Pumpherston: From grime to golf

By James Thomson

Article in the Konect Directory Livingston and Calders, April 2013

Normally the retort is “I can remember when all of this was green fields” as you look at some urban-industrial landscape or concrete jungle, “if only we could turn the clock back”.

While West Lothian has certainly had its fair share of development, since 2002 a visitor to Pumpherston can turn back the clock, to the year 1883 when a lease was signed with the local landowner to establish the Pumpherston Oil Company. 

Back then the views around Pumpherston Farm stretched over the Almond valley to the Pentlands beyond. The area had once been the site of the ancient Pumpherston Castle, located to take advantage of a defensive position as the ground falls down to the Almond river.

This is a story of grass to industrial grime, and then from grime to golf. It's not only a local story but also an international one with businessmen from all corners of the world fighting over 'Big Oil' as the world's increasing and insatiable demand for energy created some of the world's largest companies.

Pumpherston Golf Course today

Pumpherston Golf Course

Pumpherston Oil Works

Pumpherston Oil Woks

Today all is green and the impressive 18 holes of the Pumpherston Golf Club provide golfers with vast water features and plenty of testing bunkers that add to the beauty of the course. Here both experienced golfers can be tested, especially when the wind whips up, but the club also provides a welcome to young and inexperienced golfers. It was recently awarded the Scottish Golf Union's junior charter – an accolade only given to the most “junior friendly” golf clubs.

The present scene is partly down to the largest lottery grant ever given to a golf club which, along with other funders and the oil giant BP, has transformed an area that, for more than a hundred years, had been despoiled and tarnished by shale oil refining, bings of spent shale ore, mining works, tar residues and other petrochemical nasties . BP was keen to improve its green credentials, as long gone are the days when indiscriminate dumping of waste is acceptable. Interestingly Pumpherston has a sister-scenario for golfers in America as BP has also reclaimed back the site of another refinery in Casper, Wyoming. The Three Crowns golf course opened 3 years after Pumpherston's enlarged course in 2005 and sits where another old established (1913) oil refinery had grown to become the largest plant in the world for US gasoline production.

Pumpherston's golf course has other unique stories to tell. It has moved around the area since the first 9 hole course was set up by the shale oil workers in 1895 at Harrymuir farm (which is now Houston Industrial Estate). By 1908 the course had been moved closer to the shale oil refinery only to move again in the 1930s to the west side of Pumpherston. It finally returned to the 1908 site in 1945 – but still as a modest 9 hole course.

The 1998 Lottery award of £785,000 extended the site from 25 to 150 acres and in 2002, now in its 5th incarnation, the 18 hole course opened. Everyone that visits for the first time is impressed by the quality of the golf, the well maintained greens, the modern clubhouse, and the friendly welcome they receive.   

Pumpherston: from Sir William to Prince William

Sir William Fraser, Baron Strathalmond of Pumpherston

William's father, also William, had been the manager of the Uphall Oil Company and in 1883 signed the lease for mining oil shale near Pumpherston. William senior had both the practical experience and foresight to keep Scotland's early eastablished oil business going, as more efficient oil well extraction from overseas brought in competition. He brought various local shale oil works together and created at Pumpherston a centre for local oil processing and innovations to keep costs down. He invented and patented the 'Pumpherston retort' in 1894 which was widely used across the shale oil industry, but the Pumpherston works invested heavily and led with this shale oil extraction technology.

William junior was fortunate to witness and then play a leading role in the global amalgamation of oil starting at Pumpherston and ending with the creation of BP. This began in 1908 with the first commercially significant find in the Middle East where another Scottish company took the lead. Although the find was made by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (the pre-cursor to BP), in 1909 this company became a subsidiary of Glasgow 's Burmah Oil Company to exploit the Persian (Iran) opportunity. He became Petroleum Advisor to the War Office and Pumpherston was a significant contributor to maintaing oil reserves as half of Britain's crude oil tankers, bringing in much needed foreign oil, were sunk by U-boats.

He was knighted in 1939 and became Chairman of Anglo-Persian in 1941 shortly before it was renamed British Petroleum. It was said that he had “Pumpherston oil in his veins” and the Pumpherston name lives on as he was then raised to the peerage as Lord Strathalmond of Pumpherston. The blood today is a little more blue as the 3rd Lord Strathalmond's daughter, Virginia Fraser, is one of the loyal William & Kate set in London. Now who would have thought that Uphall and Pumpherston shale bings would bring you closer to royalty?  

© Lothian Publications Ltd 2014