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Scotland's First Oil Boom
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History, Social History
John Donald
Publication Date
02 July 2012
Available for Sale
Birlinn Limited
14pp b/w plates

Scotland's First Oil Boom

The Scottish Shale-Oil Industry, 1851–1914

At its peak in the years before the Great War the Scottish shale oil industry gave employment to some 10,000 people and was a major factor in the economy of the Lothians, particularly in the Almond valley, from Tarbrax to Dalmeny. The history of its development has largely been neglected, yet Scotland was one of the few countries in which the shale oil industry ever became a successful commercial venture. This book tells the history of the development of this unique industry for the first time.

The discovery of petroleum and the shale industry took place at a time of great change in British society: wages were rising and prices were falling. Hours of work were controlled in many industries, giving more time for leisure activities such as reading, which required adequate, inexpensive artificial light. The shale-oil industry successfully identified an opportunity and applied new techniques to meet this demand. From 1860 to 1863, 23 works were set up to exploit the oil shales, and from 1864 there was a ‘Scottish Oil Mania’, as the industry produced a range of petrochemicals, including lubricating oil, burning oil and paraffin. The industry survived from the 1850s to 1919, in competition with natural petroleum, firstly from the United States and then from Russia and the Far East. Ultimately the innovation of the shale oil industry provided a valuable recruiting ground for Scotland’s expertise in oil.

John McKay came from a family that had worked in the Scottish shale oil industry from the 1870s to the early 1900s. He worked as a Senior Executive Officer for HM Customs and Excise for over 30 years. He was a member of the City of Edinburgh District Council 1974–77 and 1978–88, and was Lord Provost 1984–88. He was awarded a PhD from the Open University in 1985 for his work on the social history of the Scottish shale oil industry. From 1994 to 2000 he worked as a part-time tutor for the Open University and the University of Dundee. He died in 2011.