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.
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.
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.
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.