'Paraffin' lit the way for Livingstone

15th March 2013 at 00:00
West Calder High has done its own local project to celebrate the bicentenary of David Livingstone's birth. Raymond Ross reports

Throughout 2013 Scotland is celebrating the bicentenary of the world-famous explorer, missionary and anti-slavery campaigner David Livingstone.

But one man whose role in Livingstone's life and work is sometimes overlooked, as pupils at West Calder High in West Lothian will tell you, is his lifelong friend and supporter, the oil entrepreneur James "Paraffin" Young.

For S1 pupils taking part in an inter-disciplinary project focusing on the life and friendship of the two men, the celebration of Livingstone was also a celebration of Young, who established the world's first oil refinery in Bathgate in 1851 and used part of his wealth to finance Livingstone's later African expeditions and the final expedition to find him in 1872.

"The project involved different departments in the school and the local community working together to teach the pupils about the importance of these two men in Scotland's past," says chemistry teacher Graeme Simpson, who led the three-day venture.

"We were looking at what the local community was like in their lifetime, the importance of Young's scientific discoveries and how the shale-oil industry helped to shape the landscape and environment of West Lothian."

Project work included the pupils writing poems and song lyrics under the guidance of visiting storyteller and songwriter Ewan McVicar, who has included some of their work in a new show about Livingstone and Young, The Light of the World, which premiered at the school before travelling to Glasgow and Livingstone's birthplace in Blantyre.

"Livingstone and Young had become firm friends while studying at the Anderson Institute (now the University of Strathclyde) in Glasgow, and when Young came to build his second oil refinery at Addiewell, West Calder, it was Livingstone who laid the foundation stone," says Mr McVicar.

"Young acted as guardian to Livingstone's children after the explorer's death and brought Livingstone's most loyal companions, Susi and Chuma, to Scotland to tell the story of his last days and how they had carried his body to the African coast," he says.

Livingstone is very much part of the local landscape as well as the history. He visited Young at his resplendent residence of Limefield House, on whose grounds West Calder High is built.

On their way to school, many of the children pass not only a tree planted by Livingstone on the Limefield estate, but also a mini-replica of the Victoria Falls - which Livingstone "discovered" in 1855 - built by Young in memory of his great friend.

As part of the project, all 180 S1 students took part in PE community walks to visit the Limefield Falls and the tree, as well as being shown round the privately owned house.

Other departments in the project included geology, where children looked at how oil shale rock formed from micro-organisms living in a lake 330 million years ago, while chemistry focused on the process by which the oil was extracted from the rock. In history, they looked at work in the shale industry and life in a shale village, and were asked to consider what they thought of the jobs.

"It would be scary to be a miner," says pupil Ross Muir. "Having to light the fuse for the 'shot' and then run - in the dark. I don't fancy that. But it would be fun to have racing pigeons like the miners did, to watch them fly free."

Classmate Chloe Gray says: "I don't think I'd like the food in those days, especially when there was rations. And I'd be really worried about cave-ins in the mines and about friends and family getting killed in these explosions."

As Chloe learned, one of those explosions, the worst in the history of shale mining, occurred at the Burngrange Pit, West Calder, in June 1947, killing 15 miners.

You could hear a pin drop as local historian Harry Knox told the assembled pupils about how, as a wee lad in bed at night, he could hear the sound of the "shots" being fired hundreds of feet beneath the earth by the miners and how, on the morning after the Burngrange Disaster, he stood at the pithead "looking at the banks and banks of live canaries waiting in their baskets to be taken down the pit to check for further 'firedamp' (methane gas)."

In history, pupils also learned about "Medicine through Time" and the work of missionaries as doctors in Africa, while in English they wrote essays about their own families and local areas in relation to the shale industry.

"This project was about establishing the value of Currriculum for Excellence's inter-disciplinary approach to learning by rooting it in the local environment," says headteacher Fiona Roland.

"The pupils will evaluate what they have learned themselves and hopefully retain that learning because it's focused not only on important historical figures but on the local heritage and landscape."


Ross Muir, S1 student

"I think David Livingstone was quite brave, determined and adventurous. He cared about other people and how they lived, because he wanted to help them.

"He seems a generous person, going over to Africa and saying to people here they're not different, they're not savages, they're just like us.

"It's amazing to know we have a replica of the Victoria Falls near the school and to see the old photos of the grass hut which his African friends Susi and Chuma built nearby. It's gone now. But James Young brought them over to West Calder and they helped to write a book about Livingstone."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today