BURNGRANGE. Nos.1 and 2 (Oil Shale) Mine West Calder, Midlothian. 10th January 1947.

The Burngrange Shale Mine was situated about 16 miles south-west of Edinburgh in the parish of West Calder in the County of Midlothian. It was the property of Young’s Paraffin Light & Mineral Oil Co. Ltd which was a subsidiary of Scottish Oils Ltd. It was one of 12 mines working oil shales in Midlothian and West Lothian.

A disaster of this magnitude in a shale mine is unusual. Oil shale had been worked in the neighbourhood since 1858 on a large scale and by 1865 there were about 120 works processing the shales from the Lothian or cannel shales of the coal measures. The oil shales of the Lothians occurred in the Calciferous Sandstone Series near the base of the Carboniferous System and were a System and constituted a local development which was peculiar to the West Lothian, Midlothian and the adjacent portions in Fife and Lanark. The annual output of shale from the mines owned by six different operating companies reached a maximum of about three-quarters of a million tons in 1913. All the companies were brought under one management in 1919 by the formation of Scottish Oils Limited. From 1913, for many reasons mainly arising from the 1914-18 and 1939-45 wars, there had been a decline in the output and in 1946 the annual output was just over a third of a million tons.

The Burngrange Mine was relatively new, having started production in 1936. There were two vertical shafts each 14 feet in diameter and brick-lined throughout. The No.1 shaft was used for winding men, minerals and other materials and the No.2 shaft was used for ventilation and pumping. Both shafts were sunk to a depth of 486 feet to work the Dunnet Shale Seam which varied in thickness from 9 to 12 feet. The dip of the seam in the No.2 District of the mine was variable averaging 1 in 5 in a north-westerly direction. The mine was ventilated by a double inlet Sirocco exhausting fan passing about 100,000 cubic feet of air per minute at a water gauge of 0.95 inches. All the workings were in the Dunnet Seam and the average daily output of shale over two winding shifts was 600 tons. The number of men employed was approximately 29 on the surface and 176 underground, a total of 205.

The shale was worked by stoop and room method and the size of the stoops varied according to depth but in the area affected by the explosion, the stoops were formed approximately 150 feet by 110 feet by driving rooms 12 feet wide and 9 feet high on a level course and at right angles to them. Where the seam exceeded 9 feet in height, the top shale was left to form a roof. In the second working, when the stoops had been extracted, splits were driven through each stoop to form small pillars which were then extracted by taking off lifts 12 feet wide and the full height of the seam. Pillar extraction was generally arranged to form and maintain a main roof line fracture at an angle of about 45 degrees to the levels.

The disaster was confined to one ventilating split which ventilated part of the No. 3 district and the whole of the No.2 District which comprised two sections of workings in one of which the pillars were being extracted and in another to the east of it large stoops were being spit into small pillars. The area covered a full three acres of shale had been extracted to the northeast of the middle dook which was known as 40 H.P. dook and referred to here as No.2 Dook. Extraction from these stoops in this area commenced in 1945 and was being continued on the east side of the area. From the inbye ends of Nos. 10 to 14 Levels and to the east of the stoop area, the stoops were being divided into pillars. These pillars were left to avoid subsidence at the surface which could damage a housing scheme. It was in these sections that all but one of the 15 victims of the disaster lost their lives. Before the slitting of the stoops prior to extraction work was also proceeding on the No.3 District on the outbye or west side of the extraction area.

The shale was got by blasting and was hand filled by the miners into 20 cwt. “hutches” which were then drawn for a short distance by drawers to a mechanical haulage. The hutches were the hauled by a diesel locomotive and main haulage rope to the shaft bottom. Compressed gunpowder was the explosive that was used fired by a fuse. The holes for the blasting were bored by electrically operated drills and all the machinery that was used underground was driven by electricity.

A mixed system of lighting, both open lights and safety lamps were used underground. Firedamp was a rare occurrence but it had been found before and in consequence, certain precautions were taken. It was customary for the miner working at the face to use an approved electric safety cap lamp and to be provided with a flame safety lamp which was hung near the working face. The drawers, who carried these flame lamps in and out of the mine and the other outbye workmen used acetylene cap lamps. Rules were posted in the mine regarding the use of safety lamps as follows:






The mine worked under the Coal Mines Act 1911 and was under the daily supervision of a certificated manager Mr. John Brownlie McArthur and was assisted by an undermanager Mr. Archibald Gibb Russell. Supervising them was Mr. John Caldwell and Robert Crichton, General Mines Manager and Managing Director respectively of Scottish Oils Limited. All were holders of first-class certificates of competency in mine management.

The explosion occurred about 8 p.m. in the sixth hour of the afternoon shift on Friday 10th January 1947 when 76 men were at work underground. it originated at the face of the rise split off No.14 Level, in one of James Todd’s working places in the No.2 District when firedamp was ignited at an open acetylene cap lamp. One man, John McGarty was blown down the face by the force of the explosion and received injuries from which he died a few minutes late. The explosion started fires which spread to various parts of the district and 14 men who were employed in the section of narrow workings on the return side of the extraction area, lost their lives from the afterdamp and fumes from the first explosion and the subsequent fires.

During the normal course of the afternoon shift, three men, James Todd, Thomas Reid and John McGarty were at work in adjoining stooping places, No.14 Level face and a rise split a short distance outbye from the face of No.14 Level in the No.2 district. Todd was an experienced shale miner and was the faceman in charge of these two places with Reid and McGarty as his drawers. Todd used an electric safety lamp for use in each of the two working places and Reid an open acetylene cap lamp. McGarty, contrary to the custom use and electric safety cap lamp. Each drawer carried a flame safety lamp for use in the two working places which were suspended near the face while work was in progress. In accordance with the rules of the mine, these lamps were used by Todd who had been instructed how to use them to test for gas at the start of work and before shots were fired.

These three men had worked in the two places from about 3.30 p.m. until about 7 p.m. when they went outbye to eat their food, taking two flame safety lamps with them. There were no shots fired that afternoon. About 8 p.m. the three returned to their working places, Todd and Reid to the split and McGarty to the face at the No.14 level. Todd had his electric lamp and was carrying a flame lamp in his hand and he went to examine for gas at the face at the rise of the split, while Reid, who was his drawer, remained at the entrance to the split to clear some fallen shale which Todd had pulled down on his way out for the meal.

It appeared that during the meal break, the roof in the split to the rise had weighted heavily and had broken most of the timber props that were set to support the roof. This was a great surprise to Todd and before he examined it for gas, he called to Reid to come and see it. At the time Reid was about 5 yards from the face with his open acetylene lamp which ignited gas near the roof. The ignition was accompanied by a rumbling noise and the flame travelled towards the waste. Todd shouted to Reid and McGarty to clear out and Todd and Reid had just started to run when a second report was heard and they were blown down the split for about 15 feet and slightly stunned. When they had recovered sufficiently they called for McGarty but heard only groaning they found him lying unconscious in the middle of the No.14 Level roadway about 40 feet back from his working place. In rushing out of the place he had either been knocked off balance or blown over by the force of the explosion and in falling had fractured his skull. Todd immediately went outbye for assistance which was soon at the place as the men in the adjacent places were on their way out. A few minutes later a stretcher party arrived and carried McGarty out. He never recovered conciseness and died on the way out.

The men in the adjoining places said that there had been two explosions, the second louder than the first. The results of violence were observed in the dip of the No.14 Level where the shack had extinguished lights, knocked lamps from hooks, and men over and raised a dense cloud of dust.

The story now turns to the events in the section to the east and on the return side of the stooped area where the stoops were being split. The evidence given to the inquiry came from a 17 years old bencher, Alexander Todd who was employed in the No.3 dook. His duties were to detach empties from the dook haulage at various benches and dispatch the full hutches in trains or rakes of three. Shortly after 8 p.m., he was sitting at the bench at the junction of No.13 Level with No.3 Dook, talking to two drawers, Sam Pake and David Muir who had come out with full hutches ready to take back their empties to the face when he felt two wafts of air which extinguished the acetylene lamps. He felt frightened and after relighting their lamps, Pake and Muir teased him a little and went towards the face each taking an empty hutch. Todd stated that when they left him he thought they were going to tell the boys and it was clear that they did not think that anything serious had happened. The hutches that they took in were filled with shale and would have taken about 25 minutes to arrive.

After Pake and Muir left him, Todd coupled the full hutches at the bench and proceeded to signal for the empty rake to be lowered. When it arrived he noticed a lot of smoke coming down with the air. He signalled for the rake to stop at the No.13 Level and getting into it and putting out his light, he signalled for it to be hauled up again. As he approached the top of the dook he called for the lad employed at the dook-head and to the haulage engine attendant, and they all immediately went outbye to get fresh air for by this time the atmosphere was thick with dust, fumes and smoke at the No.3 Dook. After a short wait outbye, the engineman and Todd attempted to go inbye again to get their clothes but they were unable to do so because of the smoke and fumes. This would be about 8.20 p.m. so that by this time the light of the men inbye must have been precarious.

At this time there were 14 men including Pake and Muir in the working places on the inbye side of the No.3 Dook and it was apparent that they did not realise the danger until it was too late. Not one of them got out alive. the first warning that would have reached the men would have been fouled conditions in the air current as a result of the afterdamp, smoke and dust from the original explosions and the subsequent fires. There had been some short-circuiting of the ventilation after the explosion and the brattice that separated the intake and the return air had been displaced. By the time that they realised that there was a danger all three exits from the workings, the No.11 level No. 10 Level or Diesel Road and the Return Airway had become impassable because of deadly smoke and an atmosphere which contained a large proportion of carbon monoxide.

The first serious attempt to explore the workings on the inbye side where the 15 men were trapped was not made until about 8.35 p.m. At the time of the explosion, there were no officials in the vicinity. The back-shift fireman, George Crombie was outbye at the Junction of McIntyre’s Dook with the No.10 Level on his way home while the afternoon overman, David Brown had gone to the surface for consultation and his meal. At about 8.15 p.m. Brown was in the office discussing pit business with the manager, Mr. J.B. McArthur, when a message was received by the winding engineman that “a doctor and ambulance were wanted for McGarty and that there had been an explosion.” After telephoning for a doctor and an ambulance, the overman and the manager went down the pit with morphine ampoules at 8.20 p.m.

As they were going down the No.1, McIntyre’s Dook, they were told by one of the outgoing men that an explosion had occurred somewhere in the region of James Todd’s place, that a stretcher party was bringing out McGarty and that all the other men in the stooping section were safe but they had no information about those in the inside dook section. Brown, the overman handed the morphine over to the manager and went quickly inbye towards the No.3 Dook. When he got as far as the heading on the outbye side of the No.2 Dook, they encountered smoke coming up from it and still more smoke coming from the No.2 Dook itself. It was not sufficiently dense to prevent Brown and Crombie from going further along the No.10 Level. They managed to get almost to the top of the No.3 Dook. In passing the junction of the heading between Nos.2 and 3 Dooks, they encountered still more smoke coming up this heading. At this time they were not affected by the heat but, because of the smoke, they had to withdraw to a point just outbye of No.2 dookhead as they said, “for a breather”. The waited a few minutes and Brown made another attempt to go inbye alone. He actually got into the No.3 dookhead where he shouted but there was no answer. He did not see any signs of men or lights and he was forced to withdraw.

On his way out he met Crombie who said he had been trying to improve the ventilation by partially opening some brattice screens but this was of no avail. The atmospheric conditions were getting worse all the time due to the fires spreading, the extent and seriousness of which was not realised at the time. Brown fully realised the seriousness of the position regarding the trapped men and immediately sent word to the manager who was dealing with the fires in the stoop sections asking for all possible assistance and telling him that rescue work could not continue with put rescue teams wearing self-contained breathing apparatus. He then set out to discover for himself where the smoke was coming from.

There were no signs of fire when the stretcher party remover McGarty from the 14 Level Face but very soon after small fires were discovered in No.14 Level and also at the waste at the edge in the split-off No.15 Level. At the time these fires seemed relatively unimportant and confined to timber burning on the floor. The manager detailed men to fight these fires with under-ground fir fighting equipment which consisted of sandboxes placed in the level and portable fire extinguishers from the motor rooms and various other locations in the vicinity. Small as the fired were, the men could not put them outbye only keep them in check.

It was obvious that the small fires could not account for the dense volumes of smoke and fumes that were discovered on reaching the No.11 Level just outbye of the No.3 inside Dook. Later another small fire was discovered at the edge of the waste in No.13 Level and a much larger fire in the heading on the inbye side of No.2 Dook. The manager quickly realised the gravity of the situation and realised he needed addition fire fighting resources and trained mines rescue brigades. He satisfied himself that all the fire fighting resources of the colliery were in operation and everything possible was being done in the circumstances, he went to the surface. Urgent calls for assistance were sent to the National Fire Service and the Mines Rescue Station. The N.F.S. received the call at 9.25 p.m. and an officer and four men arrived at 9.40 p.m., after covering the eight miles from the Fire Station with a mobile fire engine and two Proto one-hour self-contained breathing sets. The Mines Rescue Superintendent at Edinburgh received the call at 9.20 p.m. and he and his assistants arrived at the colliery in the Mines Rescue Car at 10.30 p.m. when the trained men at the colliery were waiting for them.

Although the N.F.S. was never intended for fire-fighting underground in mines, the team volunteered at once for the duty. Two members of the team donned the Proto apparatus and underground they were met by Brown, who pleaded for one of the Proto apparatus so that he and another trained member of the Burngrange Mines Rescue Team, J. McArthur, could make another attempt to get into the workings beyond the No.3 Dook. After handing over their apparatus, the N.F.S. men were taken down the No.14 Level where they tackled the fire with portable fire extinguishers. A far more serious fire had been found in the heading beyond the No.2 Dook and was tackled by trained rescue men. After making the necessary arrangements to get water to the inbye workings and getting a portable pump and hose down the mine, the N.F.S. men fought the fire under the charge of N.S.S. Superintendent Muir. Mine officials and trained rescue men under Superintendent Davidson were in attendance all the time to guide them and to keep a watch on the conditions in the roadways and of the atmosphere. The smaller fire was kept under control but the fighting of the larger fires was along, arduous and difficult operation. Until it could be brought under control, rescue operations beyond were impossible. At one time 600 gallons of water per minute were played on the fire.

Brown and McArthur, with the Proto apparatus, had made an unsuccessful attempt to reach the trapped men but they were able to give details of the situation when the full rescue brigade arrived. They went into action under the direction of Davidson and the first team which was designated “Oils No.5 Brigade” went down and were ready for action at 10.30 p.m. along with the assistant superintendent R. McIntosh and John Caldwell, the General Manager of the Mines. Instructions were left for the “Oils No.4 Brigade” to dress and follow on. Underground, a fresh air base was set up at McIntyre’s Dook where the stretchers and revivers were left under the care of Davidson and McIntyre.

At 11.15 p.m., under the captaincy of the indefatigable overman, Brown, the Oils No.5 Brigade, wearing goggles and using a lifeline, set off with instructions to explore No.10 Level and try to make contact with the trapped men. Sweating profusely, they returned at 11.30 p.m. with a report that the temperature was very high and the smoke so dense that they could not see each other’s lights but they insisted on trying again. The fresh air base was moved 172 yards further on and the team set off again. When the returned they reported that they had reached a point near No.3 Dook where they found a large fall of stone and bad roof conditions. They had also heard the movement of the roof weighting but could not see because of the thick smoke. The brigade then attempted to reach the men by way of the No.11 Level but they found this was impossible because a serious fire was burning at the junction of the first heading beyond No.2 Dook. Following the discovery of the fire and the report on the atmospheric conditions by the brigade it was clear to all that there was no hope for the trapped men until this fire was under control. All efforts were then concentrated in getting the maximum fire fighting resources into action. It was decided that The N.F.S. men could do the work without breathing apparatus so long as they were accompanied by a trained mines brigade rescue man with oil flame safety lamp and canaries.

The work of fighting the fire continued without interruption for four days when on the night of 13/14th January that it was considered practicable to send a team beyond the fire. On this night Oils No.2 Brigade went in and came back with the report that they had found the bodies of eight men lying in the No.3 Dook. By this time the atmosphere was much clearer and the temperature a little above normal. After this, the district was quickly explored and all the bodies located and recovered. All the bodies with the exception of G. Easton were found in the No.3 Dook and there was evidence that Easton attempted to brattice off the face of No.13 Level where his body was found, in an attempt to keep the noxious atmosphere from him. No one could say if they were at their working places at the time of the explosion.

Those who died were:

  • John McGarty aged 30 years, miner’s drawer,
  • Thomas Heggie aged 27 years, miner,
  • Henry Cowie aged 36 years, miner’s drawer,
  • John Lightbody aged 41 years, miner,
  • David Carroll aged 36 years miner’s drawer,
  • William Carrol aged 31 years, miner’s drawer,
  • William Greenock aged 51 years, miner,
  • James McAuley aged 59 years, miner,
  • David Muir aged 25 years, miner’s drawer,
  • Anthony Gaughn aged 45 years, miner,
  • William Ritchie aged 39 years, miner,
  • John Fairley aged 20 years, miner’s drawer,
  • Samuel Pake aged 24 years, miner’s drawer,
  • William Findlay aged 56 years, oncost worker,
  • George Easton aged 53 years, oncost worker.

The inquiry into the causes and circumstances attending the explosion and fire which occurred at Burngrange Nos. 1 and 2 (Oil Shale) Mine, Midlothian was conducted by A.M. Bryan, J.P., B.Sc., H.M. Chief Inspector of Mines at the Seafield Institute, West Calder on Tuesday 25th March 1947 and was concluded on the 26th March. All interested parties were represented.

There was no mystery about the cause of the initial explosion, it was one of firedamp which was ignited at the open acetylene lamp of Thomas Reid and must have been small since no one in the immediate vicinity was burned. The fires presented some unusual features and there seemed little doubt that the flame continued long enough to ignite dry timbers and probably originated at the edge of the goaf.

Mr. Bryan came to the following conclusions and summarised the results of the Inquiry:

1). That the initial firedamp explosion originated near the waste edge close to the face of the rise split off No.14 Level, one of James Todd’s working places in the stooping section, No.2 District, Dunnet Seam, when firedamp was ignited at the flame of an open acetylene lamp carried by Thomas Reid.

2). That the initial explosion was followed almost immediately by a second firedamp explosion, which spread along the waste to adjacent places and that this explosion was followed by a series of lighter explosions and the burning of gas along the waste edge, causing the flame to persist.

3). That the firedamp had collected gradually over a period of time in the higher cavities of the waste or goaf formed by stooping, where its presence could not normally be detected, and that some of it had been expelled therefrom into Todd’s working place by roof movements or falls of roof in the waste shortly before the return of the workmen after their meal interval.

4). That the persistent flame caused by fires in at least five separate places, due initially to the ignition of timber at or near the waste edge and the subsequent ignition of fallen and loose pieces of oil shale.

5). That the fired were sufficiently brought under control to permit of rescue operations but were not wholly extinguished, largely due to inaccessibility, with the result that the fire area had to be sealed off.

6). That John McGarty was fatally injured through his head striking a sharp object when he was blown down by the blast from the second explosion and that the 14 other men lost their lives from the effects of breathing afterdamp produced by the explosions and subsequent fires.

7). That there were no breaches of statutory requirements.

The Inquiry disclosed that it was necessary and desirable to effect certain changes and made the following recommendations:

1). That only locked safety lamps be permitted within prescribed areas to include all working faces in the Dunnet Seam but that the exemption from the full requirements of Section 32 of the Coal Mines Act, 1911 is warranted by the character of the mines in respect of those parts out with the prescribed areas.

2). That since there is some ambiguity as to the application of the Explosives in Coal Mines Order and some difficulty in applying it to oil shale mines, the use of explosives in such mines should be governed by a separate Order under Section 61 of the Coal Mines Act, 1911.

3). That by this Order any seam or part of a seam in mines of oil shale in which safety lamps are required by the Act or Regulations of the mine to be used, the use of permitted explosives should be made compulsory in all working places in direct contact with, or about to hole through on, waste or goaf.

4). That properly trained and experienced oil shale miners in charge of a working place or places, should be eligible for appointment as competent persons to fire shots where permitted explosives are used, notwithstanding that their wages depend upon the amount of mineral gotten.

5). That, whilst it would be unreasonable to prohibit by Regulation the practice of “stooping” elsewhere than at the return end of a ventilation district, or, in other words, to require that the air used for ventilating a “stooping” section, shall not thereafter be used for the ventilation of other workings, nevertheless this practice should be resorted to only in special or exceptional circumstances.

6). That in each geographical division of the National Coal Board there should be (a) a first-class common fire-fighting service and (b) an efficient mobile scientific service for the prompt analysis of samples of mine atmospheres and the interpretation of the results of analyses, for mines of all classes, whether operated by the National Coal Board or not, based on or co-ordinated with a common and efficient Mines Rescue Service.

Commenting on the rescue operations Mr. Bryan said:

The rescue and recovery operations upheld the highest traditions established by the men in the mining industry in these activities, calamity is indeed man’s true touchstone. I should like to record my tribute to the excellent work done by all concerned under very difficult and trying conditions over the long period from the occurrence of the explosion to the recovery of the bodies of the unfortunate victims. it was unfortunate that none of the trapped men was alive, but that was in no way the fault of the representatives or officials and workmen, the National Fire Service, the Mines Rescue Brigades or H.M. Inspectors who took part in the operation.

I feel a special word of praise should be given to the members of the National Fire Service who, for the first time in their short history and, I believe, in the annals of mining, played a valuable part in the fire-fighting operations underground. Although intended and trained for fire fighting on the surface, the teams concerned never hesitated for a moment when the fire was down in the working of amine.

Although I have said, all concerned in the rescue operations are worthy of praise, I have no hesitation in singling out the overman, David Brown, for special mention. His efforts to reach the trapped men in the early stages of the disaster, with and without self-contained breathing apparatus, alone and in the company and as the leader of a trained rescue team, were deserving of the highest praise. In all, he made no fewer than five attempts to reach the entombed men. He was indefatigable he displayed exceptional courage and determination well knowing the danger involved and I have already brought this to notice with a view to its appropriate recognition.


The report on the causes and circumstances attending the explosion and fire which occurred at Burnage Nos.1 and 2 (Oil Shale) Mine, Midlothian on the 21st. March, 1940 by A.M. Bryan, J.P., B.Sc., H.M. Chief Inspector of Mines.
Colliery Guardian, 30th January 1948, pp.143.

Information supplied by Ian Winstanley and the Coal Mining History Resource Centre.

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