Saving the Lives of Shale Workers

Royal Infirmary Pageant at Broxburn, 1928

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.