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You are here: Information & History | Occupations - Oil Shale Mining

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Occupations - Oil Shale Mining

Oil Shale Mining
Until recently, the only evidence that an oil shale works existed in Stonehouse was that of an old postcard produced around 1905. This identified its location on the opposite bank of the Avon, near an area known locally as the Ritches.

Walking the Avon from the meetings, I have always been intrigued by the paraffin container near Millers Brig, which lies on the bed of the river. I thus resolved to investigate the oil shale works and found no record or references within the statistical accounts or local publications. Searching further afield I uncovered various extracts and references, which shed some light on this industrial site.

The Scottish interest in oil shales and olefiant cannel coals dates back to at least the 17th century, but it was not until the middle of the 19th century, that we saw any great developments in distilling mineral oils from oil shales.

Scotsman James ‘Paraffin’ Young opened the first oil well in the world in Derbyshire. When the well dried up he returned to Scotland and bought up a great deal of land in the Bathgate area which contained oil shale with the intention of extracting the oil within.

Oil shale is a type of coal of which James Young was able to pioneer a method of extracting the oil to produce lubricant oils, illuminating oils, candles and paraffin. When it was realised that coal bings and ironstone spoil heaps were found to contain discarded oil shale, the waste produced by the mining operations were reworked for their oil content. Oil shale is mined by methods similar to those applied to coal extraction, with modifications due to the greater thickness of the shale seams. When the shale is mined and taken to the surface, it is taken along a narrow gauge railway to a retorting plant. The shale is then broken up after being passed between heavy rollers with teeth which grind it into smaller pieces. It is then fed into retorts, then heated to form vapours, which after cooling form crude oil. This process itself created a great deal of waste material, of which many of the resultant bings can be seen today. Spent shale represents 80% of the shale brought from the mine. This waste provides excellent material for the making of building bricks.

Some small oil works were subsidiaries of collieries producing oil as a sideline to their main mining operations. Some of the oil works were only equipped to distil crude oil, which was then sold to refineries. At its height in the late 1850’s and early 1860’s, there were about 120 oil works in Scotland, employing nearly 40,000 men.

The collapse of the Scottish oil production was caused by several factors. The sheer numbers of works opening in the early 1860’s led to over production, causing prices to fall as the oil stocks came on the market, resulting in many bankruptcies. Between 1864 and 1870 alone, 30 companies disappeared with very few venturing into this market after 1870. By this time there were only 65 companies remaining in operation. In 1866 a 50 per cent fall in the price of crude oil and the revived competition from the United States escalated the downfall of the Scottish works. The discovery of oil wells in the United States further hastened the demise of the oil shale industry. Minor booms in 1883 and 1911 briefly revived a few works but the industry was never to recover its former glory days. The last oil production works closed in 1962.

Locally there were several companies producing oil, though the Stonehouse works is not mentioned in the Scottish Companies listed, within a survey carried out of oil producers. Other local oil producers included works at Birkenshaw, owned by Allen Craig & Sons producing crude oil. This company opened in 1866 and was later abandoned or resold in 1871. In the parish of Dalserf two companies existed. Firstly at Milburn Oil Works, owned by Smith Bros & Murling, which extracted crude oil mainly from the dross of the main seam of common coal. This company opened during a minor boom in 1884. Secondly, at Sevinhill, where a company was present during the years 1865-1870.

A geological survey of minerals in the Hamilton District stated, “The musselband (coal) is also well exposed in the Avon water, where the shales associated with it were mined on a small scale for their oil content”. This extract refers to an area between the viaduct and the meetings, adjacent to Double Dykes on the opposite bank of the river. The site of the Stonehouse oil shale works can be accessed via a track half way up the Millheugh Brae before the sharp turn, following the banks of the Avon. There exists little evidence of this former works other than a small spoil heap.

The Stonehouse oil works was owned by McNaughton & Aitken between 1868 and 1873, though the company was said to be not working in 1873 according to a report on the rateable value of the works. The report states that in the years 1870 -1871 the rateable value of the company was £100 and between 1872-1873 it was valued at £50. Although the rateable value only provides information on the years 1870-73, the Stonehouse Oil Company was in operation as early as September 1868, when an article stated, “The employers, and the wives in the employment of James McNaughton Esq. were treated to a holiday excursion on Friday, 18th to see the Channel Fleet, at Greenock. This well timed generosity on the part of Mr McNaughton will be long remembered by those who enjoyed a day of mingled pleasure and instruction”. The company must have been in a fairly stable position in 1870, for Mr McNaughton favoured his employees with a further outing to Edinburgh in this year.

It would appear that this venture was short lived, as reflected throughout the country. Fortunately, the oil works was in operation during the compiling of the 1871 census which records nine men employed from Stonehouse, though others may have been employed from elsewhere. The census information reads as follows:
1871 Census

4 Union Street William Stewart 51
Superintendent of Shale Work
4 Union Street John Stewart 22 Shale Miner
56 New street John Brown 36 Shale Miner
35 New Street William Lindsay 29 Shale Miner
36 New Street James Hutchison 36 Shale Miner
3 Union Street Andrew Cummings 31 Shale Miner
12 Union Street James Brown 33 Shale Miner
25 Camnethan Street Andrew Brown 34 Shale Miner

William Stewart is recorded as being the oil work manager the year previous. His son Robert was a regular visitor to the oil works, where he would bring his fathers breakfast to him in the morning. On one such visit, Robert, while bathing in a nearby pool in the Avon, drowned when he got out of his depth in August of 1870.

Another accident in relation to the oil works was that of carter, Thomas Gray, who in September 1871, had to have a leg amputated, when in the process of transferring some barrels of oil to the railway wagon, a barrel fell upon his knee and broke it.

As mentioned in the previous chapter, this venture illustrates the willingness and character of the people to adapt and learn new skills in an ever changing economy. Much remains to be discovered of our industrial past but the evidence is there to be found throughout the parish if you take the time to find it.

Give me oil in my lamp keep me burning
Give me oil in my lamp I pray
Give me oil in my lamp keep me burning
Keep me burning till the break of day

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