Life in a Shale Village

Life during the shale oil industry was very different from how it is now.

Some people lived near their place of work but a lot of the poorer workers would live in another village and would need to walk to work every day. The houses back then were usually quite basic. Some would have running water inside but some had to get their water from wells outside. A toilet was a rare luxury to have inside your house and was usually a shed outside. Sometimes you had to share this toilet with other houses on the street. The houses were usually quite small. Families might have just 2 children or could have 10 children, all crammed into just 1 or 2 rooms. If the man of the house was high up in the shale oil industry, like an engineer, then they would usually be given a house by the company that would sometimes have more luxury such as electricity.

The women usually stayed at home looking after the home and children. They had to clean the houses with no fancy products like we have now. They also had to fight the never ending dirt from the shale mining. They would get the children to help with gathering water and other food from outside. Some women were very good at baking and growing their own food. It was a good skill to be able to sew and knit so that they could make their own clothes or patch and mend clothes that had holes in them.

Children would get a basic education learning to read, write and doing maths. They didn't have televisions or fancy games. They would spend a lot of their times helping their mums at home to clean and look after the house. For fun they would make up games with their brothers and sisters or play outside. Hide and seek was a great game to play with lots of places to hide. If they were in a big family their clothes would usually have lots of patches. This is because they would get clothes handed down from older brothers and sisters and then their mum would just patch them up. Boys usually left school around 14 years old to start working in the industry. They would usually start as pony drivers or drawers. This was very hard work and spent most of their days down the mines for not a lot of money. Some could go and do more studies to specialise in an area such as mining, fire safety and engineering. This was the best way to move up to better jobs.

Here are Alec, David and Sheila's stories from their lives in the shale oil industry.

Alec (working teenager)

My name is Alec and I'm 15 years old. I was born in Winchburgh. We lived there until I was 11. The house was quite new. It had water and a boiler in the kitchen but no electricity. We used paraffin lamps around the house. There was electricity on the street though to give us street lights. We moved to Faulcheldean for a few years but when I was 14 we moved to Roman Camps. This was great because we had electricity inside the house for the first time. It was only one of two houses with electricity. We also had water inside the house but other houses had to use the wells outside to get their water.

When I was 14 I left school to follow in my dad's footsteps and work in the shale oil industry. I went to work at Roman Camps oil work. I had to get up at 6.20am to go to work. I finished at 4pm but then went to Broxburn for night school. I was an apprentice so I got to spend time doing studies to help me learn more. All my friends would be going to watch football on a Saturday but I had to study instead. At least that meant I didn't have to help my mum clean the house. She was always trying to clean because there was a lot of black soot inside from the oil works. I can't wait until I'm finished studying and I can work as an engineer. I will get to work on the trains and locomotives. It will be dirty work but better than working down a mine. Just now I get to help out the engineers by passing them what they need. When I'm older I might be able to get my own house but just now I only make enough money to help mum and dad out.

Sheila (wife)

Hello, my name is Sheila. I live in West Calder with my husband and six of my children. I have 10 children but four have now left to work in other parts of West Lothian. We live in Burngrange Cottages. It is quite a small house for such a large family. We have one bedroom and a kitchen so it is quite cramped but we get by. We don't have any running water so we have to use the well outside. Luckily everyone helps to get the water. We have to be careful in winter that we have enough in case the well freezes. As you may guess since we don't have water we also don't have a toilet. The toilet is in a hut at the end of the street. The four cottages all have to share it. Not easy with so many children. It is a dry toilet so can get quite smelly and not somewhere you want to spend a lot of time!

My husband works in the oil works down the road. He isn't badly paid so we get by. I was born in the countryside so do a lot of baking and sewing myself. During the summer I am busy knitting jumpers for my children to wear in the winter time. I do try to provide a happy life for my family by keeping the place clean and tidy, good cooked food and clothes too. Sadly I can't keep them safe from everything. Just last year my nephew died of appendicitis. He was taken to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary but the ambulance is a horse drawn carriage so took 2 and a half hours. By the time he got there his appendix had burst and it was too late to save him. I've lost a lot of my family from illness and injuries so I pray a lot for those I have left.

David (worker)

Hello, my name is David. I'm a fireman down at the Burngrange pits. Sounds like an exciting job doesn't it. Well I like it. I actually started as a pony driver when I was 14. That was hard work as I spent a lot of time underground and did the same job all day long. I liked working with the horses though. I didn't make much money so still lived at home and my wages went to my mum and dad to help with household bills. I started going to mining classes when I was 17 at Heriot Watt University. I qualified in mine rescue. That was very exciting as we got to go underground in oxygen masks and practice rescuing miners from accidents or mine collapses. This then gave me a silver badge as part of the fire service.

My job is not really putting out fires. It is more about keeping the place safe and making sure there is less chance of an accident. At the start of my shift I go round my areas to check for signs of methane or firedamp. I have to record my inspection on a sheet which is pinned up at the start of the pit to let the workers know it is safe. I'm really more of a safety man I guess. We used to have to go into the mines with an oil lamp. Now obviously a flame and methane gas is not a good mix! We then got oil flame safety lamps, called a Glenny lamp, which are much safer. Just a few months ago we got electric battery lamps which the firemen get to use. I still have my Glenny lamp just in case but the new lamps are much better for doing inspections. I'm quite glad there has not been any bad accidents or disasters at my work. My pal works over at Starlaw where there was a big disaster many years ago. Many men were injured and lost their lives due to a fire down the pit. My job is so important to try to make it less likely that a fire will start here.