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Issue 26 - Idyllic Easdale

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 26
April 2006

 

This article is 11 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Idyllic Easdale

The first in a new series of island features. Written and photographed by John Hannavy

Across the ‘Atlantic Bridge’ over Clachan Sound to Seil Island, 10 minutes in what was probably the only traffic jam the island had ever experienced as water mains were replaced, and a short journey on the twisting B844 brought us down to the hamlet and harbour at Ellenabeich – itself once an island, but joined to Seil by a causeway of slate waste in the 19th century.

Across the narrow strip of water, baking beneath an unusually hot sun, was our destination and the home of the world stoneskimming championships – the tiny island of Easdale, probably the island with the most un- Scottish name imaginable!

I had been told that the island offered some great photography, and that the little pub on the island offered delightful food, drink and company. Add to those attractions my natural curiosity for an island the name of which suggests it should be in Yorkshire, and where better to start my island odyssey for Scotland Magazine? In every way, what we found exceeded our expectations.

To the locals it is Eilean Eisdeal which both looks and sounds a little more Scottish, but on the maps for some reason, it is always given the anglicised name.

The quarter mile ferry crossing to Easdale is free. It is the return journey which is charged for – a strange decision as it takes only a few hours on the island to germinate the idea of staying there forever.

We had arrived at Ellenabeich just too late for the last ferry before coffee time – the service is suspended from 10.50 until 11.20 while the ferryman has his elevenses – but dead on 11.20 the little launch left the slipway on the island, and started its five minute journey over to collect us. Ten minutes later we were stepping on to Easdale for the first time.

The walk up to the small group of cottages at the heart of the island introduced us to what little bustle there was – the licensee of the Puffer Bar and Restaurant passed us by pushing a wheelbarrow containing two empty beer casks.

At the height of summer, the island’s population is a strange mixture of permanent residents and visitors. While some of the cottages are occupied all the year round, the majority are holiday homes. But don’t think that the permanent residents are simple crofters or fishermen – Easdale is home to, amongst others, web designers, a web publisher and a computer company as well as a furnituremaker, a historical novelist, and a company of consulting engineers.

Anywhere else, the landscape in which they all live would be described as a ‘brown field’ site. Since the 16th century Easdale’s history has been dominated by the building industry’s appetite for roofing slates, and the striking and beautiful scars of that industry abound.

At its peak in the mid 19th century, the quarries on this tiny island yielded more than nine million slates per year – and they were in heavy demand. Along with slate from Luing, Easdale slates re-roofed the Abbey church at Iona early last century.

At first limited to surface working along the shoreline, the 16th century quarriers were migrant workers. They cut slates from the coastal rocks during the hours either side of low tide, and spent the rest of each day dressing them.

By the 18th century, the industry supported a considerable permanent workforce – most of the cottages on the island today were built to house them – and slate workings had moved further from the shore, but also deeper and below the water level! By an ingenious system of dykes, sluices and barriers, the working day was extended to permit continuous working below the high water level.

As the workings got deeper, so the problems of keeping the water at bay grew greater. Wind pumps were probably introduced early in the 19th century, and the advent of steam pumps enabled slates to be cut from faces well below the waterline.

Then, in November 1881, it all came to a sudden halt. A high tide breached the defences and flooded the deep workings – some more than 150 feet deep – submerging steam pumps, cutting equipment and all the other paraphernalia of slate working. Two of the deep pools, unusually blue and still under the summer sun, are now the venue for the World Stone Skimming Championships.

Sitting back in the Puffer Bar enjoying a smoked salmon salad for lunch, we were shown the trophies for the forthcoming championship – perfect skimming stones set in a polished wooden plinth. Did the trophy for the swimming race – a small piece of local slate in the shape of a shark’s fin, also mounted on a wooden plinth – hint that more than the remains of a steam pump and an old lorry lurked beneath the surface of the quarry pools?

Quarrying continued on a reduced scale until the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, after which the population of both Easdale and Ellenabeich gradually dwindled.

And there the island’s story might have ended but for some inspired conservation work on the cottages, and the gradual influx of home-based industries on to the island.

Today many of the cottages are managed by the Easdale Island Cottage Company, and let to holidaymakers for anything from a weekend to as long as anyone wants.

The cottages have been modernised and the brochure promises that some even have jacuzzis – and for those cold days, heating comes from solid fuel-burning stoves and open fires.

Walking round the tiny island takes less than an hour – even allowing for frequent stops to take photographs – and we fitted in our first circuit between coffee and lunch.

Our second walk took in the Easdale Island Folk Museum, established twenty years ago, and now a repository for a fascinating miscellany of items and images from the island’s past. We were lured back to the Puffer for ice cream, the perfect way to cool down before walking back down to the harbour. The ferryman had finished his afternoon tea break and five minutes later we were back at Ellenabeich.

On the island there are no cars, no roads, and only the occasional slate steppingstones paths. Once back at Ellenabeich and our car, the magic spell of the previous few hours was broken.