A Look Back at Shale Mining

This article appeared in the Livingston Post February 22nd, 1973. The Post is no longer published. Advice on who to approach for permission to reproduce this article would be appreciated.

With writers and commentators making special mention since the discovery of North Sea oil that Livingston was once the centre of the first oil industry, the time is possibly appropriate, a decade after the closure of the local pits, to have a look back at the shale mining industry that was once the main employer of labour in this part of the country.


While the story of the discovery of the oil-bearing rock that lies in abundance beneath the ground in and around the New Town has been told and retold, little mention has been given in the past of the men who wrought the shale and the hazardous conditions which they were forced to work under.


Although every precaution was taken in the shale mines to prevent accidents, human error and unforeseen happenings, normally ascribed afterwards as acts of God, were prevalent, and as a result serious injuries were regular, with loss of life not by any manner of means unknown.


Between the end of the war and the winding up of the industry, there was only one major disaster in the shale mines in this area, that was on January 10, 1947, when 15 men lost their lives as a result of a gas explosion and consequent fire that occurred in Burngrange Pit, West Calder. The result of this tragedy locally, as can be imagined, was shattering, and was one that will never be forgotten by residents of the mining communities around the New Town at that time who remember with sympathy the details of this horrifying calamity that inflicted so much suffering.


Although the Burngrange disaster claimed at one stroke by far the largest number of lives in the post war years, there was a succession of tragedies in the other mines and pits working in the district during that time. The mind of one who has worked in Westwood and Burngrange pit and Hermand mine goes back easily to the circumstances of mining accidents that terminated the lives of workmates and acquaintances as well as inflicting serious injury to others.


The dangers of the shale mines that kept particularly face workers ever alert to the conditions of the roof and the presence of inflammable gasses in their workplace also bred down through the ages, a companionship among men that is hard to put into words, and is certainly not evident in other industries as ex-miners from Livingston Station and the Calders have discovered since being forced into a change of employment.


The grey slatey shale which bears no resemblance in colour to the large red bings that the waste material from the industry has left as a memorial round the district, was won from the earth by one of the earliest methods of mining called 'stoop and room' ! To the uninitiated, after a pit had been sunk, the area away from the pit bottom was developed into a series of squares by a network of tunnels that sometimes stretched a couple of miles away from the shaft. The squares which varied in size, normally approximately 700 square yards, were then completely worked out, leaving the roof at this part to cave in, thus taking the weight off the rest of the workings.


A system of contracting to mine the shale was employed at one time, whereby a miner received several parts of the pit to work and had the right to hire and fire as he pleased. Whereas this system in many cases worked satisfactorily, there were those among the contractors who did not play the game with the men they employed, and it was not unknown for some contractors to make one trip to the pit a week, on a Friday, to collect the cheques for the work done, keeping the lions share to himself before splitting the rest between the workers.


In the years preceding the closure of the industry, this system did not operate, and the actual miners were divided into teams of two facemen or sometimes four drawers working on a two-shift system, with each receiving an equal share of the money that was made on a piece-rate basis.


As the strata of the earth runs in wave like lines with different degrees of rise and fall, the task of mining the shale in any two parts of the pit was never the same, which resulted in the price per ton which the miner was paid being calculated on the conditions under which he was forced to work.


The mining of shale was an art, the ability to bore sufficient correct blast holes in any one face being something not acquired by everyone who was entrusted with the job, resulting in a great variation in the wages made by different teams of workers. As the slatey rock had then to be hand filled into hutchies and bogies, the inexperienced or incompetent faceman who burst the pavement or surface from which the shale had to be shoveled, could make the task increasingly more difficult for the drawer, whose duty it was to take the hutch of shale with his own muscular power, after he had filled it, to a rope haulage sometimes 100 yards away, before it was whisked away to the pit bottom.


In the shale mines the miner was better off in one respect than his counterpart in the coal industry, as in comparison to the seams of coal that are sometimes only 18 inches in height, the shale seams were seldom less than six feet, extending to a height of fourteen in some places. While the shale miner did not have the inconvenience of lack of height in his workplace, he had the additional responsibility of taking extra care of the roof of the tunnel in which he was working, as even one small stone falling from such a height could kill or mame for life.


One of the big bugbears of shale mining was the lack of proper ventilation, as the the further one was employed away from the main shaft, the air not only became scarcer, but what one did receive was considerably warmer as a result of it being forced through the various tunnels. The warm air also fouled continuously by the blasting operations that were always taking place, and this did not enhance the working conditions of the miner who was forced to work particularly hard for any money he received in reward.


When the shale mining industry was forced into closure in the early 1960s as a result of the Government refusing to give a shilling tax concession to home-produced oil, there was an outcry at the time from every section of the communities involved.


The concern of the average shale face-worker was not, however, that this type of work was being done away with, but more the fear of being unemployed, and the possibility of not being capable of maintaining his wife and a family in the standard to which they had been accustomed, as a result of not having training in any other field. Looking in retrospect over the past ten years, and listening to the comments of the men involved, the closure of the shale pits was a blessing in disguise however, as many of the former employees of Westwood, Breich, Burngrange and the Fraser pits, are now engaged in work which is considerably easier, with the remuneration being on the whole, as good if not better.