Working in the Shale Oil Industry

At the busiest time in 1912, 12,000 people were working in the Shale Oil Industry. Just imagine what it must have been liked to work in the mines or factories over 100 years ago.

What job would you have liked to do?

Chain Runner

Also known as a chainman or runner or pithead runner, these people had to spend most of their working day underground in the mines.

Job: They were responsible for attaching hutches (wagons) to the metal chains that would pull them out of the mines. They had to walk with the hutches up to the surface.

Wage: 25s2d per week

Hours worked: 54-60 hours per week

Fatal Accident: William Jamieson died on 2nd October 1911 when he was crushed between a rake and a hutch. He was from Bathgate and worked in the Dean Shale Mine.


Also known as a shale miner's drawer. This could have been your first job down the mines. The shale miner would be your boss.

Job: The drawer would work down the mine. They had to fill the hutches (wagons) with the mined oilshale rocks and then draw (push) them up to a place from where they could be hauled to the surface. They would be paid by the day but had to fill a certain number of hutches.

Wage: 25s3d

Hours worked: 46-49.5 hours per week

Fatal Accident: Alexander Cornwath died on 10th July 1911 when a large stone fell on him. He was from Livingston and worked in the Dean Shale Mines.

Shale Miner

Also known as a faceman or contractor, this was a responsible but dangerous job.

Job: They had to drill holes in the oilshale rocks. They would then put explosives (gunpowder) into the holes and the explosion would break off some of the shale. The shale miner had to use some of his wages to pay for a drawer. The drawer would collect what he was able to mine and take it to the surface. They also had to use their own money to pay for their equipment like their drills and picks.

Wages: 28s11d per week. They were usually paid by how much they could mine.

Hours worked: 46-49.5 hours per week.

Fatal Accident: Charles McQueen died on 15th May 1913 with some shale fell on him. He lived in Broxburn and worked in Kirkliston.

Pony Driver

This could have been your first job as a 14 year old boy.

Job: Pony drivers were usually young boys. They would take horses and ponies around the mine pulling hutches from one area to another. If there was no Ostler then they would also be responsible for looking after the horses.

Wage: Under 15 = 13s3d per week Over 15 = 15s0d per week.

Hours worked: 54-60 hours per week

Fatal Accident: James McCann died on 10th July 1918 when he was crushed under a row of tubs. He lived in Livingston and worked in the Dean Mines.

Retort charger

You would work high up on the top of the shale retorts, exposed to the wind and rain, but baked by the heat of retort below you. It was very dusty job.

Job: They would push wagons of oilshale along the top of the bench (group) of retorts, open a flap, and allow the oilshale to fall into the top of the fiery retort

Wage: 24s5d per week

Hours worked: 54.5-63 hours

Fatal Accident: None on record


Also known as retort drawers, this was a hot, dusty and dangerous job in the oil works.

Job: They work in the sweltering heat beneath the retorts (furnaces) where the oilshale was heated to extract the oil. They loaded the hot waste rock into hutches that were then drawn up the shale bing and tipped.

Wage: 26s6d

Hours worked: 54.5-63 hours per week

Fatal Accident: None on record


1. Wages

The wages were in old currency. How much would it be worth now? A wage of 26s and 6d means 26 shillings and six pence. Use the internet to find out how much a shilling is worth in British pounds. Do you think they got paid enough?

2. Hours worked

Do you know how many hours you spend at school each week? Work this out and then compare it to jobs that worked between 48-60 hours per week. What would it be like to work long hours underground?

3. Jobs

Imagine you are a man living in West Lothian 100 years ago. What job would you have wanted to work in the shale oil industry? Why would this be the best job for you? Write a job advert to advertise your favourite job. How could you make the long hours and small wage sound better?

4. Comparing

Compare the wages and hours worked of different jobs. What was the best and least paid jobs? Who worked the most hours?

5. Fatal Accidents

Lots of people died, especially down the mines. Imagine you are writing a newspaper article about a fatal accident. Choose a job and how that person could have died. Remember a newspaper might have a quote from someone else doing that job, someone who was there or a family member.