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Young's Lasting Legacy to West Lothian: The Five Sisters, One of Many Normally Red Shale Bings that Remain
Young's Lasting Legacy to West Lothian: The Five Sisters,
One of Many Normally Red Shale Bings that Remain

James Young lived from 13 July 1811 to 13 May 1883. He was a Scottish chemist who patented processes for extracting oil for certain types of coal and from oil shale. The result was an industry that transformed West Lothian and resulted in the world's first oil refinery. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

Young was born in Glasgow, the son of a carpenter. As a 19 year old he attended evening classes at the nearby Anderson's College (now Strathclyde University) and in 1832 he became assistant to Professor Thomas Graham, a post that took him to University College, London, with the Professor in 1837. As a student at Anderson's College he became firm friends with David Livingstone, a friendship that was to continue until Livingstone's eventual death in Africa.

Young branched out on his own as a practical chemist in 1838, and ten years later he went into business refining oil that naturally seeped from a colliery at Alfreton in Derbyshire. Two years later he had a share in a patent for extracting oil from the particular type of coal involved, cannel coal.

The oil at Alfreton dried up, and Young looked for similar opportunities elsewhere. It turned out that an extremely high yield of oil could be extracted from cannel coal at Boghead Colliery near Bathgate in West Lothian. The process produced crude oil, paraffin oil, paraffin wax, naptha, gas, coke, and ammonium sulphate fertiliser, all products in high demand and which returned high profits. By 1851 Young had set up the world's first oil refinery at Bathgate.

Boghead's cannel coal eventually ran out, just as Alfreton's had done. But this time Young had the answer readily to hand. The surrounding area was hugely rich in oil shale. This provided lower yields of oil than cannel coal, but it was cheap and easy to extract, and provided the basis of an industry that for 50 years or more from 1865 mined 3 million tonnes of oil shale each year from under West Lothian.

In 1865 Young brought out his partners and set up Young's Paraffin Light and Mineral Oil Company with a new plant at Addiewell, near Bathgate. The company ended up selling paraffin oil and paraffin lamps all over the world, earning its owner the nickname James Paraffin Young.

The West Lothian oil shale industry carried on at full capacity until around 1910. Then it began to decline in the face of competition from directly extracted crude oil, first from the USA, then elsewhere including the Middle East. The industry finally ground to a halt in the 1950s. It leaves a legacy of pinkish-red "bings" or tips of oil shale waste that seem to resist all efforts by nature to reclaim them.

In 1861 James Young was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He spent a period in the 1870s as President of Anderson's College and he established and paid for the Young Chair of Technical Chemistry at the College. In 1873 Young became a Fellow of the Royal Society and in 1879 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate at St Andrews University. Young retired in 1870 to the fine home of a self-made man at Wemyss Bay. He died there on 13 May 1883, and is buried at Inverkip.

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