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Easdale sound may be shallow and a bit tricky, but it is well worth anchoring here to look at Easdale Island. This tiny car-less island once held a community of several hundred who were involved in slate mining, as they were at Ellenabeich across the short ferry ride to the mainland. Until in 1881 a storm breached the rock and masonry wall between the main quarry at Ellenabeich and the sea. By the time of the First World War all slate production had ceased, and the island community almost disappeared, just four residents. But, gradually since the 1950s, the ruined workers' cottages have been taken over and restored by a new local community who are working hard to restore many of the island facilities, such as the drying harbour (about half the cottages are permanently occupied). And they are encouraging others to join them, in part by producing a short film on YouTube in 2015. Now over half the population is resident.
Everywhere there is slate — walls, piers, jetties, roofs, and under your feet. The early 19th century quays and jetties built of vertically orientated slate are particularly notable — and beautiful. Not surprisingly, given the whole place is made of slate, from 1983 the annual world stone skimming championships have been held here (thankfully not an Olympic sport — yet). 20 countries were represented in 2015, including Zimbabwe and Pakistan, up to a maximum of 350 competitors — so called 'chuckers. But unless they understood colloquial English I doubt if they would have appreciated the innuendo of being called 'tossers', or indeed of the final 'toss off'. Entry £5 for adults, £3 for old tossers (like me). Dougie Isaacs from Blairgowrie was the mens' World Champion in eight out of 12 years, until in 2017 a Japanese man was the surprise winner, but he was the Japanese champion so hardly a beginner. Then a Hungarian won the mens' in 2018, and agin in 2019! The organisers are trying to buy the flooded quarry from the island's owner who charges the championship organisers a hefty fee.
The new(ish) community hall is a bit of an architectural mishmash — a combination of slate, wood and lead roofing does not guarantee aesthetic success. I have not however seen the inside. Nonetheless, incorporated into this modern building, the Puffer Bar, Restaurant and Tea Room is a good combo. You can sit outside at tables admiring the view to Mull while eating cream teas, and watch the children swing on the swings (ph 01852 300 022). The bar is small and cosy, but with no real ale which is no great surprise given the small population to drink it up before the barrel goes off. It was up for sale in 2018 so we await developments.
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Flooded slate quarry and Easdale Island village
The incongruous City of Lincoln lamp post
Ellenabeich (Isle of Birches) is in fact no more, it was quarried away. But the name lives on as the village on the Seil island side of the sound. Here there was once a vast emporium of interconnecting caverns of tartan tat, the amazing and unique Highland Arts Centre. However, in 2017 the building was sold to Seafari who plan to convert it into a boat shed by 2020, and maybe other facilities too. They run all those tourist RIBs you see dashing round the nearby islands and are based here, a rather successful business it seems. They must be the successors of the "very able, extremely dextrous, and willing clever seamen" that The Hon Mrs Sarah Murray came across here at the end of the 18th century when writing probably the first travel guide to Scotland.
The Arts Centre was started by the late C John Taylor, an Englishman, with I would say dubious artistic talents, and a self-proclaimed poet as well as composer. When a coach rolled into the car park an elderly gent shouted, in a Yorkshire accent "ere coums a bous"! And a kilted youth stopped putting a ball on the green, picked up his bagpipes and let out a blast to welcome the tourist throng who were then disgorged into the emporium to emerge later with Scotland tea towels and plastic models of Robert the Bruce.
The cottages in the village are charming, presumably mostly holiday homes and lets. In one you will find the Slate Islands Heritage Centre run by a trust with a very informative website. Started in 2000, it is small but packed with interesting stuff, not just slate-related, so donate generously.
The Oyster Bar and Restaurant does pub grub and real ale, but it seems to change hands rather frequently so it's hard to keep up with how it's doing (ph 01852 300 121).
There is also a beautiful garden created in the 1930s — An Cala — just along the road out of the village. It is small, charming and domestic. A lovely waterfall tinkles down a cliff and there is a wonderful summerhouse or temple with walls covered in patterns of pine cones from all over the world. And look out for the wire sheep. Thank you Mrs Downie for sharing this with us for a mere £3 a head — so unlike the new owners of Torosay Castle, Achnacloich and Jura House who have closed their gardens to the public. The house itself is actually a combination of three 19th century cottages which were converted into a single very nice looking house in the 1930s giving "an almost incongruous anglicised intimacy" according to Pevsner.
Easdale from the air clearly showing the flooded slate quarries
The north entrance to Easdale Sound
Make very sure to walk round the island too to see the flooded quarries which are separated from the sea by just a few feet of rock. There are loads of blackberries everywhere. The old cottages seem mostly restored now, and very charming they look too, many with gardens stuffed with flowers and shrubs.
The small folk museum is a treasure and a delight. It was set up in 1980, and gradually put together lovingly over many years by Jean Adams who received an MBE for her efforts, so much more deserving than the rather higher honours dished out to politicians and indeed to various colleagues, often for no discernable reason. She retired in 2006 and since then the museum has been owned by Eilean Eisdeal, the island's community development group. There are lots of original letters, objects of various sorts, and clippings from the Oban Times. Great!