Slate Islands Roofed the World

Clachan BridgeExtensive slate quarrying have left their marks in the landscape of these islands lying immediately off the west coast of Scotland which are usually accessed by crossing the Atlantic Ocean over a bridge, but more about that later. The Slate Islands consist of several larger and smaller islands, both populated and uninhabited. The main islands are Seil, Easdale, Luing, Lunga, Shuna, Torsa and Belnahua and can be found roughly between Oban in the north and Jura in the south.

The easiest and most used method to access the islands is from a minor road from the A816 south of Oban. The minor road is signposted to the Isle of Seil and the Atlantic Bridge, also known as the Clachan Bridge. The bridge itself is a small single-arched bridge crossing the Clachan Sound and connects the Scottish mainland with Seil, the most northerly of the Slate Islands, and is built by Robert Mylne. The Clachan bridge is also known as ‘The Bridge over the Atlantic’, the Clachan Sound is directly connected to the Atlantic Ocean.

ellenabeich Area Seil
Ellenabeich on the Isle of Seil

Isle of Seil
One could argue wether Seil is an island or not since it is connected with a bridge to the mainland, but for the sake of being complete I consider Seil as one of the Slate Islands, which it is. An interesting detail of Seil is that the population remained on a constant level since the last 150 years, which differs a lot from the depopulation many other islands in the Inner Hebrides experienced. Most people in Seil live in the northern part of the island, the southern part has been extensively quarried. Located in the centre of the island is the former slate-mining village Ellenabeich which is a lovely wee village with a restaurant and beautiful views over the Firth of Lorn. From the small pier the passenger ferry/boat leaves for the neighbouring Isle of Easdale. Ellenabeich is also home to the Slate Islands Trust Heritage Centre, housed in a former slate quarrier’s cottage and has displays illustrating quarry workings and many aspects of 19th century life in the area. Slate quarrying wasn’t at all a safe occupation given the following account of a tragedy:

The fourth Earl of Breadalbane, who was the landowner at the time, built picturesque villages for the workers. The main quarry on the south side went deeper and deeper into the ground as the men chisseled out the slate. Gunpowder was then used for blasting and by 1880 the pit was 75m deep, nearly 250 feet below sea-level, with only narrow walls of slate keeping the sea out. In November 1881 the inevitable happened. There was a violent storm and the sea broke through. Luckily it was night and the pit was unmanned but 240 families lost their only means of support and severe poverty ensued. The place where this happened is still clearly visible.

Cuan Isle of Seil
The village of Cuan where a regular ferry service connects the island of Luing with Seil

The village of Ellenabeich is also the place to get a ferry to the neighbouring island of Easdale, put on the map by organising the world stone skimming championships, but better known as the centre of the Scottish slate industry for almost three centuries. At the peak of the slate mining industry Easdale had a community of more than 500 working as many as seven quarries. Easdale slate was used at Glasgow Cathedral and Castle Stalker and also exported to Nova Scotia; the Marble and Slate Company of Netherlorn was formed in 1745. The great storm of 1850 flooded most of the quarries and without the means to pump the water away this was more or less the end of the slate industry on the island. It did continue though, on a much smaller scale, and the last slate was cut in the 1950s. Today the once active quarries are little more than still and deep pools which provide a safe haven for a wide variety of flora and bird life.

Easdale Island - One of the Slate Islands
Easdale Island seen from the Isle of Seil, Mull in the background

After the demise of the slate industry the population fell rapidly to only four people and the future of Easdale looked rather grim until descendants of the original workers and others moved to Eadale and turned it into a healthy community. There are some other interesting details to tell about Easdale. It’s the smallest permanently inhabited island of the Inner Hebrides, the island is car(e) free and it is claimed that Easdale, together with nearby Luing and Belnahua were “the islands that roofed the world”. The island is home to a folk museum operated by the Scottish Slate Islands Heritage Trust.

Easdale Ferry
Easdale Ferry

Island of Birches
Eilean-a-beithich, the island of birches, which stood in the Easdale Sound, the stretch of water between Easdale and Seil Islands, was quarried to a depth of 250 ft below sea level with only a shell left. Eventually this flooded and now there are no obvious signs of the little island. Another nearby island, Belnahua, was also almost quarried to nothing.

Isle of Luing
A ferry at the southern tip of Seil crosses the 200 metres wide and fast flowing Cuan Sound, and connects the island with the isle of Luing, it’s neighbour to the south and not to be confused with Lunga to the west. Luing had a population of over 600 in the late 1800s, nowadays the island is inhabited by a little over 200 people. Tobernochy and Cullipool were once centres of the Slate industry and Iona Cathedral is roofed with Luing slates. Nowadays tourism, lobster fishing and beef farming are Luings main sources of income. Cullipool is the largest village on Luing and home to the only shop on the island. According to Luings website the island is Argyll’s best kept secret: “The Isle of Luing has changed little over the past two hundred years, with white-washed quarriers cottages, lush pasture and abundant wildlife. Luing is a tranquil paradise, with stunning views to Mull, Scarba, the Garvellachs and the many other small islands that surround it.”

Cuan Sound Ferry
Cuan Sound Ferry

Isle of Shuna
Shuna, east of Luing, is an island with a population of one in the 2001 census and has the remains of a castle that was built as recent as 1911. Unlike the other Slate Islands, Shuna has little slate, and has historically been farmed, although it is now quite overgrown with woodland. There are several cairns in the south and west of the small island. The island has been privately owned by the Gully family since 1946. The island has healthy populations of Red, Roe and Fallow deer; along with Otters and Common and Grey Seals.

Fladda Lighthouse
Fladda Lighthouse Isle of Fladda (image courtesy Nicola Lang)

Isle of Fladda
Off the west coast of Luing is Fladda, another one of the Slate Islands. The name Fladda originates from the old Norse for ‘flat island’. Fladda has a lighthouse and lighthousekeepers’ cottages built in 1860 by brothers David and Thomas Stevenson. It is home to a large colony of terns.

Isles of Torsay and Belnahua
Torsay is another almost uninhabited island located north-east of Luing and south of Seil. Although inhabited until the 1960s the isle nowadays has one house which is rented out as a holiday cottage, speaking of solitude! The island also holds the ruins of a 16th century hunting lodge. North west of Luing and Fladda is the island of Belnahua, nowadays uninhabited, but in earlier times inhabited by almost 200 people who were mainly employed in the slate quarry industry. The remains of the cottages and water filled quarries remain as a testament of earlier times.

Cairn and Skerries
Cairn and Skerries on Luing near Toberonochy (Image courtesy Patrick Mackie)

Isle of Lunga
West of Luing is the almost uninhabited Isle of Lunga which is part of the Firth of Lorn Special Area of Conservation which includes the Garvellachs, Scarba and the coastal areas of north Jura and the western Slate Islands. Lunga lies a few miles north of Scarba and is separated from Luing by the fast flowing Sound of Luing. There are numerous islets in the surrounding waters. To the north is the isle of Belnahua and to the north west are Eilean Dubh Mor and the Garvellachs. All around are smaller skerries and islets and this complexity of land and sea coupled with the strong tides makes these the most treacherous channels on Scotland’s west coast. The highest point on Lunga is Bidean na h-Iolaire (peak of the eagle) and the main bay is Camas a Mhor-Fhir (bay of the giant) to the south. The island is owned by the family of Torquil Johnson-Ferguson who runs the Rua Fiola adventure centre which caters for parties of school age children. The activities, which include rock climbing and canoeing, also make use of the nearby islets including Eilean Dubh Mor and Eilean Dubh Beag. The rest of Lunga itself, where there are only three houses, is primarily used for grazing animals.

 Slate Islands Community & Local Websites. Tourist Information:
Slate Islands Pictures – A Gallery with images of the Slate Islands – Easdale Island trust – Easdale accommodation listings – Tourist Information for Argyll
Slate Islands Map – A detailed map of the island

Isle of Lunga
Isle of Lunga