but it was more unstable than coal, leading to more cave-ins. And, because there wasn't the same amount of dust in a shale mine as in a coalmine, the coal miners had a vastly greater chance of contracting pneumoconiosis. Because of this, coalminers looked down on shale miners, not that it bothered the shale miners, who were allowed the luxury of smoking at the bottom of the pit shaft.

Much like Alberta draws in immigrants now, so it was for the Scottish shale oil industry. It didn't just siphon workers from other parts of the country, but brought in immigrants from Ireland as well. I know this because my maternal grandfather emigrated from Eire to Scotland during the 1870's- the third Irish potato famine. First of all, he tried Canada (the first mention of Canada in the family) but didn't stay long before settling in Scotland. My Mother was born in Happyland, in West Calder, (Happyland was just behind where the Regal cinema sits - or sat) another P.L. & M.O. village, and it was there that my Father and she met. Happyland was built for the workers at Addiewell.

At one point there were over 100 shale pits operating in the 150 square kilometres that delineated the shale fields. When I started working for the company in the 1950's there were three in the immediate neighbourhood - Westwood, Breich and Hermand. Addiewell was still working as a pit, but the shale was being sent to Westwood Works for processing. The pollution caused by these pits was outside any modern frame of reference.

The rivers didn't quite run red; they were black and yellow instead. Falling into the black burn meant burning your clothes as attempting to clean them was a waste of energy. Falling into the yellow burn solved the cleaning problem; it dissolved your clothing as you wore it. The problem with the yellow burn was trying to get out of your clothing before your flesh was eaten away. The confluence of both burns was a no-go area. Nothing lived there, not even weeds.

The bings (from the Old Norse 'bingr,' meaning pile or heap of waste) were everywhere. Not just the reddish bings of spent shale that people nowadays associate with West Lothian, but small, black bings from a century of pits and works. Waste heaps so old that heather and whin bushes were growing on them, and residents accepted them as a part of the natural topography, not realising what they were. If the bing consisted of greyish/black shale instead of reddish shale, it meant that the shale hadn't been retorted property. There was still a large amount of oil locked up in that bing.

This created the ideal environment for spontaneous combustion. In one particular bing from the old Gavieside works, near Polbeth, the bing flared up suddenly. The local story was that a cow had wandered on to the top of the bing which had been quietly smouldering under the surface. The poor bovine's weight caused it to break through the crust, and it became instant roast beef; at the same time allowing oxygen to flow in, hence the burst of flames. I can't vouch for the story but I do know the bing had flames, smoke and fumes pouring out of it for years. Altogether it burned for 20 years, and other waste heaps burned for years. In the central belt of modern Scotland, some of the huge bings have been used as foundations for motorway networks or made into SOL bricks. Some are now protected areas. One particular bing, Westwood's Five Sisters bing, is now a part of West Calder's coat of arms.

The Five Sisters was only two sisters when I started working for Scottish Oils. The hopper took 6 tons of spent shale at a time to the top and tipped it over. It was quite possible to crouch down and get past the engineman's windows and into the hopper fill area under the building. There we would wait for the hopper to start moving and then jump onto the front buffers; that way, the engineman couldn't see us at all. But it was imperative that we jumped off the buffers before the hopper tipped over. That was when the engineman would see us, as there was nowhere to hide. Why Five sisters? No reason at all; they were the beginnings of a monster bing like Addiewell's. If the company hadn't failed, after those five arms were finished, the spaces in between would be filled up and it would look like a normal bing as the hopper tipped its load along the top.

The ironic thing about the pollution was that many villagers who had emphysema or asthma or other breathing difficulties seemed to be cured if they were downwind of the smoke and fumes from Westwood Works. Now if Paraffin Young could have bottled that, he would be everybody's personal hero.

After WWII, we moved from Mossend to Polbeth, a council village. This was next door to James Young's original home, Limefield House and where his niece, Miss Thom lived in my day. My pals and I used to play along Limefield Burn. The burn was clean and just out of sight of Limefield House it had a waterfall, where we used to dare each other to walk along the top, or climb up the beech tree trunk that had been washed over in a spate and was wedged between the burn bed and the top of the waterfall. I discovered later that James Young had commissioned Limefield Falls as a tribute for his great friend Doctor Livingstone who had discovered Victoria Falls. There was slight discrepancy in sizes. Limefield wasn't exactly the Zambezi River, and the waterfall wasn't one mile across like Victoria Falls, but apparently Dr. Livingstone loved it when he came to visit.

Before immigrating to Canada with my Scots Canadian wife, who was also born in a P.L. & M.O. home, we were privileged to stay for a few days in Limefield House, which had been turned into a hotel. I found it very fitting that I should have come into this Scottish world in a Scottish Oils house and before leaving, stay in the Scottish Oils home, James 'Paraffin' Young's own residence. We took a walk along Limefield burn to the waterfall and found everything eerily the same, which is more than I could say for my Mossend home.

When we drove down the Cleuch Brae in West Calder and turned right towards Mossend, I expected to see nothing but rubble when we arrived. What I wasn't prepared for was the tractor piling up mounds of cow manure on my old address in East Street. I was mortified. My new wife burst out laughing.

"So!" she said, "Even the farmer knows that you talk a load of BS".

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