Slate Islands Heritage Trust

The geology of the Slate Islands

The Slate Industry

In 1745 John Campbell, Earl of Breadalbane, together with three of his clansmen, Charles Campbell of Lochalane, Colin Campbell of Carwin and John Campbell, Cashier of the Royal Bank of Scotland set up the Marble and Slate Quarrying Company of Netherlorn. While the remainder of Scotland was concerned with either assisting or preventing the accession of Prince Charles Edward Stewart to the throne, the Breadalbanes were concerned with matters more closely related to their pockets.

Prior to the formation of the Company, the Easdale slate deposits had for a time been exploited on a commercial basis by Colin Campbell of Carwin. From 1744 records exist of slates being taken from the Easdale quarry and on the transfer of assets to the Marble and Slate Company at a cost of £826.18.8d (£826.92), the items sold included 600,000 slates at 16/8 (83p) per thousand = £ 550.8.4d (£550.42) plus 7 sets of quarrying tools at 17/10 (90p).

In the year 1745, when the Company took over from Carwin, more than a million slates had been manufactured. By the year 1800 production had risen to five million. This increase was due largely to the introduction of pumping machinery which made it possible to quarry the slate below sea level even at high tide. One quarry at Ellenabeich reached a depth of 80m. The waste slate from here was used to form a causeway to the mainland which provided the foundations of the rows of cottages on the Seil side of Easdale Sound.

From the earliest days slate was shipped from Easdale to supply the burgeoning cities to the East, in the Clyde Valley and the Borders. There is little doubt that slate was also exported to England at this time. By the 1860s exports were made to New Zealand, Australia, the West Indies and the Eastern seaboard of the United States as well as to Nova Scotia and other parts of Canada.

The Marble and Slate Company of Netherlorn was dissolved in 1866, the various quarries at Easdale, Balvicar and on Luing coming under separate ownership. The marble quarry close to Ardmaddy Castle was abandoned at an early date, a fire surround at Ardmaddy Castle being the only known example of Easdale marble in existence.

The Easdale quarries were leased to a consortium of businessmen from Glasgow. For the first ten years the new Company prospered, living off the fat of earlier investment in machinery and equipment. As time went on the operation became less efficient owing to a lack of any new investment and working conditions grew increasingly dangerous. The Quarry Manager, Mr McColl, bore the whole burden of the operation at this time and he, without the financial backing of his masters, was powerless to improve the situation.

Following a disastrous storm in 1881 in which a tidal wave swamped most of the quarries, both on Easdale Island and at Ellenabeich, Mr McColl resigned. His replacement was Mr Wilson, a gentleman of much greater energy and enterprise who set about the task of putting the Easdale quarries into as full production as was possible following the storm damage. The large Ellenabeich quarry, already nearly worked out before the flooding, was abandoned and much of the machinery transferred to the island of Easdale.

In collaboration with the local doctor, Dr Patrick Gillies, Mr Wilson cleaned up the villages, improving both sanitation and housing. He and the doctor were active members of the Volunteer Force of civilians which had been set up to defend Britain from threat of invasion by the French in the 1860s.

Despite Major Wilson's important contribution the industry never regained the levels of production of former years and finally succumbed to competition from both Ballahulish and the Welsh slate quarries and from cheap foreign imports. Additional reasons for the failure of the quarries were more complex. The First World War took many younger men from the district. Changes in architectural design meant that clay tiles increasingly replaced slate for roofing; and the lack of a rail link between Oban and Easdale prevented transport of slates cheaply, overland.

The last slates to be taken from the Easdale quarries on a commercial scale were shipped in 1911. Other quarries in the district survived for longer periods. The Balvicar quarry was revived as recently as the late 1940s and continued operating until the early '60s. Angus Patterson, the last remaining local inhabitant to have worked in the quarries, died in 1998.

When the quarries closed, the younger people left to seek work elsewhere. Some went to quarries further south, many more emigrated to British Colonies overseas where connections had already been made through the slate trade. Today visitors arrive on the island from all corners of the globe, claiming descendence from the quarry workers of Easdale. In New Zealand, Canada, Australia, the West Indies and the USA, towns and villages bear the names of locations in Netherlorn and there is evidence that public buildings in many of these places are roofed in Easdale slates.

Geology History Index Slate Industry