The Electric Ghosts of Hawk Hill Plantation
The terminus of the Winchburgh electric railway
F18019, first published 21st April 2018
It is almost sixty years since the Niddry Castle oil works closed, and with it the little electric railway that linked the works to shale mines at Duddingston, Totleywells and Whitequarries. Although the site of works has been cleared and much else has changed, you can still follow the route of the railway, (and find other evidence of the trains that passed), in the woods to the west of Winchburgh.
The Niddry Castle works were part of a bold scheme by the Oakbank Oil Company to exploit the oilshale that lay deep beneath the Hopetoun estate. Estate factors were keen to avoid any intrusion of industry on the Hopetoun policies, and required that the shale be transported several miles to the south, where an oil works and workers rows were built at Winchburgh. When constructed in 1902, Niddry castle works were notable in their pioneering use of electrical power, and this innovation extended to the adoption of electrical power for the narrow-gauge railway, which was supplied by overhead wires carrying 600V DC. This represented cutting-edge technology for its time, and the two electric locomotives, (the first to work in Scotland), had to be imported from the USA. The railway carried shale from the pits, and miners to their work, for over half a century, and always remained a novelty and an object of affection.
Much of the route of the railway has been obliterated, but the line can easily be traced from the steep whinstone cutting that passes beneath Winchburgh Main Street, southwards at the foot of the allotments, to the site of the oil works reception sidings. Here the electric locomotives would be uncoupled from their train and the hutches allowed to run, one by one, to the foot of the slope. Each hutch would then be linked to a continuously moving chain running on a pulley arrangement said to be “similar to that found on the fairground big dipper” before being discharged into the shale breaker. Sadly no evidence remains of this wonderful machinery, or the steep incline and timber trestles that once carried hutches of broken shale at tree-top height to feed the shale retorts.
The curving route of a single track of railway can still be followed through Hawk Hill Plantation from the reception sidings to the site of the engine shed. It’s a green peaceful place where it’s not hard to imagine the spark and splutter of the little electric engines as they trundled home through the trees at the end of a busy shift.
Above right: Close up view of Niddry Castle oil works from the bing, showing high level trestle through the trees on the right, transporting shale to the top of the retorts. The brick building on the right is the electric railway loco shed.