The Caledonian Oil Company - a Visit to the Works, 1890

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The Scotsman
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The Caledonian Oil Company - a Visit to the Works.

The directors and shareholders of the Caledonian Mineral Oil Company spent the greater part of Friday and Saturday in visiting their works at Tarbrax and Lanark. Though the Company was incorporated last summer, the directors and shareholders, most of whom reside in England – the head office of the Company being in London – have not until now inspected their property; and, accordingly, the more important part of the proceedings on these two days took the form of a pretty exhaustive examination of the plant and machinery employed in the conversion of the shale into marketable commodities.

Registered in June last, with a nominal capital of £120,000, of which £75,000 has been called up, and with Mr Alexander J. Macdonald, Milland, Sussex, as chairman of the directors, the Company had for its object the acquisition of the works of the Lanark Oil Company, which went into liquidation four years ago, and the shale fields of the estates of Tarbrax, Greenfield, and Cobbinshaw, the latter of which had not been held by the Lanark Company. All three estates lie contiguous to each other, and cover a working area of 2315 acres, of which 660 acres are in Tarbrax, 635 in Greenfield, and 1020 in Cobbinshaw. There is a vertical shaft at Tarbrax, and from it the mine is being developed to work the Greenfield and part of the Cobbinshaw fields, while the shale in the latter estate is also worked from a separate mine about a mile from Tarbrax, the minerals in this case being brought to the surface by an incline sunk in the slope of the strata. The breaking machine and the retorts are situated at Tarbrax, and to them the shale from Cobbinshaw is brought in the hutches filled by the miners across the mile of bog that intervenes between the pits, upon a 2½ feet gauge railway, the haulage being supplied by an endless wire rope worked by an engine at Tarbrax. Employment is given by the Company both at their mines and works at Tarbrax and Cobbinshaw, and at their refinery at Lanark, for upwards of 300 men; and by the multiplication of working places in the pits, and mining by single shifts – arrangements which will be completed in the course of a week or two – the output is expected to be upwards of 300 tons of shale per day.

It was explained that the Cobbinshaw shale is very rich in oil. The guaranteed yield in the prospectus was 32½ gallons of crude oil per ton of shale. According to statistics supplied, the yield has turned out to be 33 gallons per ton – 5 gallons per ton more than the results produced by the former company from Tarbrax shale; and, judged by the alleged faultlessness of the seam and the methods of working, that percentage will yet, it is believed, be exceeded. Tarbrax and Greenfield return only some 28 gallons per ton of shale, so that the mean result from the three fields is 30 gallons per ton, which at the rate of output amounts to 8100 gallons of crude oil per day. Since the new Company came into possession, the plant and the machinery have been overhauled and, where necessary, reconstructed. The most recent improvements in every department have been introduced, and every needful appliance that experience can suggest for the economical working of the practical part of the concern has been supplied. The retort benches at Tarbrax – two in number – are said to be the largest in Scotland. Hitherto the highest number of retorts at each bench elsewhere has been 80. Here there are 96 – 32 more than the number worked by the old company – the total number of retorts going night and day being thus 192. It sometimes happens that owing to uncontrollable circumstances – such as an unforeseen miners' "lay day" - the supply of shale from the mine falls short of the quantity needed to keep the retorts in operation; and, accordingly, a large shale shoot has been erected on the level of the retort feed-holes. Here from 500 to 600 tons of shale, broken and ready for use, can be stored, and the Company having this at command, the risk of interfering with the continuous working of the retorts is reduced to a minimum – another great advantage, the diminution of Sunday labour to the lowest point, being likewise secured.

On Friday forenoon, in glorious weather – a cool westerly breeze moderating the July-like rays of the sun – the proprietors of the Company, to the number of not more than a score, walked from Cobbinshaw Station, whither they had come by train from Edinburgh, across two miles of moorland to Tarbrax pit and manufactory, enjoying the walk and the surrounding scenery as only city men can. The party included Mr A. J. Macdonald (the chairman), Mr J. W. Chisholm, Mr James Jackson, Captain J. A. Ind, London, directors; and Provost Sutherland, Bathgate, managing director; Mr A. J. May, secretary; Messrs T. H. Faulkner, D. Macdonald, W. Vincent, J. Payne, and Hubert Howe, London; Thomas Davidson and C. Johnstone, Glasgow; Wright and Munro, Bathgate, shareholders, and friends. They were received by Mr A. C. Thomson, general manager; Mr James Snodgrass, works manager; Mr Wm. Barbour, mining manager; Mr P. W. Turner, commercial manager; and Mr D. Mactavish, cashier, conducted over the works, and shown the various operations in progress there, the inspection including also a visit to the workmen's houses close by. One of the directors, Mr Jackson, more daring than the others, descended the pit in company with Mr Barbour, and inspected several levels and working places. In the afternoon the party were entertained to luncheon by the Chairman in the Company's office, and thereafter they took a ride upon the narrow-gauge railway to the Cobbinshaw pit. Having spent some time there they returned by train to Edinburgh, arriving in the city early in the evening.

Next day the inspection was resumed, the part of the property visited on this occasion being the refining works at Lanark. These works lie alongside the Caledonian Railway line, about a mile from Lanark, the buildings and refining apparatus being, in point of fact, situated upon the edge of Lanark Moor. Under the guidance of Mr Thomson and Mr Snodgrass, the party were shown the various processes of refining. It was pointed out that the crude oil was brought from Tarbrax once distilled. The first operation at the refinery is the second distillation of the oil. Then the light oils are separated from the heavy oils, and afterwards by further distillation and chemical treatment the paraffin is extracted and refined wax made, the waste products being utilised for various purposes. The works have undergone considerable repair, improvements having been here and there introduced, and the appliances are considered to be adapted for the most effective means of handling the products. Besides the usual stills, oil boilers, extracting and refining plant, and refrigerators, which are all in operation, there is a candle factory, but it is not intended to work it in the meantime. The capacity of the refinery proper is equal to 80,000 gallons of crude oil per week. The management expect to have products ready for the market in ten days.

At two o'clock the party were entertained to dinner by Mr Macdonald, the chairman of the directors, in the Clydesdale Hotel, Lanark. Having given the loyal toasts, Mr MACDONALD, who occupied the chair, in proposing the toast of "The Caledonian Oil Company," spoke in terms of commendation of the great progress that had been made within the last few months in putting the works in order. The extent of their plant at Cobbinshaw and Tarbrax was as great as any one could desire, and the refinery which they had seen that afternoon must have satisfied all of them conversant with the mode of producing mineral oil. In proposing success to the Company, he wished to couple the toast with the names of Provost Sutherland, and Messrs Thomson and Snodgrass, their managers. It was to them they were indebted for the great progress and success that had attended the works hitherto, and it would be to them that they would be indebted in the future for what he hoped would be unexampled prosperity. (Applause.)

Provost SUTHERLAND, in reply, said they had been told by some people that it was impossible for the new company to succeed because the old company had failed. To that he would answer that the old company failed, not in consequence of the fault of the subjects, but in consequence of bad management. In the first place, the works were not constructed on the most improved principle; and, in the second place, the management expended a great deal of their capital upon experimental retorts, which turned out to be a failure. He himself had been at first a large shareholder, and afterwards a debenture-holder, in the old Company, but he had nothing to do with the management. After the first year's operations, it was found that the Company was being worked at a loss, and a committee of shareholders was appointed to inquire into the cause of the loss. As a member of that committee he was asked to put a reconstruction scheme before them, and he undertook to do so with the assistance of Mr Thomson. After visiting the works, Mr Thomson found that it was impossible to carry them on in their then existing condition, and he asked for £15,000-£10,000 for reconstruction, and £5000 for working capital. Mr Thomson reconstructed the works, under his estimate, but the £5000 went to pay old debts. Then the crisis of 1886 came. Prices dropped so far in consequence of the ring formed in America that the directors became disheartened, and would advance no more money. The new Company started with good prospects. They had acquired all that the old company possessed, and in addition the valuable field of Cobbinshaw, from which they would realise from four to five gallons of oil more than the yield of Tarbrax; and he was glad to say that the yield would exceed that stated in their prospectus. (Applause.) As the yield was exceedingly good, so the quality of the oil was as good as that of any Scottish company. He wished specially to point out that they had acquired a very extensive property, consisting of valuable mineral fields, crude oil works, refinery, and houses, for the small sum of £15,000. In respect that their capital account was thus not much more than a third of that of other companies, they stood in a very favourable position indeed. At present their output of shale was three hundred tons per day, but in the course of time they hoped to double that quantity. They would then be in a position to pay a very handsome dividend. (Applause.)

The Scotsman, 7th April 1890