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History of West Calder
Chapter VII. New Statistical Account

The following account of the parish of West Calder, is taken from the original manuscript (now in my possession), written by the late Rev. Wm. Learmonth, minister of the parish, 1835-70, and published about 1844, by Wm. Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh, in the New Statistical Account of Scotland (volume Edinburghshire), edited by the late Dr John Gordon, H.M/s Inspector of Schools, Edinburgh, and for many years secretary to the Education Committee of the Church of Scotland,—

“Parish of West Calder, Presbytery of Linlithgow, Synod of Lothian and Tweed-dale. The Rev, Wm. Learmonth, A.M., minister. Rev. Wm. Roxburgh, schoolmaster.


Boundaries.—West Calder is bounded on the East by. Mid Calder; and on the south by Linton and Dunsyre; on the West by Carnwath and Cambusnethan; and on the north by Whitburn and Livingstone, which last are separated from it by Briech Water, a tributary of the Almond. Upon an average the parish is about 10 miles long by 5-J- broad.

Coal, &c —Coal has been dug in various places. It was wrought on the estate of Handaxwood, between five and six miles west from the village, by the Wilsontown Company. Four kinds, tolerably good, have been got for several years in the lands of Woodmuir, about three miles and a half west of the village. The first is a splint seam about 14 inches; the second, the main coal, about 2J feet, and is about 14 feet below the first: the third, a small coal much used by smiths, and for burning lime, is about 2 feet 4 inches, and about 11 fathoms under the second ; the fourth is a ruff coal, 10 fathoms deeper than the third, and including a foot in the middle of blaze or fireclay, measures about 5J feet. A fifth, of superior quality, has been found, and is now wrought about 16 fathoms from the surface. This seam, including a parting of crown stone coal of a foot and a half, is 6 feet, and is in every respect the same as that wrought for many years at Wilsontown, parish of Carnwath. At Longford, on the Baads estate, about three miles west from the village, there were coal works some time stopped, but one pit is now opened, and coal the same as Woodmuir, ruff, is now wrought. At Baads Mill, on the same estate, about a mile and a half southwest, a small kind, which cakes like the English, has within these few years been found, and is now wrought. The supply has been as yet small, and of inferior quality. In the neighbourhood of Longford, on the lands of Muirhousedykes, or Loganlea, a pit is at present sinking.

Limestone has been wrought at Limefieid, about a mile and a half east of the village, to great extent, but is now exhausted. It is connected with the coal at Baads Mill, and there burned in sow kilns. There are several draw kilns at Handaxwood in active operation.

On the estate of Muldron, at the western extremity of the parish, the Shotts Iron Company have been working ironstone for three years; and it has been wrought for a number of years on the estate of Handaxwood by the Wilsontown Company. It has been found about two fathoms above the coal at Longford, and a small quantity wrought.

Botany.—The flora of the parish is varied and interesting, and possesses many rare plants. In the firwood at Hartburn, pyrola uniflora (single-flowered wintergreen); and in the hedges, lonicera caprifolium, (pale perfoliate honeysuckle.) At Levenseat, Hand ax-wood, dyras octopetala (mountain avens). At Woodmuir, viola lutea (yellow mountain pansy). On the banks of Briech Water, gagea lutea (yellow gagea), or ornithogalum luteum (yellow star of Bethlehem) is more abundant than at Auchtertool Linn, its noted station. There arc more varieties of the cricus tetralix and cinerea (cross-leaved and line-leaved heaths) common to most of our Scottish heaths. Ferns abound throughout the whole parish, and fourteen species of polypodium (polypody), aspidiuiu (shield fern), cystop ter is fragilis (brittle blader fern), and cisplenium (spleenwort), on less than half an acre of ground, in a small glen near the village.

The meadows are rich with numerous varieties of orchis mascula (purple or male fool-stones), orchis moria (green-winged meadow or female foolstones), orchis maculata (spotted or female-handed fool-stones); also, listera ovata (great twayblade), ophio glossum vul-gatum (common adder’s tongue), and pingui-ciila vulgaris (common butterwort.)

The dryer grounds abound with habenaria viridis (green frog orchis or foolstones) and habenaria albida (small white orchis or foolstones. The parasite orabanche major (the broom rape) is very abundant.

There are hundreds of other plants which it would be superfluous to mention, as they are common to the most of Scotland.


Antiquities.—On the estate of Harburn, towards the southern extremity of the parish, there was an old castle (which the proprietor now regrets has been taken down), said to have been fortified by Cromwell to repress the Moss-troopers.

The total valuation of the parish is £3233 10s. 4d. Scots money.

Modern Buildings.—Several new mansion-houses have of late been built in the parish with suitable offices, and the surrounding ground tastefully laid out and adorned. Three of these are large and commodious— Hermond, built by the late Lord Hermond in 1797; Limefield and Harburn in 1807—the last not the least elegant of the three. Hart-wood, a smaller but handsome house, was built in 1804 by the father of the present proprietor. Harwood (Sir Henry Jardine’s) was built in the common manse form about 1768, with kitchen attached to the one end and a similar building at the other. Gavie-side is a small but neat house, and Brother-ton, belonging to the same proprietor, is an older but a larger house, like a common country manse. Loganlea or Muirhousedykes, Addiewell, and Muldron (1828) are much in the same style, ancl Chapeltown (1780) small cottage, belonging to Mr Gloag of Limefield, still exists. There are only small farm-houses on the other properties. Some good new farm-houses have been built on the Baads estate, but the old mansion house is a relic of antiquity. The farm-houses on the Harburn property are superior, but in general, except those already mentioned, they are of an inferior kind. The manse was rebuilt in 1836, and the offices were built about thirty years before in a neat and substantial manner. There are several neat little houses lately built in the village, which have much improved its appearance.

Here the manuscript referred to abruptly terminates. I have given its contents in full as it contains matter of local interest which I have not seen in the published accounts. The following further details, probably from the same pen, but at a later date, may be fitly appended here :—

“The Caledonian Railway goes through the centre of the parish, and has a station in it for Torphin and West Calder. The north road from Edinburgh to Lanark lies for about 7½ miles within the parish, and traverses it in a south-westward direction. The village of West Calder stands on that road about miles south by west of the confluence of Briech and Almond Waters, miles south-west of Mid Calder, and 7 miles north-east of Wilsontown. Population of the village in 1831, 434. Population of the parish in 1831,1617; in 1851, 2120. Houses, 379. Assessed propertyin 1843, £7089 16s. Id.

This parish is in the presbytery of Linlithgow and synod of Lothian and Tweeddale. Patron, John Drysdale, Esq., of Kilrie. Stipend, £158 6s. 7d.; glebe £23. Schoolmaster’s salary, £34. The parish church was built in 1646, and contains 331 sittings. There is a Free Church preaching-station, and the total yearly sum raised in connection with it in 1853 was £43 18s. 4½d. A United Presbyterian church was built in 1795, and contains 498 sittings. There are two private schools—both of them for girls.

Long before the present extensive development of the House and Paraffin Coalfields in this parish, the existence and vast extent of these rich bituminous beds was both practically and traditionally known.

How far the Romans (by their extensive felling of the ancient forests of this region for defence against the aboriginal inhabitants) contributed to the formation of these valuable coalfields I will leave geologists to determine. but certain it is that little or no coal exists beyond that part of Britain which the Romans conquered and governed. It is also worth noting that the two greatest coal regions in Britain run parallel with the walls of Antononine and Adrian, viz., from the Forth to the Clyde and from the Tyne to the Solway.

Turf and wood was the common fuel of our ancestors, some of whom held that the burning of “ black stanes” was fiendish and sinful. It was considered a species of witchcraft, and as sufch was both banned and punished by the laws of the kirk (see various kirk-session records) as a sin against God and man.

That West Calder, however, had its coal-diggers one hundred and twenty years ago the following curious entry in the West Calder session books amply attests :—“1765, January 13th—James Boak and Janet West, coalers in Addywell, called in, answered that though proclaimed and paying their dues, something happened that delayed their marriage a considerable time, and rather than pay the dues again, they were irregularly married, they gave in the tesiificate, were rebuked, for their fault exhorted, &c.”

About the beginning of last century or the end of the previous one, two German explorers—probably of the Dousterswivel type in Scott’s Antiquary—are said to have visited West Calder on some secret geological mission, and explored the old coal holes in the west end of the parish. They were much impressed with what they saw there and in other parts of Scotland they had visited. So much so that they told the parties whom they lodged with, “If Scotland only knew and developed its vast mineral wealth and other natural resources, it would long remain an independent kingdom, and never join the English” or Union, which at that time was causing a fierce political agitation in both countries.

This advice was unheeded, and happily the Union took place. But it is sad to think that these two enterprising foreigners did not live to complete their important investigations, for it is said, one day, in the course of their mission, they entered one of the primitive coal pits in the west end of the parish, bat never returned; having been overcome by fire-damp, or some other accident, which buried them in the pit, where their bones will now lie, unless they have been disturbed by more recent operations.

Paraffin coal is so abundant in this parish that it has created a new industry, and given rise to the largest paraffin manufactory in the world (Young’s). Thirty years ago shale, or “Sklate coal” as it was called by the natives, was known to exist, but was considered as almost useless. It would not bum in the fireplace by itself, and therefore was considered not worth digging for or carrying home.

I once saw it used in the most primitive of fashions (about the time I speak of). Having been sent with a message on a Sunday night to a day labourer, named John Forbes, whom I found reading his great family Bible by the light of the fire. Noticing a bright steady light from the middle of the fire, I remarked—“Our coals at home don’t burn that way?" and was told no, for that’s the sklate coal which we gathered out of the bum at Polbeth, and brought home in a sack as we were returning from digging peats at Moss-end. The secret of making paraffin oil was long known to the laboratorian, but no practical business man had, up to that time, known its commercial value. I believe it was Sir James Y. Simpson, M.D., &c. (originally a Bathgate boy, and the inventor of chloroform), who put Mr Young up to the secret from which he afterwards acquired his fame and fortune. The shale crops up at several places in the bed of West Calder burn, and Mr Young, before purchasing the Polbeth and other estates, put on fishing trousers, and, with mallet in hand, narrowly inspected the bed, accompanied by eminent geologists.

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