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.

West Calder Co-operative Society’s Ambulance Waggon

In 1874 some shale miners in West Calder, in the midst of a protracted strike, resolved to set up a new enterprise  – a Co-operative Society. And so the following year, with capital of only £70, the town’s store was opened.

west calder co-op
The West Calder Co-op Society’s first store LVSAV2006.001

Over the next few years the committee set about strengthening the venture, obtaining new properties, and expanding into surrounding towns. But the primary goal of the Society was to benefit its members by selling goods at an affordable price, and then using any profits to provide further advantages.

At the turn of the century the Co-operative Society bought an Ambulance Waggon for use by its members and others. Those using it would be charged a fee.

The use of the Waggon was overseen by the Society’s Educational Committee, as highlighted here in this lovely flyer we’ve just accessioned into the collection.

Flyer regarding the cost of West Calder’s Ambulance Waggon LVSAV2017.066

The flyer is signed by the Secretary of the Educational Committee, a man called William Barrons. So we decided to do a little digging and guess what … we came across a photograph of him.

educational committee
The Society’s Educational Committee (Barrons is in the middle of the back row) LVSAV2006.001

The Educational Committee very much sums up the ethos of the West Calder Co-operative Society, its primary aim to was to provide educational training for Society members and their families. To further this aim an Educational Department was created in 1890. Medals were awarded to schoolchildren who excelled, nursing classes were started in 1893, and dressmaking classes proved so popular that 250 members enrolled.

Over the years Ambulance Waggons served West Lothian’s shale communities well. Here’s one example:

Two shale miners – Robert Hendry, senior, and his son, Robert Hendry, jun. – residing at Port Buchan, Broxburn, were injured as the result of a shot going off unexpectedly while they were at work yesterday on Hayscraig Mine, belonging to the Broxburn Oil Company. Both men sustained numerous small puncture wounds in the body, and were removed home in an ambulance wagon.

Daily Record, 1st July 1914

Piecing Things Together

At the Scottish Shale website we list hundreds of accidents that took place in the shale industry. Many of the men were killed, other maimed, whilst a good number were back at work the next day. The types of deaths and injuries are varied, but the most common are being hit by falling shale, and being crushed by waggons and hutches.


To gather this information we go to a range of sources. First, those held by the National Records of Scotland – Fatal Accident Inquiries, and the Register of Accidents. These two sources often list only basic information. We then augment this with information from digitised newspapers. This information can vary in quality, from very basic to incredibly detailed.

We still have lots of newspaper reports to add so please keep coming back to see if we’ve added an ancestor. Or, if you know your ancestor was involved in an accident please let us know the name, date and location, and we’ll try and track it down.

But very occasionally we get lucky and find that little piece of extra information that really rounds out the history of an individual. And that happened recently when a local lady donated a rare book of poetry called Cauther’s Fair, much of it related to West Lothian and the shale industry – the author, Alexander Campbell, worked at Westwood Pit.

westwood pit
Surface buildings at Westwood Pit
miners preparing shot
Miners preparing a ‘shot’ underground at Westwood Pit, c1929

One of the poems, called The Miner, contained this verse:

Though everyone was cheerful there

As they went down below,

Death was waiting there on one

Jim Torrance as you know;

Working away with happy heart

Pursuing his daily toil:

God bless the hardy miner

With his lamp and a wee pickle oil.

So who was this Jim Torrance? Did we have him noted in our list of accidents. A quick check revealed that we did, but only a very short Fatal Accident Inquiry entry:

James Torrance, miner’s drawer, The Place, Livingston, died on 27 March 1920 in No. 1 Westwood Shale Pit, Livingston Parish, Linlithgowshire, when a quantity of shale fell upon him. NAS Reference: SC41/13/1920/8

But surely he would be listed in the local newspaper? A quick check didn’t reveal anything, but on changing the search terms we came across a small article tucked away at the bottom of a page of the Sunday Post:

Note of Jim Torrance’s death in the Sunday Post, 28th March 1920

So there we have it. A little bit of luck and a little research and we have quite a rounded account of Jim Torrance’s death. We’re sure there will be an inquiry noted in the newspaper, but we’ve yet to find it. We also think it’s likely that someone out there will have a photograph of Mr Torrance. We would love to be able to add it to this post, so if you have one please feel free to contact us.

Accidents in the Shale Industry

From almost the first day of the shale industry one thing was ever-present – accidents. The men who pulled the shale from the bowels of the earth, much like their counterparts in the collieries, were killed and maimed in huge numbers.

The staff and volunteers at the Museum of the Scottish Shale Oil Industry are listing all known deaths and injuries on its website. What became apparent as we were adding these to the site was that the vast majority fell into one of three categories – explosion, crushing and falling shale.

Vigil at Burngrange, 1947 (LVSAV2016.121)

Continue reading “Accidents in the Shale Industry”