A Wander through the Calder Hall Estate

Two Funerals and a Railway though a Tennis Court

F22011 - first published 25th May 2022

A peaceful footpath winds its way through wooded countryside between Midcalder and the site of Hoghill farm, from where a quiet road continues southward to the site of Oakbank village. Beneath your feet during much of this journey, you'll find many fragments of oil shale, while a thoughtful study of the humps and bumps encountered along the way reveals that much of this peaceful haven for nature has been shaped by industry.

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The path runs for nearly a mile through what was once the grounds of Calder Hall. This impressive Greek-revival mansion, built in about 1820, was once one of the finest homes in the county. It was demolished in 1970, following a long sad decline and a period of dereliction. The north lodge that guarded the driveway to the mansion still survives beside Midcalder's Main Street, and marks the start of the footpath. The path heads south, generally following the route of the old drive, with uncultivated land (once part of Broomhill farm) on one side, and woodland on the other. An avenue of venerable yew trees within the woods seems to mark the original approach to the Hall. The pathway links to Hoghill Crescent and the houses built there in recent times on the site of the mansion.

The unsurfaced path continues behind the houses before plunging down the steep slope to the Linhouse water by means of a couple of flights of rough steps. The river turns almost 90 degrees at this point with near-vertical cliffs that would imperil anyone foolish enough to stray far from the path. The path follows the tree-lined river valley for a while, with views eastward across open fields that slope up towards the site of Calder Hall. From this vantage point, residents of the mansion will once have enjoyed idyllic views across a carefully contrived landscape into the wooded valley of the Linhouse Water and beyond to the ancient forest of Calder Wood. Today these pleasure grounds have been replaced by a grassed field scarred by mounds and hollows, sink-holes and flooded ponds. Geological maps show that the Broxburn shale once outcropped at this point and it seems that a good part of the hill was quarried away to extract it.

On the other side of the river, largely hidden behind a screen of trees, are entries hacked into the riverside cliffs, providing access to a network of underground shale workings. The path then follows a steady course and even-graded route climbing up the side of the valley, often with steep drops on one or both sides. It seems that these substantial earthworks once carried an inclined railway, along which shale was hauled from the quarries and mines to the top of the valley and the area that now forms the site of Hoghill wood.

A line of large beech trees that guard the top of the steep slope down in to the river valley were probably part of the original planned landscape of the Calder Hall estate. The remaining trees of Hoghill wood appear to have become established much more recently. Beneath their canopy are mounds, trackways and other earthworks, and the ground is littered with fragments of oil shale. This was obviously once the site of busy industrial activity, yet few maps or archives survive that fully explain what once went on here.

The Linhouse (or Linnhouse) Water cuts a deep channel between steep cliffs, offering a useful cross section of local geology that reveals faults, intrusive sills, and a layer-cake of sedimentary rocks. These include distinctive seams of oil shale. Inspired by James Paraffin Young’s meteoritic rise to fame and wealth during the 1850’s, many owners of shale-bearing lands will have quietly tinkered with the processes of oil production, anxious to avoid Young’s attention and the need to pay him patent royalties. A party from the Edinburgh Geological Society enjoyed an outing to the Linhouse Water in 1865 where they “inspected a curious old retort in the glen, which was one of the first that was used in Scotland for the manufacture of crude oil from shale”. This account suggests that certain parties (most likely to include Steuart Bayley Hare, owner of the Calder Hall estate) were dabbling with oil production some time prior to 1860. In the early 60’s a succession of companies attempted to exploit the local oilshales, but the precise locations of these early works is uncertain. By 1865 however, it is clear that a shaft (Oakbank No.1 pit) had been sunk a little south of Midcalder bridge to access deeper seams of a shalefield that was to sustain oil production at Oakbank for the next fifty years. Then, or soon afterwards, the Oakbank Oil works were established a mile to the south beside the planned route of the Caledonian Railway’s new Cleland and Midcalder line. The village of Oakbank grew to serve the works.

The fly-in-the-ointment for this great scheme were the ornamental grounds of Calder Hall that lay directly between the shale pit and the shale oil works. An estate plan from 1869 shows that a railway line had been built from Oakbank oil works and the junction with the Caledonian Railway, passing by Oakbank village and terminated somewhere close to the present day Hoghill wood. From here a branch continued down the steep incline to the Linhouse Water, where paths linked to a mine into the Broxburn shale workings of the Calder Hall estate and a bridge across the river provided a route to mines into the river cliffs on Lord Torphichen’s Calder Wood estate. An engine house marked in Hoghill Wood presumably provided the power to pull wagons up and down the various inclines on a complicated arrangement of haulage cables.

A further railway line seems to mysteriously disappear into a tunnel entrance heading beneath the landscaped grounds of Calder Hall in the general direction of Oakbank No.1 pit, about half a mile distant. At that time it seems that no shale was brought to the surface at No.1 pit, although the pithead boasted a powerful pumping engine named “Maggie” and a large steam crane for lowering machinery down the shaft. The shale was instead hauled up an inclined tunnel almost half-a-mile long hidden beneath the estate, which surfaced within the present day Hoghill wood.

Not only did the Calder Hall estate separate Oakbank oil works from its shale pit; it also separated the thirsty shale-workers of Oakbank village from the public houses of Midcalder. It might be imagined that a perilous cliff-top route had to be followed to avoid the attentions of those in the mansion, which was doubly difficult to navigate on a dark night when tanked-up with bevvy. In 1879 Peter Ritchie, a blacksmith employed by the Oakbank Oil Company was found dead in the Linhouse water after falling down the precipitous river cliffs following a Saturday night’s entertainment in Midcalder. The following year, William Skivington, a retortman at Oakbank, met the same fate under very similar circumstances.

In 1885, after a close brush with bankruptcy, a reinvigorated Oakbank Oil Company set about improving its operations. Oakbank No.1 pit was extended to reach the deeper seams of shale, making use of the underground incline additionally inconvenient. By then the Hare family no longer lived in Calder Hall and it was finally agreed that the missing link of railway between the pit with the oil works could be constructed. All seemed well until the tenant of Calder Hall, local MP Peter M’Lagan, discovered that the line of the railway had been staked out across the estate and that this “cut through the shrubberies and intersected the tennis court”. He took his landlord to court claiming that the railway “would interfere with the amenity of Calderhall as a residence”. It seems that the matter was resolved without great delay.

Before long, the Oakbank company’s little pug engines could pick up their wagons directly from the pithead, rather than from the sidings in Hoghill wood where hutches of shale had emerged from their underground journey. And, at last, the merry residents of Oakbank village could find their safe way home, guided by the moonlight reflected in the shining silver rails.