School of GeoSciences

School of GeoSciences

The oil-shale bings of West Lothian

The shale bings of West Lothian are large heaps of spoil, between 30 and 90 metres high; the waste material from an industrial process to retort crude oil (paraffin) from deep mined oil-bearing shale. The process was developed and patented by James "Paraffin" Young in 1851 and for a few years Scotland was the major oil-producing nation of the world.

ROSS PETROL WAS PRODUCED IN PHILPSTOUN - advertising postcard circa 1910

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In the UK, shale bings are found only in the county of West Lothian, Scotland. There are 19 bings still existing; they have been unworked from between 87 and 43 years. The industrial exploitation of oil-bearing rocks has created a unique landscape with its own distinctive flora and fauna.

The ecology and biodiversity of the bing sites make them ideal for describing and monitoring the processes and mechanisms of vegetation dynamics over a wide range of conditions. They provide an insight into the best-suited ecosystem structures for similar sites in other countries.

Shale bings are of great ecological and scientific importance as examples of primary succession. They provide a refuge for locally rare species, both plant and animal, in an agricultural landscape and are therefore also important to conservation and increased local biodiversity. Addiewell bing is an SWT nature reserve.

VEGETATION ON GREENDYKES BING

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Locally rare animals like hares, red grouse, sky larks, badgers and common blue butterflies can be found on many bings. Foxes in family groups are often seen on early morning visits suggesting that other, unobserved, smaller animals are also making their homes on the bings. Locally rare plants include alpine clubmoss, tall melilot, common wintergreen and a variety of orchids. Eight nationally (UK) scarce lichen and moss species have also been recorded on the shale bings. Biodiversity, however, is not only about rare and exotic species but also about variety of species. More than 350 of the 800 species plant species that have been recorded in West Lothian can be found on the oil-shale bings.

In addition to biodiversity the bings are also valued for their historical importance, their education value, their social significance and their recreational function. They provide much needed and interesting public open spaces in an increasingly urban area of the county and are now much used recreational sites for the population of West Lothian.

The oil shale bings of West Lothian have also accrued considerable heritage value. Greendykes, Faucheldean and Five Sisters are industrial heritage sites. The industries that built the bings also built the society and community structure of the existing human populations and initially provided most of the housing for them.

FIVE SISTERS

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It is impossible to live or work in West Lothian without being aware of the bings. These unique red spoil heaps are clearly visible to both road and rail travellers between Glasgow and Edinburgh. A more complete description of these unique sites can be seen in the report commissioned by West Lothian Council for the Local Biodiversity Plan.