A huge shale oil industrial complex was established at Binnend in 1878. The village of Binnend was created a few years later to provide accommodation for workers and their families. During the 1880s the shale oil works thrived and then went into a steep decline. Very little work was done after 1892, and the mines were closed in 1894. By then many people had left, but the village continued to be occupied until 1954. In that year its last resident, George Hood, departed.
In this section we will take a look at the history of the shale oil works at Binnend; the village and the way of life of its inhabitants during the brief period of oil production will be described; and we will trace what happened to the village during the six decades after production came to an end.
A lot of the information in this section has come from a superb report, The Binnend Oilworks and the Binn Village, by Walter Stephen, based on research conducted by an Adult Education Class in 1968. You can get a copy of the report from the Burntisland public library. Alternatively, a shorter account, written by Iain Sommerville, can be read at www.burntisland.net/binnend-village.htm.
Binnend was in Fife, Scotland, about a mile north east of the town of Burntisland. Both the shale oil works and the village stood on the southern slopes of a hill that gave a panoramic view of the Firth of Forth and Edinburgh.
Oil shale is a sedimentary rock that contains kerogen, organic material from which liquid hydrocarbons can be extracted. When heated to a sufficiently high temperature the shale will produce a vapour that turns to oil as it distils. The Lothians and Fife have large reserves of oil shale. By the middle of the nineteenth century, major developments in the production of oil had been made by James “Paraffin” Young, sometimes known as the first oil man, who patented his method in 1850.
The works at Binnend included shale mines, retorts in which the shale was heated and oil extracted, and factories for the manufacture of oil and wax products. The products included sulphate of ammonia (a fertiliser), naphtha for making paint and rubber, burning and lubricating oils, and candles.
Detailed information about the four mines at Binnend is given in the report by Walter Stephen. The mines followed the oil shale underground, usually at an angle between 10 and 27 degrees, to such a depth that the furthest point of each mine was well below sea level. The seam would be excavated in successive rectangular areas known as stoops. The shale would be broken down by blasting, and after a stoop had been cleared its supporting walls would be removed until the roof collapsed.
It was reported at the company’s Annual Meeting in 1892 that a “crush” had occurred that year. As stoops were being removed large sections of the roof fell in, causing extensive damage to the roads. The process of clearing the area was hazardous and expensive, costing almost £10,000.
After excavation the shale was broken into small lumps and then fed into the top of the retorts, tubes about 30 feet high and two feet in diameter. The upper part of each retort was heated to 1100ºF, the lower part to about 1800ºF, and it would take about 24 hours for shale to pass down through the retort. At the base the shale waste would be collected and transported to a nearby dump or “bing”. During the period of maximum output about 500 tons of shale was processed each day, yielding about 15,000 gallons of oil.