Polluting the Water and Land


Around a decade after James Young’s first Chemical Works was erected at Bathgate in 1850, concerns began to be raised by communities and farmers near to the shale fields as to the amount of pollutants being dumped into local rivers, lochs, and canals.

Broxburn Oil Works (LVSAV2011.126)

By the 1870s the Breich Water was ‘of a yellow dirty colour, and quite unfit for use.’ Likewise, the River Avon was ‘in a very impure condition,’ whilst the Union Canal was ‘very much polluted.’

Attempts were made to address the issue via the Pollution of Rivers Inquiry in 1870, leading to numerous legal actions being raised by irate farmers suffering from contaminated land and water, and the detrimental effect it had on livestock. Some refuted all responsibility. The West Calder Oil Company called for the pursuers to be barred from complaining of the alleged pollution, arguing that the allegations were ‘irrelevant’. Most held up their hands. Young’s and Oakbank, for example, admitted that by their actions they ‘wrongfully, and to the injury of the pursuers, permitted impurities to be discharged from their works into the waters complained of [and] undertook to take all practical means to put a stop to the pollution complained of, so far as occasioned by them, in all time coming.’

almond aqueduct
Almond Aqueduct over the Union Canal (LVSAV2011.094)

In 1873 the River Pollution Commissioners released figures that added strength to the colour of the water. Between 1861 and 1871 the mortality rate per 1,000 per annum rose from 23.9 to 32.9. The shale industry challenged the figures on the basis that other industries might also be liable.

The prevent the pollution of rivers the River Pollution Prevention Act was passed in 1876, and strengthened in 1893. But companies continued to break the law. In 1905 Midlothian Council won a case against the Oakbank and Pumpherston Oil Companies, forcing them to introduce remedial works to halt pollution of the River Almond from their respective oil works. And six years later the Hog family of Newliston took Broxburn Oil Company to court for allowing soot and noxious vapours to spoil its lands.

Paddling and playing in the River Almond, c.1910. LVSAV 2010.130