Mining & Quarrying – Man Alters Nature’s Landscape

From earliest times man has made use of the mineral bounty which nature provided, from prehistoric stone axeheads and knives, to whin chips to pave the motorways.

Some 800 years ago man realised that coal from seams within the rock strata would burn and could be used for heating and cooking. First excavations were from outcrops into valley sides. Then bell pits were dug down to mine small areas round the shaft.

Only in the past two centuries have shafts been sunk to mine coal seams at depths of hundreds or even up to a thousand metres. Coal mining produced the black conical spoil heaps (bings) once so prominent in the Esk valleys and around Bo’ness.

More recently opencast quarrying of coal seams has a dramatic, if temporary, impact on the landscape. Coal mining has now ceased in the Lothians; only a legacy of memories and landscaped spoil is left.

Limestone was quarried, and even mined for lime to improve arable land and for use in mortar and cement. This left a landscape littered with half-filled quarries, spoil heaps and lime kilns.

In the 1850s James ‘Paraffin’ Young founded a new industry when he developed the means to extract crude oil from oil-shale seams discovered in the strata of West Lothian. Processing the oil-shale to drive off the hydrocarbons left the same volume of oil-shale spoil as was mined. The resulting flat-topped red shale bings dominate the skyline of West Lothian though the associated collieries, distillation and refining plant are long since gone.

Road metal and aggregate for concrete demands large quarries in igneous rocks. As those rocks are hard, they form prominent features of the landscape and quarries in them are visible, destructive and inherently contentious. Torphin Hill Quarry, for example, can be seen from most of Edinburgh.

Glacial sands and gravels provide the essential raw materials for much of modern building and construction. Large pits in the Esk valley satisfy this demand but at the cost of swapping an interesting natural landscape for a flat restored pit floor.