Life in the Raws – 2 June 2021

A knowledgeable and sincere speaker, Neil Findlay, a former MSP, spoke to the members about “Life in the Raws”, the title of his book on memories of a Shale-Oil Village in West Lothian. The book is essentially the life story of John ‘Jock’ Findlay, Neil’s grandfather, and was largely written by Jock himself in his “wee green book” with further excerpts on the back of a plywood bath panel which was discovered some time after Jock’s death.

In the mid-19th century, the notable, Glasgow-born scientist, James “Paraffin” Young discovered a method of distilling special coals to produce oils and paraffin wax. His company, based in Addiewell near West Calder, sold oil and paraffin lamps all over the world and when the local coal reserves began to run out, attention turned to the vast oil-shale reserves of West Lothian.  By the 1900s nearly 2 million tons of shale were being extracted annually, the industry employing 4,000 men.

Pumpherston village, was created by the Pumpherston Oil Company in 1884, and was home to hundreds of oil-shale workers whose living and working conditions were extremely harsh and often life-threatening. Neil Findlay’s great respect for his grandfather was clearly evident and “Life in the Raws” is about the life of ‘a proud, good, clever working class man spanning almost a whole century of Scottish history. Although the story of one man’s life, the book is also the story of a village with a unique place in Scottish history, community and culture. Neil touched on many aspects of this, mentioning the “Five Sisters” shale tips, now scheduled monuments thanks to the late Tam Dalyell MP; miners’ tools, the authority of the all-powerful works manager; and the importance of the local school and institute hall to the community. Nearby Broxburn, known as “Shaleopolis”, laid claim to many refractories at the peak and it is thought that approximately 80% of West Lothian’s shale resource is still in the ground. In the 1970s the spent shale (“burnt-blaes”) waste tips provided massive tonnages of material to assist the construction of the nearby M8 motorway.

Neil’s talk to the club was unique in a number of ways, the most unusual being that he broadcast his talk live from within his camper van at Scone Palace, a fact acknowledged by John Dunlop in his vote of thanks to a most excellent speaker.

[Life in the Raws: ISBN-13: ” A wonderfully evocative memoir of a vanished way of life” – Professor Sir Tom Devine.    9781910022351 ]