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He founded the world’s oil economy, became a billionnaire and saved the whales

Updated: Nov 5, 2018

Just off the A71 through Polbeth there is a bucolic nook which seems worlds away from the hustle and bustle of the main road. In the grounds of the Limefield estate you travel back  over a century to the time when this was the residence of one of Britain’s most wealthy entrepreneurs.

Now a private residence, Limefield House was built in 1805, and would be “just another mansion” had it not been acquired in 1855 by James Young, the man responsible for the development of the shale oil industry in West Lothian. 


James Young 1811 - 1883

He founded the world’s oil economy, became a billionaire - and saved the whales!

James Young was the founding father of the West Lothian shale oil industry, moving to Polbeth in 1855 as his fortune rapidly mounted. Young applied his skills as a  chemist to oil seeping into coal mines and invented a process we now call ‘refining’ to produce paraffin wax, naphtha, and various other oils.

Natural oil seeps were rare, so Young located his works in Bathgate where there were ample supplies of shale. Eventually he made a fine, light product from shale, and named it paraffin oil. He revealed his process in a patent, which required other companies to pay him royalties.

At the time the only oils available for use in houses, aboard ships etc were derived from whales, plants or animals – dim, smoky and smelly! In 1851 the Bathgate operation was the world’s first oil refinery, and he subsequently expanded to bigger works in Addiewell, opened by Young’s famous friend David Livingstone. His paraffin is the same as modern heating oil and jet engine fuel, and cheap paraffin was the deathknell of the whaling industry. 

He earned the nickname James “paraffin” Young selling first paraffin, then branching out into many products including fertilisers. 


With Young’s empire expanding, he was already very wealthy when he purchased Limefield, and he undertook a major refurbishment of the property. Some of the original Georgian features were replaced with what seems to our modern tastes as ostentatious Victorian style. During his time there he also had gas lighting and electricity installed throughout. I spoke to the current owner of Limefield House, Ian Sibbald, who told me that the staircase with the ornate Victorian bannisters that James Young chose are still there.

The grounds around the house, he says, bear all the marks of an extremely wealthy owner. 

Young was a close friend of David Livingstone,the missionary and explorer, whom he met when they were both students at Anderson College (now Strathclyde Uni) in the early 1830s. Livingstone was the first Westerner to see the Mosi-oa-Tunya (The Smoke Which Thunders) waterfall on the Zambezi River in 1853, renaming it Victoria Falls. 

Livingstone visited Limefield frequently on his trips home from Africa, as Young was a major financial sponsor. In 1864 he planted a sycamore tree in front of the house. It has been well looked after and is still there - grafts were taken from it in the 1970s and planted around Livingston, so when its life has eventually run its course, the seeds of Livingstone’s tree will live on. He also built some small African huts for the amusement of Young’s children, although nothing remains of them today.

When Livingstone went missing in Africa in 1871 Young is believed to have helped fund the successful mission to find him. And in 1873 he contributed to another search expedition, which proved too late to find Livingstone alive.

Deeply affected by his friend’s death, Young arranged for Livingstone’s two African menservants, Susi and Chuma, to accompany the body home, and local historians believe that they were brought to Limefield House so that Young could personally thank them.

As a tribute to Livingstone, Young had a miniature of Victoria Falls constructed on Harburn Water, the stream that runs through the estate. One can imagine Livingstone, on a visit to Limefield, trying to convey the magnificence of the Falls to his friend. Without photos, maybe he sketched them. In any case, the Falls meant a great deal to him and he succeeded in impressing Young, who built Limefield Falls based on Livingstone’s descriptions. It seems likely that Susi and Chuma helped in the construction. They also built a hut made of straw and wood, said to be identical to the one in which Livingstone died.

Limefield Falls are still quite impressive today, albeit lower than their original height as they were lowered by the council on health and safety grounds.

Limefield Falls
Limefield Falls

Limefield House remained in the Young family for three generations, but as the industry collapsed in the area it lost its value. In 1955, one hundred years after James Young purchased it, his great-niece Alice Tom donated it to the community. It was used by the council as a care home for many years and West Calder High School was built in the deer park of the estate. But when a replacement care home was built at Dedridge, Limefield House fell into disrepair. Empty and derelict for a decade, it was sold into private ownership in a very poor state of repair. The proceeds were used for various facilities in Polbeth and West Calder and the house was restored to its former glory as a private residence.

So I asked Ian if there are any ghosts in the House. "Oh yes, we have lots of activity" he says. "Particularly on the stairs. There’s also a black labrador often seen in the corridors but which never materialises."  And on one occasion, a tiler working on the top floor of the house was approached by a man who asked, "Have you seen the little girl?"  He  wiped his hands and turned round but there was no-one there - or anywhere in the house. Many years ago a little girl drowned in Harwood Water on the estate - was it one of her troubled relatives? 

Whatever presences there are at Limefield, it’s a very peaceful area. The traces left here by its famous owner, of his private life and interests, contrast hugely with the traces we are more familar with of his industrial empire in the form of the pink shale bings.

First published in Konect July 2012

Author: Helen-Jane Shearer


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