The Scottish Shale Oil Industry 1850-1964

On a damp windy evening on 18 March 2010, about thirty people braved the elements to attend the lecture presented at the Ineos Exhibition Centre, Grangemouth. Originally billed as two presentations on the Shale Oil and Coal Tar industries, the evening had to be modified due to the tragic death of one of the intended speakers, Andrew Ainsworth, earlier this year. Alec Thomson kindly volunteered to go solo concentrating on the Scottish Shale Oil Industry 1850-1964. Nestled in the huge refinary complex at Grangemouth, the Ineos Exhibition Centre was an apt venue for this presentation.

As a student, Alec worked during the holidays in the Shale Oil industry and in the audience was a colleague from this time whom he had not seen for many years. Alec was brought up in the heart of shale oil production area which meant he had anacdotes with which he illustrated some of the events he described. His grandfather, originally a mason, went into mining for shale before losing an eye in an explosion and changing career again to become a poultry farmer.  

Alec began his presentation with the life of James ‘Paraffin’ Young (1811-1883). Young studied chemistry at Anderson College, Glasgow (now Strathclyde University). While working in Manchester, Young was given a sample of petroleum discovered in a Derbyshire colliery from which he distilled a light oil. He was shrewd enough to patent his process and many of the techniques he pioneered are still the basis for today’s refining process. He went into business with Edward Meldrum, later moving to the Bathgate area, opening the world’s first commercial oil work in 1851. Originally his oil was extracted from cannel (candle) coal, but when supplies were exhausted, he switched to shale oil. Young showed true entrepreneurial talent by opening factories to manufacture lamps which burned his oil for lighting.  

Alec went on to discuss methods of extraction of shale from underground, the building of towns to provide housing for the workers many of whom came from Ireland or the Highlands, and the legacy of the industry in the form of huge bings which still dominate parts of the Lothian landscape. One distinctive bing, referred to as the Five Sisters, after the hills in Kintail, is now such an intergral part of the landscape that there is a retail centre, a garden centre and even a zoo named after it.   

Improvements to retorts used to extract oil from shale, manufacturing wax for candles and capturing the ammonia produced for sale as ammonium sulfate fertiliser, helped keep the industry competitive for many years after the discovery of crude oil in the US. The formation of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in the 1960s, meant the UK could no long subsidise the industry and so production ceased in 1964.  

The SCI's Scotland Regional Group would like to extend its thanks to Alec Thomson for a very informative presentation, and to the Mid-Scotland RSC group for its help in organising the event.

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