By Marg Greenwood
There are no cars on the island of Easdale. When I stepped off the open ferry boat I was met by a colourful crowd of upturned wheelbarrows. I have seen wheelbarrows at small island jetties before, but never brightly painted ones.
Each summer I explore Scottish islands and remote areas by foot if I can, using my old car and ferries, staying overnight in hostels. This was a day trip I was looking forward to, but I had no idea what to expect.
The Slate islands were the centre of the Scottish slate industry from the mid 18th to the mid 19th century. They are Seil, Easdale, Luing, and Belnahua. Seil is reached by the “Bridge over the Atlantic” - an attractive hump-backed 200-year old construction, linking the Argyll to Seil, across the Sound of Clachan. Despite the romantic sounding names, the experience was like driving over any bridge across a narrow river - there was no sense at that point that Seil was an island.
A few miles away from the bridge, at Ellenabeich on Seil, I jumped into the Easdale ferry boat. I greeted the handful of other passengers, and paid about £2 return fare. Within four minutes we had landed on Easdale. Two of the passengers dumped their baggage into their bright pink wheelbarrow and proceeded to wheel it to their cottage. Residents, of whom there are about 50, keep their wheelbarrows at the jetty so as to carry their shopping and gear back to their cottages.
Easdale is a tiny triangular island less than a square mile, half of which consists of abandoned spoil heaps, quarry pools -some of them 300 feet deep- and remains of slate miners’ shelters; a sombre post-industrial wasteland. Walking the half-mile trail around these spoil heaps needs sure-footedness and a reasonable head for heights. I picked my way on narrow raised causeways of slate spoil between flooded quarries, some of them 300 feet deep - well below sea-level; on this sunny day the incredibly rich blue of the deep water in the quarries was stunning. One of the quarry pools is used for the annual World Stone Skimming Championships which draws visitors from all over the world. Another pool is for swimming, according to the island leaflet; in spite of the wonderful blue and calmness of the water, I was not tempted.
I climbed to the highest point of the island. It was here that I was bowled over by remarkable contrasts; stunning views of the Firth of Lorn and small islands to the west; the sea colour a lighter blue than the water in the quarry pools, and the uniformly grey wasteland below me.
Slates from Easdale have roofed many notable buildings including Glasgow cathedral and Castle Stalker; much slate was exported to Nova Scotia. They often contain “fools gold” - iron pyrites - which show up in the slates as tiny cubes of gold which can drop out of the dark grey surrounding slate. I picked up a number of slate samples from the ground. One tiny cube of “gold” immediately fell out of my hand.
Sympathetically-renovated ex-miners’ cottages house the island population, and take up the other half of the island. The single-storey terraced cottages are white-washed and slate-roofed. The design is repeated in other Slate island settlements. Most of Easdale’s houses are built around a big grassy square which was being mown as I walked across it. I like to think that there was a rota to mow the grass. The islanders own their houses, but the land belongs to the non-resident owner.
The folk museum at Easdale is housed in one of the cottages, and the volunteer curator explained to me how the slate was worked in situ. A diorama showed how, after the miners used explosives to bring down a great lump of rock, the dresser and the splitter immediately started to work the slate in their “shelters”, sitting on the ground and chipping away. I had noticed these unroofed shelters on my walk. There is oil in the slates, hence the need for speed in working them before they dry up and become unworkable.
In the winter of 1881 there was a terrible storm which nearly ended, at a stroke, the slate industry of Easdale and Ellenabeich. Massive waves swept over the islands and by the next morning the quarry holes and machinery were flooded with sea water, making them unworkable. The miners’ cottages also suffered devastation. Two enterprising mine officials set about reinstating the quarries into as full production as possible, but the last slates to be taken from Easdale on a commercial scale were shipped in 1911.
A short distance from the Seil-Luing car ferry, I explored the main settlement of Luing; Cullipool. Just north of the village the old quarry is carved into the side of the one-time cliff. Jagged steep sides towered above me and wild flowers, such as kidney vetch and sea sandwort were in abundance on the floor of the quarry.
In Cullipool there is the newly-built Atlantic Islands Centre, where as well as reading about Cullipool’s quarry, I learnt about the island of Belnahua about a mile off-shore. Through my binoculars I had seen the eerie silhouette of this now uninhabited slate island, tinier even than Easdale, looking like damaged ramparts of a castle. I was fascinated by the Centre’s aerial photographs of Belnahua with its flooded quarry pool eating up a quarter of the interior of this island; and the “castle ramparts” being the ruins of miners’ cottages and workshops. There is alas no regular ferry to this island.
“Do you know anything about sparrows?” A woman of my age approached me as I wandered through Cullipool village. A little girl she was talking to had just rescued a fledgling. “Not a lot,” I replied, but we chatted away. She told me that she was proud of her garden vegetables. Her soil had come from an Irish ship which used soil as ballast. Her neighbours’ soil had not had this lucky boost. In the nineteenth century ships from Ireland dumped their soil in places along the Scottish west coast prior to loading with slates or coal to take back to Ireland. A week later I was admiring the vegetables at Inverewe Gardens, and a gardener explained that they also thrive on Irish ballast soil.
I walked from the post office along an old track parallel to the shore, meeting nobody but admiring some beautiful Luing cattle, bright green lumpy hillocks and woods, and rocky skerries off the shore. I then rejoined my car and drove further south along the spine road to take a look at the tiny village of Tobernochy with its small harbour, then to Black Mill Bay. Both very quiet, peaceful places, deserving further exploration.
The road was deserted on my drive back to the Luing-Seil ferry. I fell foul of the timetable which takes teatime for the ferrymen into account; they need a good hour and a half break. I spent a happy hour at the jetty in the car (no-one else in the queue), with my camera pictures and flower book, catching up on flower identification.
Arriving once more at the Bridge over the Atlantic, I stopped to look for the pink fairy foxglove, a rare plant which grows between the bridge stones, but the flowers were over. Just behind me was the Tigh na Truish Inn, “truish” meaning trousers. After the Jacobite risings when kilts were banned, the islanders used the inn to change from their kilts into trousers before crossing to the mainland.
Fortunately I was wearing trousers already so I got back into the car and drove back over the bridge.
Marg has been writing short stories, travel pieces, memoirs and poems for about 15 years, gaining success in local and national competitions for short stories and poetry. She has travelled widely in Scotland and the Scottish Islands; and subsequent travel pieces have been published in magazines such Scottish Home and Country and The Oldie. She has a musical background, and two of her poems have been professionally set to music and performed(sung ) - in one case by herself - on stage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse; and the other at the 2016 Leeds Lieder Festival. Marg is a very keen walker.