Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Slate Islands - Easdale

Easdale is probably the best known of the "Slate Islands" and gives its name to the distinctive rippled slate which was quarried on all the islands.  Slate was quarried on Easdale for many years but really took off commercially in 1745, which is quite remarkable given that a Jacobite rebellion and subsequent war started in the same year.  The continued operation of the quarry as a commercial venture during and after the rebellion is perhaps testament to the Breadalbane ability to sense which way the political wind was blowing and to concentrate on making money rather than war.

Quarrying continued into the 20th century and the sheer extent of the works can be seen in the aerial image on the island's website .  Some of the quarries on Easdale and nearby Ellanabeich (separated by a 200 metre wide channel) reached 80 metres deep.

Transport, Easdale style!  As there are neither roads or cars, handcarts continue to be the method used by the present day community of around 70 people move things about.  Nearly all of the former quarry cottages have been renovated and are lived in by a permanent community, with a couple of cottages available for holiday rental.

The island is far from being a staid living museum however; it boasts a modern community centre which has multiple uses (including as the headquarters for the World Stone Skimming Championships!)

And also a pub/restaurant, the Puffer.  We ate here on two evenings and thoroughly enjoyed both meals.  In fact the "Surf and Turf" of venison steak and Langoustines was the best restaurant meal I've eaten in many years. A small wine list, real ales and friendly service add to the experience.  When the proximity to the water and the availability of a daytime service of coffee and home baking is considered, the only possible mark that the Puffer could receive as a sea kayaker's eatery and pub is 12/10 - very heartily recommended!

Although Easdale is only a very small island, it supported several quarries.

Men worked in teams of five or six; two quarriers, two splitters and trimmers (nappers) and two labourers would be typical.  Initially slate was taken from near the shore where wooden wedges were inserted into faults in the rock and swelled by seawater to split away slate.  Later gunpowder and mechanised methods became the norm.  It was hard and dangerous work; prior to the introduction of steam pumps and improved transport the quarries couldn't be sunk very deep and slates were carried from the quarries by women and children in creels. 

The men were paid only once the slate had been sold and shipped; usually only twice a year.  This obliged them to run up accounts at the company store.  Accounts for each family or man were kept on a slate and gave rise to the saying "put it on the slate".  When the account was paid, "the slate was wiped clean".

The quarries extended to the very edge of the islands and were sometimes sunk too deep to be safe.  Inevitably this lead to storms breaching the retaining rock walls, flooding the quarries beyond recovery.  Such disasters led to the loss of quarries at both Easdale and Ellanabeich, remarkably both events happened during the night so that there was no loss of life but widespread loss of livelihood.

This view from the sea shows the breach in the wall of the quarry at Easdale's west side.

The ferry from Easdale to Ellanabeich takes just three minutes.  It's an open motorboat which can carry just ten people (including a crew of two).  It can be sumoned by klaxon, and obviously there are times when the weather interrupts service.  The waiting room on Easdale has a unique character, and has the additional attraction of a small colection of animals around the back; rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens and budgies all feature whilst indoors a glass tank with stick insects is an interesting diversion!

There's no getting away from the fact that Easdale, Belnahua and Ellanabeich, "the islands that roofed the world", are industrial landscapes, the evidence is just everywhere.  They are fascinating places though, each with its own special atmosphere, and as this view from Easdale to Ellanabeich shows, industrial doesn't  mean that they're not very scenic.

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