Whitburn is a town that stands astride the old main road from Glasgow to Edinburgh not far from the western edge of West Lothian and almost exactly half way between Scotland's two biggest cities. It was bypassed immediately to its north when the first stretch of the M8 motorway opened in 1965. As the header picture shows, this has not stopped it remaining a busy place.
"Whytbourne" first entered the records in a land grant made in 1365 by King David II to an "Ade Forrester", and in 1452 George de Crichton was made 1st Baron of Whitburn by James II. The main road was made into a turnpike (i.e. tolls were charged for its upkeep) in 1753, and by 1796 a post office had opened and the population had grown to some 500. The main sources of employment at the time were agriculture and hand loom weaving.
Polkemmet House had been built a little to the west of Whitburn by the Baillie family in the 1600s and was developed over the succeeding centuries. It was demolished in the 1960s and its estate is now a country park. Not a great deal remains in Whitburn from the 1700s, though a stone beside Brucefield Kirk is named the "Barracks Stone" and dated 1766. Those in search of a military connection will be disappointed: this marks the site of a Secession Church established in 1766. The nearby Brucefield Kirk was built in the 1800s, and its rather startling successor, also close by, was built in 1966.
Weaving increased in importance as a source of employment in Whitburn through the 1800s. A railway station was built on a branch line at East Whitburn in the 1860s, but in many ways Whitburn was relatively unaffected by the large scale industrialisation that changed many other settlements in Scotland's central belt during the 1800s. One fine addition to the town during this period was the Burgh Hall, built in 1830 complete with a very attractive clock tower.
The North Lanarkshire coalfield to the west had been very active from 1850 onwards, but deep coal mining only began in the Whitburn area in about 1900. This resulted in a huge growth in the town as those attracted by the new mining jobs moved in. At the end of World War II there were eight deep pits in production to the east and west of Whitburn, employing an average of up to 5,000 men. Most closed in the 1950s or early 1960s, but Riddochhill employed over 500 men until its closure in 1968, and Whiterigg Colliery employed nearly 1,000 men until its run down to closure in 1972.
But by far the most significant pit in the area was Polkemmet Colliery, sunk on land to the south west of Whitburn during World War I, with production beginning in 1921. This employed an average of some 1,500 men, rising to nearly 2,000 in its peak year of 1960. Polkemmet employed more miners, for longer, than any other Scottish pit and its pithead baths were said to be the second largest in the country. Polkemmet was a major supplier of coking coal for the steelworks at Ravenscraig in Motherwell. Its closure came in 1986 following the UK-wide miners' strike of 1984-5. During the strike severe flooding damaged the pit and it was decided that the scale of the work needed to restore it to production rendered Polkemmet unviable.
Further bad news came for the local economy in December 1999, when it was announced that Levi Strauss & Co were to close their factory here. This had opened in 1969 and employed up to 500 people making 4 million pairs of jeans each year.
Today's Whitburn has many assets, not least a central location and excellent road links. Looking ahead, much hope is placed in the "Heartlands" project, which is planned to involve a new motorway junction serving 600 hectares of redeveloped land on the site of Polkemmet Colliery, which in turn is hoped to result in 4,000 new jobs, 2,000 homes, and two championship golf courses.
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