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Significant Scots
James Young

James YoungJames Young, son of a Glasgow joiner, was the founding father of the modern oil industry. Beginning in 1851 he established refineries in the Lothians processing cannel-coal and oil-shale years before the first American or Middle Eastern oil well was drilled. By means of his great powers of invention and considerable commercial acumen he became a very wealthy man. The shale-oil industry that Young established had a life of just over one hundred years and ceased only in 1962, but its successors operating now on crude oil from home waters and abroad, still flourish worldwide.

As a youth James Young had to struggle hard for his education, eventually gaining distinction in chemistry at the evening classes of the Andersonian University (now Strathclyde University) where many distinguished Scots had given or attended lectures. While there he met and befriended the famous explorer David Livingstone. This relationship was to endure until Livingstone’s death in Africa many years after.

After a brief spell lecturing in chemistry in London, Young became manager of a chemical works near Manchester, in the course of which he developed many new patents and processes connected with dye stuffs. While there he became interested in oil, and established a little business refining a natural oil seepage in a Derbyshire Colliery.

That was the beginning. As the seepage gradually dried up, Young cast around for other sources of oil and he found what he wanted in a special coal from Bathgate in West Lothian. This coal, Torbanite by name, gave a remarkable yield of crude oil when distilled in simple apparatus. Young quickly patented the process, and established the first truly commercial oil-works in the world at Bathgate in 1851. His fortune was quickly made selling paraffin oil, lubricants for all kinds of industries, wax, naptha and even fertilisers. When the reserves of Torbanite eventually gave out he moved on to oil-shale which was near at hand, abundant and cheap but not so rich in oil as Torbanite. With the expiry of Young’s patent in 1864 the Scottish shale oil boom began and the rapid emergence of an industry that was to last for 100 years.

Young’s Paraffin Light and Mineral Oil Company Limited continued to grow and expanded its operations, selling paraffin oil and paraffin lamps all over the world and earning for its founder the affectionate nickname ‘Paraffin’ Young.

The success of the native mineral oil industry was due to the fact that up till that time illuminating oils, lubricants and waxes were largely drawn from animal and vegetable sources, expensive, in short supply and often of poor quality. On the other hand mineral oil was cheaper, better for most purposes and abundant. In addition demand was growing rapidly under the impetus of the Industrial Revolution as hundreds of thousands of new consumers came on to the market. Even the development of overseas competition from natural oil in America, Russia and the Far East did not succeed in extinguishing the Scottish industry for more than a century, though times were often very hard. Advanced Scottish oil technology together with the brilliance of our engineers and businessmen ensured survival right up until 1962 when the last of the shale works was finally abandoned and the first chapter in the history of the modern oil industry closed.

A practical treatise on Mineral Oils and their By-Products
A Short History of the Scotch Shale Oil Industry by Iltyd I. Redwood (1897) (pdf)

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