The village of West Calder effectively marks the extreme south western end of the Livingston conurbation: almost separate from it, but not quite, and likely to become more integrated into its fast-growing young neighbour in future years.
The village stands on the top of a ridge that runs along the south side of a valley containing the River Almond and two of its tributaries, the Breich Water and the West Calder Burn. South of West Calder the land rises slowly but steadily to form the spine of the Pentland Hills.
West Calder probably started out life as a service station for passing travellers on the main route from Edinburgh to Lanark, conveniently located about half way between the two. Evidence of earlier settlement can be found about three miles south east of the village, higher on the rising slopes of the Pentlands, in the shape of the Roman fortlet known as Castle Greg.
But the real growth of West Calder had to await he West Lothian oil boom in the 1860s. James Young had set up the world's first oil refinery in Bathgate to extract oil from "cannel coal" found nearby. But when that ran out, he switched his attention to the vast quantities of oil shale that underlay much of West Lothian, with the result that around 3 million tonnes of oil shale was extracted each year for more than half a century from 1865.
West Calder lay at the south west corner of the area from which oil shale was extracted, and extraction began in 1863 with output carried by rail to an oil shale works at a site at Gavieside, between West Calder and Livingston Village. By 1872 numerous shale pits were at work in an arc extending from the west of West Calder to its north east, and 4.5 million litres of oil were produced each year from the Gavieside refinery.
At the start of World War II, a much larger and more efficient oil shale works was built close to an established shale mine at Westwood. This continued in operation until the end of the era of extraction of oil from shale, in 1962. The industry came to a halt not because it had exhausted its reserves, but rather because from the late 1940s onwards, oil extracted from shale had increasing difficulty competing with oil brought into the refinery at Grangemouth by tankers from the Middle East.
In many ways it is now difficult to imagine that this part of West Lothian was once the focus of a large scale industry whose multiple belching smokestacks can be seen in old photos. But one reminder of the industry remains, in the form of the piles of reddish spoil that remain dotted around the area.
The most spectacular of these "bings" lies close to West Calder, at the site of the Westwood oil shale works. Here you find the "Five Sisters", whose five elements fan out like the extended fingers of a hand from the "palm" on their east side to the steeply sided "fingertips" on their west side. Today the Five Sisters is protected as an industrial heritage site, and even features as part of the logo of West Lothian Council.
It is interesting to note that because the oil shale industry met its end in a era before environmental concerns were often heard, the bings remain more obvious in the landscape than coal tips do in many ex-coal mining areas, where closure was more often followed by clean-up. One slightly odd effect of this is that bings are now sometimes regarded not so much as a disfiguring environmental blight that should have been removed as soon as the industry ceased to operate, and more as a contributor to biodiversity, because of the unique habitats they offer.
West Calder itself is a traditional and fairly attractive village largely built of a light coloured stone. The grandest building in the centre is the old West Calder Co-Op building, which incorporates more of a reddish stone. This was built in 1913 and was once the most successful Co-Operative in West Lothian. Today it houses a cafe and a shop. Standing a little back from the main street is the roofless ruin of the old parish church, built in 1643 but made redundant in the late 1800s.
Perhaps the most impressive building in the village - though far from the largest - is the Public Library, built in 1903 with funds from the Carnegie Foundation. More widely, West Calder has recovered rather better than some places from the demise of its heavy industry, largely because of the proximity of the rapidly growing town of Livingston.
Though the new town's influence has not been totally positive on West Calder: an "outlet centre" called the Freeport Leisure Village just to the west of the Five Sisters was unable to survive, presumably because of competition from a much larger outlet centre in Livingston itself.
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