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.

Thursday 26 April 2012

A closer look at Belnahua

Quarrying for slate started on Belnahua in the late 19th century, much later than on the other "Slate Islands" of Easdale, Luing, Seil and Ellanbeich (which was joined to Seil by quarry spoil).  Belnahua was the only island not owned by the Marquisies of Breadalbane, but the methods and pattern of quarrying was much the same.  The island is returning to nature with thick grass and wildflowers slowly reclaiming the rusting remnants of machinery and the houses.

Worked slate lies around the preiphery of the island and on the beach I found this piece.  It looks to have been worked to make a weight, maybe for a net or a piece of equipment.

Slate from all the islands is referred to as "Easdale Slate".  It can be found all over the UK and around the world; the Breadalbanes held land in North America and the West Indies - many public buildings in eastern Canada are roofed with Easdale slate.  It can be easily distinguished from slate qurried elsewhere (the quarries at Ballachulish, in North Wales. the Lake District etc)  as it has a distinctive ripple on the surface and is speckled.  Closer inspection of the speckles reveals...

Iron pyrites (fools gold).  The deposits can be as much as 15mm across and make the slate glisten attractively in sunlight.


Other rock types occur on all the islands, principally Hornblende Schist and intrusions of hard Whinstone.  This was a nuisance to the quarriers but was utilised for building the houses.  Both types are much more readily colonised by lichens than slate.

Down on the shore, the rusy iron stain from pyrites on this slate was nicely mirrored by a crab shell

The slate breaks down to a fine black sand, making a nice contrast with the iron pyrites and with this piece of fish backbone.

Belnahua is a fascinating place and I could have happily spent much longer there.  The small tidal race off the south end showed that the ebb tide was increasing out of the Firth of Lorn though - it was time to go before the paddle back to Ellanabeich became a slog.  It was slower going on the return against both tide and a breeze, and I took a slightly wider line to avoid being pulled into the mouth of Cuan Sound with its strong tides.

It was pleasant however in bright sunshine with super views and time to reflect on the unique atmosphere of Belnahua.  I must go back and stay overnight on the island to explore  more fully.

Tuesday 24 April 2012

The Slate Islands - Belnahua

On a bright morning with a light northerly breeze I set out on a paddle to visit two of the islands accessible from Ellanabeich, Insh and Belnahua.  Both are in the Firth of Lorn but are quite different places due to the rock type.

Paddling north from Easdale Sound the coast is formed of steep cliffs of volcanic rock complete with geos and caves.  Now exposed to a cold wind and in the shade of the cliffs it was quite chilly so I soon moved out and began the crossing to Insh.

Insh is a comon root name (mostly written as Inch) and just meaning island.  The island is a low ridge of rock and from a distance I could see no obvious landing places.  The hills beyond Insh are on the island of Mull; Beinn Buie (yellow hill) is on the right.

Arriving at the north end of Insh I spotted a strange dwelling, a cave which has been walled at the entrance and has windows, a water supply and a small outbuilding.  Apparently the owner of the island occupies this occasionally.  There was no easy landing nearby; indeed the only place I was able to land was on one of these tiny pebble beaches on the east side, just behind a tiny island.

It was still early in the day and the ebb was now running south down the Firth of Lorn so I decided to use the push from both wind and tide to paddle down to another of the "slate islands", Belnahua.

After a pleasant crossing I landed on the tiny island of Belnahua.  Uninhabited since the early 20th century, it was the site of much slate quarrying.   Worked but discarded slate lies everywhere. This row of cottages and some others on the other side of the island are in a row near the beach for good reason.

The centre of the island has been completely quarried out.  Now flooded, the depth of the workings can be seen through the very clear water.  Life for the small community here was always marginal; nearly all food and supplies had to come by boat from Cullipool on Luing through waters with strong tides and exposure to big swells; the island didn't even have a reliable water supply.  When the able bodied men left to take up military service in 1914 the end was imminent and the remaining residents left soon after.

As I was exploring, more paddlers arrived.  Two doubles; one inflatable and a vintage Klepper folding boat landed on the beach, each containing a father and son team.  We chatted in the sunshine, reflecting on what life must have been like here, especially during winter storms.

Monday 23 April 2012

The Slate Islands - Ellenabeich

With a forecast of a few days good weather on the west coast of Scotland before more unsettled conditions arrived, we planned a weekend in Argyll based at Ellanabeich (island of birches).  Driving south past Oban and then onto Seil via the famous "Atlantic Bridge" at Clachan, the view at the final rise above Ellanabeich is expansive, from Mull in the north to Jura and Scarba in the south.  The island of Easdale is prominent in this image.

Ellaabeich is one of the Slate Islands, once known as "the islands that roofed the world".  A large industry flourished here for many decades; Ellanabeich itself was joined to the larger island of Seil by a causeway made of spoil from the quarries.

The quarry cottages are still lived in and some of the industrial infrastructure is under preservation; the are is a conservation zone.

We stayed at Garragh Mhor, a bed & breafast at the edge of the village of Ellanabeich.  It's perfect accommodation for sea kayakers being just 150 metres from the put-in at the harbour, and a very short walk to the pub, the village shop and the Easdale ferry.

Our room was very comfortable, and our hosts Trish and Steve really understand outdoor pursuits and wet kit.  Keen divers, they have a large drying shed and a storage area for kayaks.  As an accommodation option for kayakers, walkers and anyone else visiting this area Garragh Mhor gets five stars!

The aforementioned pub. After a good meal and a couple of pints, it was jsut a short way back to Garragh Mhor.

Thursday 19 April 2012

Spring is in the air

Spring 2012 has seen an unusual weather pattern across Scotland with a very warm period followed by a (not unexpected) return to wintry conditions.  The early warm spell brought on the Spring flowers across the country; here's a few of them:

The Primrose (Primula vulgaris) is probably the quintessential early Spring flower of woodland.  The milder west coast sees flowers earlier than in the east - the open birch and rowan woods along Loch Nevis  facing the sun were carpeted with these beautiful plants.

Two in one here; the spear shaped leaves and brown tufted flowers are of the Greater Wood Rush (Luzula sylvatica) and the delicate white flowers are Wood Anenome (Anenome nemorosa), again both woodland plants.  This mixed clump was near Dunadd in Argyll.

The coastal plants are also coming into flower, Thrift (Armeria maritima) just starting at Belnahua in the Firth of Lorne, but still a few weeks away from flowering where it grows in the mountains.

Common Scurvy Grass (Cochlearia officinalis) was flowering in profusion on Easdale Island.  The plant is very rich in Vitamin C and drives its name from being formerly used to prevent Scurvy.  It's edible but very bitter!

In Aberdeenshire the Larch trees (Larix decidua) have a good show of flowers.  The tree is unusual in being a conifer which sheds its needles in winter.  There are both male and female flowers, the male flowers being about 1cm across and the female ones larger.  These flowers will eventually become Larch cones.  This tree near my house has several Rooks nests in it, the chicks are very vocal!  In our woodshed a female Blackbird has decided to nest on top of the woodpile and is sitting on a clutch of four eggs.

It's an exciting time- the land is bursting to life everywhere one looks.

Monday 16 April 2012

A blessing in the Loch of Heaven

Continuing along the north shore of Loch Nevis (the name is possibly derived from the Gaelic for "heaven") I landed on the shore at Inverie Bay. I'd planned to land near high water to avoid a long portage with the boat as the tide recedes some distance in the shallow bay, though I'd brought a trolley just in case.

Inverie is the most remote mainland village in Scotland and is accessible only by sea or on foot over one of the mountain passes in one of the roughest areas of the country.  The land around the village is now owned by the community and managed by the Knoydart Foundation.  The foundation was set up to effect the community purchase of the estate made possible by the Scottish Government Land Reform Act.  It's been a great success story and is a fine example of why land ownership in Scotland matters so very much.

We stayed at the Foundation Bunkhouse, which is both comfortable and well equipped.  I was met by the warden, Anna, and shown around.  Dave and I had stayed here just after the bunkhouse opened and the progress has been considerable.

On my way into the bay, I passed this strange sculpture which is semi-immersed at high water.  It seems to be a figure and made of a single piece of wood.

After a meal and a couple of beers in The Old Forge (Britain's most remote mainland pub), we walked back  in heavy rain, counting our blessings that we weren't returning to wet tents.

We were even more glad we weren't camping when we woke to snow showers!

Dave, Karen, Diane and Andy still had three days of their backpacking trip to go, but for me this would be the last day.  I paddled across the bay towards the entrance of the loch, only realising how much snow had fallen overnight when I could see through to the bigger hills.

Once the snow eased the sun warmed things a little and I passed close to the hulk of the "Serene", a Mallaig registered trawler which now sits in a corner of the bay minus her superstructure.

At Rubha Raonuill (Ranald's Point), a statue of the Madonna (marked as a monument on the map) seems to offer a blessing to those entering the Loch of Heaven.

Certainly the bay and beach she stands above are a small piece of earthly paradise.

All is not completely heavenly in Loch Nevis though; there are a couple of quite large fish farms along the south shore.  There are deep divisions in the Highlands between those who see the salmon farms as a source of employment in a harsh economic location and those who point out that the industry is far more polluting than it should ever be.  Loch Nevis was the first recorded site in Scotland where Infectious Salmon Anaemia was recorded in the 1990's.

Once out of the shelter of the loch I was exposed to the north wind and the resulting swell coming down the Sound of Sleat.  I had a bouncy and entertaining ride back in a beam, then quartering sea.

Entering Mallaig, the bustle and activity of a working port were a contrast to the previous couple of days.  My drive home was also entertaining; several roads were blocked by heavy snowfall as winter made a temporary return to the Highlands.  It had been a good little trip, and good to share part of my friends adventure.

Saturday 14 April 2012

Exploring the sights of Loch Nevis

The overnight rain ceased at 7am sharp and the morning looked promising.  We planned to meet up again at Inverie in the evening, Dave, Karen, Andy and Diane would walk over the hill pass of Mam Meadail whilst I paddled along Loch Nevis.

The view back to the upper loch shows Ben Aden (hill of the face) to the left and the ridge leading to the summit of Sgurr na Ciche (peak of the breast) in the centre.  Sourlies lies at the head of a bay just to the right of this ridge.

All along the south shore of upper Loch Nevis are signs of former occupation, as here at Ardnamurach (perhaps height of the shellfish).  There was a small community here with a larger house and some smaller dwellings.

This ruined cottage was nearer the shore.  The ground here is now very wet but there are signs of former drainage channels and walls.

Some dwellings are grander than others!  This impressive building at the entrance to Tarbet Bay seemed to be unoccupied and in need of a little TLC.  What a place though....

On the way up the loch, through the mist and drizzle, I'd glimpsed a whale on the shore of the loch.  No, seriously.....

A whale!  Moby is a 30 metre, 60 tonne seagoing vessel comparable to a Sperm Whale in size and is the creation of Tom McLean, adventurer and owner of Ardintigh Outdoor Centre.

As I was taking a photo, Tom called from a window to invite me ashore for a cup of tea.  I spent a pleasant half hour chatting.  Tom rowed solo across the Atlantic in the 1960's.  Twice.  What a character!

Across the loch at Port Longaig (port of the longship place), a tiny inlet shows signs of a much older type of vessel.

The right hand side of the inlet was meticulously cleared of rocks to provide a "noust" or beaching place for either a longship or the lighter Highland version, a Birlinn.  A spike of rock had been driven into the earth above the noust to secure the vessel.  I wondered about the people who used this place; were they clansmen of one of the families along the west coast or effectively pirates?

Either way, they'd chosen a spot concealed from most angles and sheltered from the prevailing weather.  Their boat noust has survived many centuries after them.

Saturday 7 April 2012

A loch with a lid on

On the first of a three day outing on Loch Nevis , I left Mallaig in cloudy, drizzly weather.  The boat was heavy with my own kit plus some resupplies for friends who were in the middle of a six night backpacking trip linking bothies in Knoydart and Morar.

For the first couple of hours visibility was poor; it was like paddling in a Tupperware box with the lid on.

Farther into Loch Nevis, the hills press in and the loch narrows at Kylesknoydart.  I'd planned carefully to arrive here before the ebb tide started with up to 3 knots of tidal stream.  The cloudbase had lifted somewhat and the drizzle had eased, making for more pleasant conditions. I had time to land on the shingle spit to collect firewood.  There was plenty and I paddled on with a very large bag of wood on the foredeck.

I soon arrived at the rendezvous, Sourlies bothy.  My friends had arrived shortly before and there were also other folk arriving.  I pitched my tent to ease space indoors and we unloaded the wood and supplies consisting of fresh milk, vegetables, and of course a couple of bottles of wine :o)

Dave and I scoured the shoreline and gathered another large bag of firewood; we'd not be cold in this bothy!

We shared a most convivial evening in the best tradition of bothying.  It was raining when I retired to the tent and continued to rain heavily right through the night as the "lid" once again descended on Loch Nevis.