Very, very occasionally you read a book that is so outstandingly good you just know that it is the very best book that will ever be written on the subject it covers. "The Scottish Shale Oil Industry & Mineral Railway Lines" by Harry Knox is one of those books. It is simply magnificent: wonderfully researched and organised; extremely well written in a style that conveys the author's enthusiasm for his subject while remaining accessible to all; and packed with fascinating and often impressively big illustrations. It also comes with numerous sections of the Ordnance Survey's six inches to one mile maps from the period when the industry was at its height, which, though sometimes printed at reduced size to fit the large format of the book, do as much as anything else to show how dramatically this area has changed in the half century since the demise of the industry.
The Scottish Shale Oil industry took off in the middle years of the 1800s, and lasted, after a long decline, until the 1960s. An oddity of geological history meant that while much of the rest of the central belt of Scotland was underpinned by coal, a strip of what is now mainly West Lothian, some three miles wide by 25 miles long, found itself sitting on highly fragmented layers of clay that carried within their structure significant quantities of crude oil and sulphate of ammonia. The result was to utterly transform the landscape and society of the area. Numerous oil works were developed, including the world's first oil refinery, and large numbers of mines and pits were sunk to extract the shale needed to feed the oil works.
The oil works have long gone, and for anyone who knows the area today (we live in the middle of it) the images showing the scale and nature of the industrial development are breathtaking. The mines and pits are now also long gone, as are the mineral railways lines once laid across the area in astonishing density to link the mines to the oil works and the oil works to the world at large. The only obvious sign of the industry today comes in the shape of the red oil shale "bings" (or spoil tips) that still dominate parts of the landscape, though even these are fewer in number than once they were. This book is essential reading for anyone who lives in West Lothian and has any interest in its not so distant past, or who has ever travelled across the area and wondered what gave rise to the red bings that are still so very obviously on view.