Coffins in the Shale

In the 21st century we take great care to preserve the past. Our museum and archive stores are temperature and humidity controlled, and security is given great prominence with locked cases, guards and CCTV overseeing displays.

Security guard
A security officer guards the Elgin Marbles

We also go to great lengths to ensure that important historical objects are not destroyed during major infrastructure projects. For example, during London’s Crossrail project, archaeologists were called in every time a potential object was uncovered. The result was a treasure trove of objects, from fossils to skeletons to coins, and even parts of a 13th century fishing vessel.

Crossrail artefacts
Artefacts found during the digging of the Crossrail tunnel in London

But interest in the past is not a new phenomenon, with major museums being set up in the 17th century (Ashmolean), with a large number being set up in the 19th century (V&A, Natural History Museum, National Museum of Scotland) to house interesting artefacts.

The sources of these objects were diverse, but the industrialisation of the mining industry led to the uncovering of objects that could never have been found in the days before mechanical diggers replaced the pick axe. Almost as soon as the shale industry was been founded in the mid-19th century shale workers began digging up artefacts of note. Many of these will never be known, as miners would simply have pocketed old coins or treasures made of precious metals.

A tree bark fossil on display at the Museum of the Scottish Shale Oil Industry

But their finds, when it did not benefit them financially, would often be passed to a mine manager or owner, and in turn passed to a renowned historian or archaeologist. The most common finds were of fossilised ferns and fish (one miner even claimed to have found a live fish within the shale). Occasionally a more interesting artefact would be found, sparking the interest of the local newspapers.

stone cist
A stone cist similar to the two found at Hopetoun Oil Works in 1906. Courtesy of

In 1906, at the Hopetoun Oil Works, two stone cists were uncovered, just 18 inches below the surface, 6 feet in length and up to 20 inches across. Mr Allison, the works manager, gave directions that the utmost care was to be made to preserve what was found within – a well-preserved lower jawbone with teeth, part of a scapula, and the head of a humerus. The bones were boxed and forwarded to Dr Joseph Anderson of the National Antiquarian Museum in Edinburgh who, when presented with information about the burial area, was able to denote the burial as a Christian one.

Joseph Anderson
Joseph Anderson among the displays in the Royal Institution, Edinbugh, 1890. Source: Clarke, DV 2002 ‘“The foremost figure in all matters relating to Scottish archaeology”: aspects of the work of Joseph Anderson’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 132, 1-18.

So steeped in archaeological finds was the shale field that amateur archaeologist Stan Wood set up a fossil factory in Livingston in 1983. He went on to become a highly-respected expert in his field, selling fossils throughout the world.


Fighting for Fair Conditions

In today’s workplace the Trades’ Unions remain an important means of supporting and protecting workers, fighting for fair pay and decent working conditions. But in the 19th century the unions were faced with employers who appear inured to the fact that their workforces were dying in vast numbers.

And so it was that men like John Wilson from Uphall, a man said to look like Napoleon, took it upon himself to fight the mine owners, where he ‘held his ground pugnaciously, and would seldom submit to compromise.’


John Wilson
John Wilson of Uphall, miners’ leader. BP Archive 215305

In his early life John Wilson considered entering the ministry. However, on passing a miners’ meeting in the mid-1880s he suggested a course of action they should take. Impressed by his eloquence the miners quickly appointed him their agent. On the creation of a Shale Miners’ Association he immediately set out to put the organisation on a sound footing, creating branching across the shale fields. The result of this action quickly proved effective and he won concessions and later a compromise in two strikes in 1887. His writing about these strikes can be seen in his diary.

Aware that his ‘eloquence and power of reasoning’ was proving beneficial to the lives of the shale miners, the coal miners appointed him as their agent also.

Trades’ Union membership. LVSAV2014.016

The following years saw him take an interest in all levels of politics. He was elected to Uphall School Board, but failed in bids to become a councillor on Glasgow Town Council and an MP for Edinburgh Central.

John Wilson died in April 1912 aged 50 years. As the funeral cortege passed through Uphall on the way to the cemetery the streets were lined with hundreds of miners, businesses closed and blinds were drawn, as a mark of respect.

Red Clydeside
Tanks in George Square during the Red Clydeside Rising

But whilst the work of Wilson and others like him may have alleviated the problems for the miners, and those in other industries – in 1900, 180 men were killed in Scotland’s mines, in 1930, 123, and in 1960, 38 – it certainly did not remove them. In the early-20th century workers were forced to rise up in Glasgow in an attempt to obtain better working conditions, leading to the positioning of tanks in Glasgow’s George Square. Other strikes were widespread.

Trades Union Agreement
Booklet detailing an agreement between the shale companies and the National Union of Shale Miners and Oil Workers. LVSAV1992.055