Five Sisters

Five Sisters, from managed landscape to wildlife sanctuary

The naturally flat landscape of West Lothian is dominated by the distinctive shape of artificial pyramidal hills, formerly orange in colour but gradually changing to green! These features called "bings" were created from the reddish-orange processed waste material of the oil shale mining industry in the 19th to 20th centuries. 

Initially coal was mined in this area but when that ran out, the extraction of the grey shale began following James Young's discovery on how to remove oil from this rock. Whole villages, railways and new mines were developed to support the oilshale business. However, by the 1920s with the advent of petroleum oil, the extraction of oilshale declined and was eventually completely phased out in the 1960s.

The triangular topography remains and these mounds have become distinctive refuges for nature! They are now considered to be important sanctuaries for local and national biodiversity, supporting a variety of flora and fauna including Young's helleborine, Epipactis youngiana and the ringlet butterfly, Aphantopus hyperantus.


On a walk around the five mounds named the Five Sisters to the north of West Calder, where Mitzi was adopted from the Dogs Trust, we spotted broom, hawthorn, plantains, wild strawberries, and many more plants.

The fact that these small artificial hills are now so important to and supportive of nature, inspired me to create a design to tell their story. So much of Scotland's landscape has been managed or altered by humans: from the 18th century charcoal-providing oak forests of the coastal west now home to a miscellany of lichens; to the Ardeer peninsula in Ayrshire, previously an explosives factory once owned and operated by the Alfred Nobel Company but now an acid dune grassland Special Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI) and home to Scotland's most diverse collection of bees and wasps, including the rare northern solitary bee, Andrena ruficrus.


For this design, I have chosen the outline of the Five Sisters to highlight their distinct shape and have positioned them in isolation, to represent the wildlife sanctuaries they now provide. Jamieson's of Shetland Spindrift wool in "Tan Green" represents the changing landscape colours, from the original oranges and reds of the processed shale waste to the greens and browns of nature. The oilshale waste itself is represented by the outline of the hills in "Flame", the internal Scottish Linen rust lining, and the orange handles. I particularly wanted a rust coloured lining to present the main internal body of the bings.



The Five Sisters design will be launched at the Perth Festival of Yarn on 10th and 11th September 2022, and will be available in Small, Medium and Large project bag sizes. The outer fabric of the bags has been machine knit beautifully by Jo, Angel of the Forth and, as shown above, the Large size has been sewn together with a complimentary lining and handles.

More information about the oilshale mining industry and about the amazing Shale Trail walks along the old railway paths to visit the bings are listed in the Bibliography below.



Harvie, B 2006, 'The importance of the oil-shale bings of West Lothian, Scotland to local and national biodiversity', Botanical Journal of Scotland, vol.58, no.1,pp.35-47

Museum of the Scottish Shale Industry

West Lothian's Shale Trail


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