Our Evolving Collection: From Pumpherston to the Wolgan Valley

In 2015 we put up a short story about a Pumpherston man called William Findlay.

The story began in June 1907 when William Findlay, a retort bricklayer, left his home in School Row, Pumpherston, to undertake a one year contract for the Commonwealth Oil Corporation to build the Bryson patent ‘Pumpherston’ retort at Newnes in the Wolgan Valley near Sydney. Findlay was paid £300 per annum, with his passage to and from Australia paid.

William Findlay
On the extreme left of this 1908 photograph is Pumpherston man, William Findlay. (R10-00385)

Retoring began at Newnes in 1911, but soon stopped due to financial and technical issues. The latter related to the inability of the retort to cope with the rich Australian shale. The retort was replaced in 1913 and operations began again, under a new company, and continued successfully for many years.

Share certificate
Share certificate relating to shale mining operation at Newnes in Australia (LVSAV2011.101)
Pumpherston Retort at Newnes
A 1908 photograph of the bench of Bryson patent ‘Pumpherston” retorts built at the foot of ‘shale mountain’ at Newnes, in the Wolgan Valley. The shale was hewn from the mountainside and brought out from shafts to be taken directly to the adjacent retorts. (R10-00370)

And there the story ended because we knew nothing more of William Findlay. So, imagine our surprise when his daughter and grandson walked into the Museum with a collection of photographs (originals of the copies we already had) and documents belonging to William.

William had returned home, continued working in the West Lothian shale fields, and lived to be a good old age.

William Findlay
William Findlay, aged 90, at Pumpherston Bowling Club (LVSAV2018.079)

This is just one example of how our collection evolves over time, when local people bring in objects and items that augment what we already have.

The Dalmeny Battery

In 1896 an agreement was reached between Lord Rosebery and the Dalmeny Oil Company for the latter to lease, for 31 years, the mineral rights beneath a relatively small geographic area of land stretching from their current workings to the Firth of Forth. Leases of this type were a common occurrence in West Lothian, and it was in no way contentious.

Dalmeny Oil Company lease
The 1896 lease between Lord Rosebery and the Dalmeny Oil Company for lands stretching to the Firth of Forth. BP Archive 129046.













Lease map
Map highlighting the new area leased from Lord Rosebery, 1896. BP Archive 129046.

In 1912 the Dalmeny Oil Company was actively working shale in this new area, gradually moving north, to a point just south of the Forth Bridge. But in this area was a gun emplacement, erected by the War Office around 1903, called the Dalmeny Battery. James Jones, director of the Dalmeny Oil Company, wrote to the War Office, informing it of the advancing works. Jones believed that the War Office had leased the land from Lord Rosebery.

Alarm bells immediately rang within the halls of the War Office – underground working may cause buildings above to shift, and even a miniscule move would have an impact on the accuracy of a gun battery. A reply was quickly sent to Jones noting that ‘the stability of these defences should in no way be interfered with.’ It then asked the Dalmeny Oil Company to relinquish rights to the shale.

Ordnance Survey map, 1917, depicting the area in dispute. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.



ordnance survey ma
Detail of Ordnance Survey map, 1917, depicting the area in dispute. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.












Although Dalmeny Battery has now largely disappeared, one nearby at Hound Point is still relatively intact. With thanks to Dunfermline Dave for allowing us of his photograph. His Flickr page has additional images of the Hound Point site: https://www.flickr.com/photos/david_love/








Jones quickly replied that should rights be relinquished then his Company would expect compensation. He then dropped the bombshell that shale workings had already moved to within 25 yards of the site boundary.

What followed was months of legal wrangling by letter, with James Jones claiming that because the War Office only lease the land, and not what lies beneath, they have no right to erect new buildings after the signing of that lease that may inhibit the working of shale.

In early June Jones’ patience breaks, and in a letter to the War Office he notes ‘there is no use negotiating on the basis of the legal view you express.’

The following month saw a lull in hostilities due to the War Office failing to reply to letters. Jones had clearly had enough of this procrastination by the War Office and wrote a letter telling them that if no reply was received within one week then his Company would continue to work the shale. He also offered the War Office the opportunity to compensate them for any unworked shale at 1/3- per ton.

And then, just as it seemed the saga was drawing to a close, James Jones died, unaware that he was one letter away from a solution. His son, James Reid Jones, took over his role in the Company.

Soon after, a letter arrived from the War Office noting that they had acquired the land from Lord Rosebery through Compulsory Purchase Order and, as such, the shale under it belonged to them, albeit tenanted by the Dalmeny Oil Company. The saga had ended after six months. But one has to ask why this information could not have been conveyed at the outset of negotiations? Surely someone in the War Office was aware of the purchase. Or why did Lord Rosebery not intervene? He was aware of the dispute. We will likely never know.

Note from the Dalmeny Oil Company minute book transcribing the letter from the War Office that settled the dispute. BP Archive 213069

An aside to this story is that due to the dispute the Forth Bridge Company, owners of the rail bridge carrying trains across the Firth of Forth between the Lothians and Fife, became aware of the potentially detrimental impact that underground working too close to the bridge might have on the integrity of the bridge. However, with no claim to the land the bridge was built on the Forth Bridge Company agreed to compensate the Dalmeny Oil Company for any shale not worked, presumably at 1/3- per ton.

Forth Bridge
The Forth Bridge, c1920. LVSAV2011.090


Limefield House: lawyers, explorers, pig breeders and a bed for the night

Sitting just off a walled and wooded road east of Polbeth is an old mansion house, along the corridors of which, according to folklore, roams the ghost of a black Labrador, perhaps hoping for a pat on the back by a fellow apparition who is looking for ‘the little girl.’

Limefield House
Limefield House, LVSAV2016.141

Limefield House was built around 1805 for Thomas Gloag, a Writer to the Signet. It was one of the finest houses in the region, ‘elegant, commodious and substantially built [with a] dining room, drawing room, parlour and six bedrooms.’ As Gloag sauntered out his front door he would have been welcomed by around 60 acres of surrounding estate ‘well stocked with fruit trees.’

Gloag did not garner much benefit from his new mansion; he died in 1810. The next 40 years saw it become part of the Midlothian (now West Lothian) landscape, but its sheer size and cost of upkeep meant it was frequently on the market for rental. That is until 1855 when a chemist called James Young purchased it.

Young had recently been successful in producing oil from cannel coal. The extent of his success was clear to see in his purchase of Limefield House. But he also set about upgrading it, adding ornate banisters, and installing gas lighting and electricity throughout.

David Livingstone
David Livingstone, Scottish explorer

One regular visitor was the adventurer David Livingstone, who Young knew from his time spent lecturing at Anderson’s College in Glasgow. Years later local people would reminisce about him alighting the train at West Calder, or being driven through the town. One man even recalled handing the trowel to Livingstone as he laid the foundation stone of the Addiewell Oil Works.

Limefield Falls
Limefield Falls, LVSAV2011.135

So close were the pair that Young had a waterfall erected on Harburn Water, a miniature Victoria Falls, in tribute to his friend. Other remnants of Livingstone’s time at Limefield still exist. A sycamore tree planted by him is still flourishing in the grounds. But perhaps the most incredible story is that of a replica African hut built by Livingstone for Young’s children. For years it sat in the grounds of Limefield, but by the early 1990s had been seriously vandalised. A local man asked if he could take it for his garden and it was agreed he could. So, it was dismantled and taken to the garden of a house in Langside Crescent in Polbeth. There it sat for 13 years, replete with pink interior and lace curtains, hosting picnics for the owner’s daughters, until it was worked out exactly what the structure was and returned to Limefield.

In 1891 the house survived the fate of many of its contemporaries when the quick actions of servants helped stop a blaze – ironically caused by hot ashes coming into contact with paraffin oil.

Loudon MacQueen Douglas
Loudon MacQueen Douglas

For some years the property passed to Young’s daughter and her husband, and around 1930 it was lived in by Loudon MacQueen Douglas, an engineer, author and pig breeder. Douglas died in 1944. In the post-war period the house passed into the hands of Young’s grand-daughter, Alice Thom, and in 1955, exactly 100 years after her grandfather acquired it, she bequeathed it to the local Council for the benefit of the people of Polbeth and West Calder. For some years it served as a nursing home, but by 1989 it was in disrepair and a short report was written, possibly by a Community Councillor, calling for it to be converted into sheltered housing or a convalescent home.

There were real fears that it could be demolished, but thankfully it was sold to a private owner who refurbished it and opened it up as a quality bed and breakfast. The monies raised were in part used to fund the opening of the Alice Thom Memorial Suite at the West Calder Community Education Centre.

So Alice Thom’s wishes were adhered to, and West Lothian retained one of its finest buildings. We’re sure the black Lab is pleased he still has a corridor to roam through!


Dr George Grant: The Chemistry of Oil and Milk

One of our volunteers, Alexei, has spent the last few months transcribing a fascinating document. The transcribed version should be available in the next few days. It was so interesting that we asked him to write a blog. He very kindly agreed. Over to Alexei:

This latest transcription from the BP Archive is a rather unusual and incredibly interesting one. It is George Grant’s Process Book No.2. Sadly we don’t hold book No.1.

George Grant worked as a chemist at the Pumpherston Oil Works laboratory as early as 1911, and became Chief Chemist sometime in the 1920s or 1930s. His book is dated July 1911, so he must have been employed by the company for some time before that, in order to fill Process Book No.1 (which we sadly don’t have in the Archive).

Pumpherston chemists
Male and female chemists in the laboratory at Pumpherston Oil Refinery, c1970s

It has proven exceedingly difficult to track down information about George Grant. We don’t even have a photograph of him. Normally we would expect to find a few articles in local newspapers, but there are none. In our collection there is a single document, besides his process book.

Scheme of Distillation of Shale Oil in Connected Boiler Stills, October 1913 – a single sheet sign by George Grant. BP Archive 215940

And he is occasionally mentioned in the oral histories. Thankfully, one of these provides an interesting insight into the type of person he was:

Mr Grant and I used to have a kind of row now and again … an argument, you know, he was an awful man, he was a right Tory! Of course, I was a great Socialist! Well, it was something about the Tate Lyle shares had went up, I was reading in the paper that they had went up, and there had been a leak in the Government, and of course, all the boys that had plenty of money were buying Tate and Lyle shares! They went up a good bit too! I went up to Mr Grant the next morning and I was telling him all about it, and he got me by the back of the neck and he ran me out of the office, and he says, “Don’t you come back in here, we’re not wanting you back in here!” He says, “Stay out and don’t come back again!” I said, “You won’t get any samples!” He said, “Well, it won’t matter, stay out!” he says. Oh well, he came round the work that same day and he says, “Listen, you come back as usual with your samples, but we don’t want to hear any more about politics up in that office, from you!” He says, “Mind that!” But he was nice about it, you know, he was quite nice about it!

The book itself is numbered very oddly. It appears that when George Grant first started to keep this record, he went through the volume using only the right hand pages, numbering those with Roman numerals. At some point he tired of these and switched to Arabic numerals. Then he reached the end of the book and went back through it again, this time using the left hand pages, many of which are not numbered at all. Where they are numbered, they just take the number of the facing page followed with a lower case ‘a’ in brackets. Watch out for this – we have presented our version strictly in the order in which the pages appear in the book, so beware!

What the book contains is a large number of tests and processes for analysing materials of all sorts. George Grant didn’t confine himself solely to processes necessary for his professional duties at the oil works, although those are certainly there. Scattered among the tests involving oil, wax, ammonia, and so on, there are processes for a wide array of other substances, some of them quite exotic. There is, for example, tests for ‘Estimation of Uranium’ and ‘Analysis of Milk or Cream Chocolate’, which could hardly have been much use at the Pumpherston Oil Works. Some highlights include a fully worked analysis of beeswax from all over the world, and one of typical beers. Also interesting are the tests to detect adulterations in food, drink, oils and so forth, chiefly because he tells you exactly what unscrupulous producers were trying to get away with circa 1911, for example, that cod liver oil was frequently adulterated with refined seal oil, or rape oil with cottonseed oil.

Page from George Grant’s book detailing the analysis of milk
Page from George Grant’s book detailing the estimation of nicotine in tobacco using the Kissling Method












Page from George Grant’s book detailing the detection of hydrogen peroxide in milk

A very interesting read. And not just for the scientists among us.

Sport in the shale villages

In the late 19th and early 20th century people began to spend more of their spare time taking part in sporting and social events. And the arrival of the railway from the mid-19th century onwards meant that teams could travel to neighbouring towns and villages, or the length and breadth of the country, to test themselves in sporting extravaganzas. Local and women, seeing an opportunity for an away day, often travelled with them in great numbers to offer up vocal support.

The most popular sports, certainly amongst the working classes, tended to be those that required little outlay to take part – football, athletics, bowling and quoits. But others such as tennis, golf and cycling were also popular.

In the Museum’s shale oil collections we have numerous examples of men and women from the shale villages taking part in all manner of sports. Here are a few examples.



Football, in various forms, has been around since man could stitch leather over a pig’s bladder, with the world’s oldest football, dating back to the 1540s, having been found at Stirling Castle. In 1872 Scotland played out a 0-0 draw with England (they won 10 of the next 15 games, losing only two).

Nowadays we fill Panini albums with pictures of world stars like Ronaldo and Messi, but a century ago the stars were the local men who played a game and then came home and headed down the mine. Local teams sprouted up throughout West Lothian. Here is one celebrating a West Calder team.












The most popular sports tended to be those with no cost attached. As such, athletics was universally popular, with events happening most summer weekends throughout West Lothian. This programme, from West Calder, is typical. A full range of events usually took place, but only men were allowed to compete.



Quoits (pronounced ‘koits’) required players to thrown a heavy iron or steel ring towards a pin placed in the ground 21 yards away. It reached peak popularity in the mining communities of West Lothian between the two world wars. It has very much fallen out of favour, and is rarely played.

There is, however, a quoits green at Almond Valley Heritage Centre and ask at reception if you fancy yourself as a quoiter.













Golf has, since the 19th century, been a staple of Scottish sporting life, with the two main centres of golf being St Andrews and Musselburgh. But it soon began to spread and clubs emerged throughout Scotland. This photograph depicts the Gilbert family playing on Tarbrax’s nine-hole course in 1920.



In recent years snooker and pool have gained great popularity, and billiards has declined in tandem. But in the first half of the 20th century it was incredibly popular. This medal was awarded to Thomas Dunn of Philpstoun for second place in a competition in 1923-24.

















Another favourite in the mining towns was bowling, and virtually every town had at least one bowling green. In this photograph John Stein, a mining official, opens the season at Livingston Station bowling green around 1952.


Other sports

Miners and their families tried to find their fun in whatever ways they found enjoyable. Here are a selection of other sporting photographs from our collection showing cyclists, tennis players and pigeon racers.


Saving the Lives of Shale Workers

The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh now resides in a state-of-the-art building at the Inch, Edinburgh. But until the new building was erected it had spent almost 300 years housed in central Edinburgh. Whilst in the earlier location it enjoyed a close relationship with the shale industry.

Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh
The old Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh where injured and dying shale workers were often transported. Courtesy of Kim Traynor via Wikipedia Commons.

From the early days of the shale industry in Scotland, miners were regularly injured and killed at work. Local Mine Rescue Teams were, in later years, on-site to help in the events of an accident or disaster. With the National Health Service not yet in place miners contributed a portion of their wages to the hospital. In 1925 this totaled over £12,000. Monies were also regularly raised through the holding of pageants and concerts.

Royal Infirmary Pageant at Broxburn, 1928
Three miners from Westerton attending the Royal Infirmary Pageant in Broxburn, 1928


In 1936, for example, an Infirmary Day was held in West Calder to raise funds. A march through the town by ten bands and several trades displays was watched by large crows. They were then entertained by events such as fancy dress, a massed pipe band, and a display by the Boys’ Brigade. Around 100 collectors worked the streets. Such money raising events helped pay for life-saving equipment such as ambulance waggons to transport injured and dying men to the Infirmary. Newspaper reports of the time regularly end with the phrase ‘the injured man was conveyed in the ambulance waggon to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary’.

Ambulance Waggon
An example of a typical early Ambulance Waggon. In later years they would become motorised.


One such tragic accident occurred in 1937. William Dornan worked at Pumpherston Oil Works, and was well known as a former full-back with Hibernian F.C. in Edinburgh. Dornan was standing atop one of the oil tanks when it exploded, throwing him to the ground. Further explosions saw him trapped and badly burned. An ambulance conveyed him to the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, but he died of his injuries.

William Dornan
The aftermath of the explosion and fire at Pumpherston Oil Works in 1937 which killed William Dornan. The former Hibs player is inset.

Middleton Hall – from country pile to nursing home

In 1707, as the Union of Parliaments was bringing together Scotland and England, the Rev. George Barclay was utilising the stone from the ruined Strathbrock Castle to build himself an impressive pile in Uphall called Middleton. Over the next 200 years the property changed hands several times, with some of the most notable early inhabitants being David Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan and the Threipland family.

bowling club badge
Middleton Hall Bowling Club badge, bearing a badger on the top right of the shield. The badger represents Strathbrock Castle, brock being a Scots word for badger.

In the early 1840s it was purchased by Robert W. Maxwell, who sought to make good use of the 53 acres of land, leading to it being described as having ‘splendid gardens and hothouses’, as well as utilising the conservatory. When Captain William Hankey bought the house in 1851 he

william hankey
Captain William Hankey (in foreground, seated on horse and turning) living the life of a landed gent in the 19th century

filled it with ‘the choicest plants and flowers’. Even by the end of the century it was still regarded as ‘one of the prettiest glimpses of greenwood in the whole parish … a favourite popular resort on summer Sunday afternoons during the season of fruits and flowers’.

Captain John Pender took over the property in 1868 and almost immediately the surrounding lands began to divulge their worth – when workmen were boring for water, natural gas was discovered. On being exposed to a flame, it blazed up and remained lit until it was extinguished the following day. Pender was also instrumental in testing the geology of his new lands, discovering, for example, blackband ironstone in 1868.

james pender
James Pender, owner of Middleton at the beginning of the 20th century

When Pender died in 1896 the property passed to his son, James, who, in 1899, sold the property to the Broxburn Oil Company. For 21 years the property was let out, first as a ‘lunatic asylum’ and later to house convalescing First World War soldiers.

Upon the amalgamation of the six major shale oil companies into Scottish Oils Ltd in 1920, the property was taken over for use as the headquarters of this company, with a third storey being added in 1939. It housed office space and a laboratory, as well as being a training centre for non-mining apprentices.

middleton hall 1924
Middleton Hall soon after Scottish Oils Ltd began to utilise it as office space, 1924
middleton hall extension
The third storey being added to Middleton Hall, September 1939
middleton hall
Middleton Hall after the addition of its extension
middleton hall lab
The laboratory at Middleton Hall
middleton hall staff
Staff outside Middleton Hall, 1950

It remained as such until 1967 when it was taken over by Motherwell Bridge Thermal Ltd for use as office space. Twenty years later it became a nursing home and has remained so ever since.

I wonder if the residents know of their home’s rich history?

Crime and punishment

We recently posted about the daring hold-up of shale employees carrying the weekly wages, and the subsequent capture and jailing of the guilty men. Whilst this was a major incident, it was one of only many crimes that beset the shale oil industry, and those that worked in it.

Three robbers
Three men in the dock after a daring hold-up, with the intent of stealing miners’ weekly wages

Fighting, assaults, theft, murder. You name it, some shale employees were taking part in it. There was even another hold-up, in 1913, when Andrew Muir was robbed of the Trades Union collection. And why openly rob someone when you can simply embezzle the funds of the local Reading Room, as shale miner Thomas Brown did at Gavieside!

Underground assaults were commonplace. In June 1872 two miners took an argument with the signalman, John Demsie, a step too far, when they ‘attacked him with great ferocity, knocking him down, and unmercifully beating him.’ They were given their just desserts – 30 days each in prison. Demsie can perhaps count himself lucky – many assaults were aided with the use of implements close to hand, such as shovels and even a snibble.

Snibbles, similar to that used in an assault down a shale mine. LVSAV.1984.001

And miners often took their aggression into the family home. In 1893 shale miner William Easton took a miners’ pick to his wife, cutting a deep gash in her upper arm. He was committed to prison. His wife can perhaps count herself lucky – murders were not unheard of in the shale villages, or even down the mines.

But the most common cause for the police becoming involved appears to have been theft. If it wasn’t nailed down it appears that a small number of those living in the shale villages would try to purloin it for themselves. Coal, shale, beer, brushes, the list is virtually endless. One of the most striking cases is that of the Ferguson sisters, one so young she could not be charged. In 1874 they were stealing lamps and shades from Young’s Oil Works and then selling them to shops in the West Port area of Edinburgh. In the best traditions of Scooby Doo, they would have got away with it too if it wasn’t for the pesky Works’ manager. Passing one of the shops he recognised a lamp that he knew had been stolen and after some investigation the full story became clear.

Young's oil lamp
A Young’s oil lamp, similar to that stolen by the Ferguson sisters. LVSAV1984.117

Vote for Shale!

The shale collection has a wide variety of political material in our collection, mostly newspaper clippings, and information relating to industrial action. These date back into the 19th century and include the personal notes of heralded local trades union organiser John Wilson.

Trades Union membership (LVSAV2014.016)

We also have two leaflets produced by the Midlothian and West Lothian Labour Party candidates standing for Westminster in 1959.

Both men, James M. Hill, standing in Midlothian, and John Taylor, standing in West Lothian, mention shale in their leaflets. Hill effusively promotes the industry, and both note the need to abolish the duty on shale oil. Both Hill and Taylor won their seats comfortably, but with the Conservatives regaining power, the duty on shale oil was never abolished. Two years later the last remnants of the industry (its workforce had reduced from 12,000 to 2,500) would end as cheap imported oil became more attractive.

James M. Hill
James M. Hill, the Labour Party’s Westminster candidate for Midlothian in 1959 (BP Archive: 8417-004)
John Taylor
John Taylor, the Labour Party’s West Lothian candidate for Westminster in 1959 (BP Archive: 8417-003)

Taylor would die in office in 1962, leading to the election of Tam Dalyell. Hill would step down at the 1966 election, but would die within months. His replacement was another long-serving MP, Alex Eadie.



When the Wild West Came to Mid Calder

James Balfour Sneddon, mine manager at Winchburgh, had a weekly routine. Each Friday he would withdraw around £2,000 from the Mid Calder branch of the Clydesdale Bank, and a chauffeur, a man called William McQuiston, would drive him to Winchburgh where he would pay his workers their weekly wage.

In August 1921 the two men were following their usual routine when they were forced to stop as a cyclist was sprawled across the road, in an apparent accident. On stepping out the car to give assistance the two men were immediately assaulted by the ‘injured’ cyclist and two companions. The attack was clearly planned as one of the men went straight for Sneddon’s bag of money.

Sneddon and McQuiston
Two men, believed to be Sneddon and McQuiston, in court to give evidence

Sneddon and McQuiston gave chase, picking up the discarded bag of money on the way, but were forced to turn around and head for the nearest police station when shots were fired at them from a revolver. The police soon picked up two of the men, with the third being arrested in the following days. Clearly this group – Irishmen from Deans – were not the Wild Bunch.

Three robbers
Coleman, Ruddy, and Dempsey in the dock

By November the three men were in the Edinburgh High Court awaiting trial. The three accused – William Coleman, Thomas Ruddy, and Patrick Dempsey – were jailed for seven, five, and three years respectively.

Sneddon would work in the shale industry for some years, having a distinguished career. He was also heavily involved with community groups, and in 1935 was awarded an OBE for public service.