Vehicle drivers coping with the complex entrance to the M9 Motorway leaving Edinburgh heading north are unlikely to pay more than a passing thought to the giant reddish masses against the skyline, known locally as ‘The Five Sisters’. These motorists are most likely unaware that these shale bings were essential in the process of producing the world’s first oil refinery.

When we consider the recent fluctuations of the history of the oil industry we think of oil sheiks or TV’s ‘Dallas’, but in reality the genius who instigated this industry was a modest carpenter’s son from Glasgow. James Young is to be thanked for founding the first commercial oil works in the world in 1851, a chemist with the humorous but deserved name of ‘Paraffin Young’. The young apprentice carpenter decided to self-educate by attending evening classes at Anderson’s College, now known as University of Strathclyde. There he met Professor Thomas Graham, a Chemistry lecturer who later appointed his student as his assistant. Young studied and became a brilliant chemist who saw the potential of devising a method of refining oil from cannel coal deposits from surrounding pits.

These residue heaps, or ‘bings’, can still be seen against the skyline in places like Shotts in Lanarkshire. As a child reared in that area when snow seemed to last from November till Easter the bings were ready-made playgrounds for sledging. Later Young transferred his whole operation to oil-bearing shale in areas around West Lothian where it is claimed there are still ample reserves. Shale was cheap and relatively easy to extract and for fifty years from 1865 three million tonnes of oil shale were mined each year. Only one ‘red ashy bing’ existed near our home and it had special status to us as children because of its bright colour, but a scolding always followed a slide down it because of the stain it left on our clothing.

Dr Young opened a refinery near Addiewell where the raw material from the shale mines was heated to almost 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. This vaporised the oil content, which was then distilled to form the base of crude oil for the manufacture of products such as lubricants, oil for heating and lighting, candles, fertilisers, and waterproofing for paper and textiles. When Dr Young ‘s master patent still had a few years to run in 1859, the world’s first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania. It was decided by the American courts that Royalties had to be paid to Young’s company called, ‘Young’s Paraffin Light and Mineral oil Company’, later to become part of the BP Group in Grangemouth which was mainly fed from North Sea oil. These Royalties extended for several years to enforce due payments from backsliders.

In 1864, after the British patents had expired, rival Scottish companies started up in local shale fields employing 10000 men in the first year. Mines and refineries were started in villages such as Pumpherston, Oakbank, Broxburn, Winchburgh, Kingscavel, Tarbrax and Addiewell which became a substantial industrial complex and the largest chemical works at that time. The works at Addiewell covered a huge area with storage sheds, furnaces and towering chimneys. By the 1900s two million tons of shale were being extracted annually employing 4000 men, producing boom villages. In 1866 Dr Young sold the Addiewell plant to the major ’Young’s Light and Mineral oil Company’, and although he remained in the business he took no active part in running it.

The Scottish shale oil industry, however, could not match the low production costs of foreign oil wells whose operators simply drilled a hole and allowed streams of raw oil to flow freely. The hundred and twenty company-owners who had rushed to the shale fields in company-built villages found their businesses coming to an end. After hard times, wage reductions, strikes and closures in the 1920s, the Scottish shale oil industry persevered until 1962, causing massive unemployment and hardship at its closure. Skilled workers were later fortunate to gain employment with BP in Grangemouth and were said to be the backbone of the plant.

James Young now turned his skills and energies to other scientific pursuits and enjoyed a more leisurely existence with his family in yachting and travelling. In 1872 Dr Young made significant discoveries in rustproofing ships, practices later adopted by the Royal Navy. Being aware that bilge water was acidic, he suggested that quicklime could be used to prevent it corroding iron ships. He also worked with Professor George Forbes around 1880 on the speed of light. In his lifetime he received many honours for his scientific works including being elected a Fellow of The Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1861.

For nine years he was President of Anderson’s College and founded the Young Chair of Technical Chemistry, never forgetting the debt he owed as an evening class student and the support from Professor Thomas Graham.

While attending the college he had met and become a close friend of David Livingstone, a friendship which lasted until the explorer’s death. He had generously donated funds to Livingstone during his exploits in Africa. When the explorer disappeared his friend provided the means for a search expedition but sadly Livingstone had died before he was found. His friend James Young financed a statue of Livingstone in George Square in Glasgow.

Having become a wealthy man, he never forgot his debt to Professor Thomas Graham, his friend and mentor in his early days at Anderson’s College, and erected a statue in his memory at Glasgow Cathedral. If the world’s oil wells eventually run dry, what better legacy could be paid to Paraffin Young, the carpenter’s son from Glasgow, than to re-assess the potential deposits of oil left in the ground as well as in ‘The Five Sisters’ of the Bathgate area?