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Netherlorn and its Neighbourhood
Chapter II - Easdale


"The target, the dirk, and the claymore, too long abused, were wrested from our hands, and we were bid to learn the arts of peace." – Pennant’s Tour, vol. i, p. 424.

The little island of Easdale, which lies 8 miles south-west of Oban, is, from an economic point of view, perhaps the most important part of the district. It is the centre of an extensive slate-quarrying industry; and while there are many slate quarries in the neighbourhood, those of Easdale, alike from the quality of the rock, the uniformity of bedding, and the long period during which the works have been carried on, are by far the most famous.

It is impossible to say when Easdale slates were first used as an article of commerce. Dean Monro, who visited the Western Isles in 1549, mentions the neighbouring island of Belnahua as "ane iyllane quharin there is fair skailzie aneuche"; also another island, Sklaitt, probably Eilean-a-beithich, "quherein there is abundance of skailzie to be win"; of Easdale, which he calls Eisdcalfe, he merely refers to its situation, but makes no mention of the manufacture of "skailzie" or slates. It is said that Caisteal-an-Stalcaire or Stalker Castle in Appin, which was built in the time of James IV, was roofed with Easdale slates; while we know that Ardmaddie Castle in Netherlorn was reroofed with them in 1676. The wood used for roofing this castle was highly resinous pine from the old Caledonian Forest, cut into planks an inch thick, the slates being fastened to the wood by oak pins about 3 inches long. During the centuries which have elapsed since the work was done, little repair has been required; the wood is as fresh and the slates as blue and hard as on the day the roofing was completed. The custom of using wooden pins for attaching the slates continued until quite a recent period.

The long, flat slabs of weathered stone, which are so easily split from detached blocks or the exposed ends of the strata, was doubtless the material from which slates were first manufactured. At a later period, when slate quarrying became a recognised industry - operations were systematically begun about 1626 - wedges of seasoned hard wood were driven into the seams or cracks in the cleavage planes at low tide, the subsequent immersion causing the wood to expand and so disrupt the rock. For long after the introduction of blasting by gunpowder the workings were carried on at the sea-shore, the rock being wrought down to the level of the lowest tides.

The great obstacle in the workings in early times was the difficulty of keeping a quarry "dry," so that when a quarry was sunk at some distance from the shore, a trench or sluice was cut from the working to the sea, the sluice being opened when the tide was low, thus draining the quarry. In this way the richest seams on the island were worked to low-water level, and so confident were the workmen, in those days of primitive hydraulics, that the quarries could not be worked deeper, that a spot is still pointed out where one of them, having succeeded in firing a blast at the water-edge at an exceptionally low state of the tide, exclaimed: "That is the lowest blast which will ever be set off in Easdale."

At this period the slates were conveyed from the quarries to the shipping places in hand- or wheel-barrows. Pennant, who visited the place in 1772, says: "Visit Easdale, the noted slate island: whose length is about half a mile and composed entirely of slate, intersected and in some parts covered with whin-stone, to the thickness of sixteen feet; the stratum of slate is thirty-six, dipping quick S.E. to N.W. In order to be raised it is first blasted with powder; the greater pieces are then divided, carried off in a wheel-barrow, and lastly split into the merchantable sizes, and put on board at the price of twenty shillings per thousand. About two millions and a half are sold annually to England, Norway, Canada, and the West Indies."

An interesting account of the island in early days is given in the Mining Journal of February 1864, by the late Mr. John Whyte, who for many years was manager of the quarries. To it I am indebted for much of the information contained in this article. Speaking of the early days of quarry engineering in Easdale, he goes on to say: - "As different quarries were opened, more powerful and complicated pumping machines were constructed: the first of these was a Newcomen's atmospheric engine, which quite eclipsed the fly-wheel previously in use, and was looked upon by the simple islanders as a perfect wonder. Some parties who witnessed the performance state, however, that it wrought unsatisfactorily, which might have been expected, considering the fact that its boiler was a square box of cast iron 1 inch thick and its piston packed with leather! The next pumping machine was a gin which was put in operation in 1807, and the horse that worked it was the first employed on the island. The gin was found to do well, and others were constructed. Additional horses were required, and this led to the introduction of carts instead of wheel-barrows." About the same time a windmill was erected to raise water, which it continued to do until 1826, when the quarries having attained a depth of 80 feet, more powerful machinery in the form of a steam-engine was introduced. At one time the removal from the quarry of the "rubbish" and dressed slates was effected by manual labour, a zigzag road being left on the side of the quarry for the purpose; or the dressed material alone was removed, the rubbish being banked behind the workmen as they cut into the rock. In 1836, however, the proprietor of the quarries, the second Marquis of Breadalbane, got Mr. Whyte to plan and construct a railway incline worked by horse power. A few years afterwards the horses were dispensed with, the railway machinery being connected with the steam engine. Perpendicular hoists and aerial tramways have since been introduced, but so simple, safe, and effective was the system of incline then devised, that where possible it is still used.

The quarries until 1841 were in the possession of a private company of which the proprietor was a shareholder; but in that year the Marquis of Breadalbane took over the entire charge of the works. Previously the workmen had been paid wages once a year, and then only for slates actually sold; they were now paid more frequently, and for work actually done. The Marquis died in 1862, and shortly afterwards the works were again let to, and have since been worked by, companies who have met with very varying success.

The output of slates, which was two and a half millions in 1772, rose to five millions in 1794, when over three hundred men were employed. From 1892 until 1862 about one hundred and forty millions of slate of all sizes were made, representing a value of nearly half a million pounds.

In the making of slate the rock is quarried by blasting, gunpowder being the explosive most in use: nitro-compounds are too severe in their action, and shatter much valuable rock. The large blocks thus dislodged are split in the quarry into convenient size, of about 1 inch in thickness. These are raised to the surface and sent to the "banks," or tips, where they are taken in hand by the "splitter," who splits the slabs into the required thickness; his neighbour, the "dresser," cutting the piece to the size and shape of the slate desired. The sizes usually made are known by the names of "undersize", "sizable", "countess", and "duchess", varying from 50 square inches "undersize" measurement to 300 inches for "duchess". The men work in gangs or "crews’" of six or seven, and when the rock is of good quality, two or three men quarrying keep four splitting and dressing: a good pair of banks-men can make over a thousand slates daily.

The island of Easdale is separated from the neighbouring large island of Seil by a channel about 150 yards broad. In olden times the centre of the channel was occupied by the small island of Eilean-a-beithich (the island of birches). This island, which was about two acres in extent, has long ago disappeared, not by submergence, but by being excavated into a huge quarry, the rocky shell alone being left. The rubbish and slate refuse were tipped into and filled up the small channel which separated the island from Seil. This quarry was probably the richest ever worked in the district, from seven million to nine million slates of the best roofing quality having been manufactured annually for many years.

The working of this quarry came to a sudden and disastrous end. In the early morning of the 22nd November 1881, after a very severe gale of south-west wind followed by an exceptionally high tide, a large rocky buttress which supported a sea wall gave way under the excessive pressure of water, and at daybreak the quarry, which had been wrought to a depth of 250 feet below tide level, was found flooded, and two hundred and forty men and boys were thrown out of employment. Since then Easdale has not been prosperous. Lately, however, some of the old workings, abandoned about a century ago on account of the then inadequate machinery, have been reopened, and with sufficient capital and cautious management it is to be hoped that a long period of prosperity may ensue.

Partly upon the made ground filling up the old channel and partly upon a raised beach of slate rock bordering the basaltic precipices of the north-west corner of the island of Seil, we find the little village of Eilean-a-beithich. The importance of the island of Easdale, however, has so completely eclipsed that of the neighbouring district, that to the stranger the combined villages particularly and the whole district generally is known as Easdale. In the Ordnance and other maps the village is called by its old name of Caolas (Gaelic, a narrow channel or strait), a name reminiscent of the obliterated channel, and still applied by old people.

A very fine view of Easdale is obtained from the coast of Seil near the mouth of Cuan Sound. Looking northward across an expanded foreground of water we see midway the peculiar outline of Easdale - a pyramidal hill, the remains of a broad dyke of basalt flanked by sloping sides of debris, the subjacent slate jutting out in a broad, flat selvage of rock upon which the island village has been built. To the right we see the narrow channel of Easdale Harbour, then the village of Eilean-a-beithich nestling below the terraced escarpments and grassy declivities of Dunmore. In the background another and broader expanse of the Firth of Lorn, and then seven miles away the eye scans the long, precipitous coast-line of Mull, stretching from Duart and Crogan on the east, past the bluff headland of Lochbuie, the picturesque, indented shores of Carsaig, famous for its arches and oolite fossil-beds, on to Ardalanish point, beyond which, in the far west, as a streak of grey on the horizon of waters, the outline of the Ross is seen receding and diminishing in perspective: while dominating the whole, the domes and spires of the Morb-heanna (great hills) of Mull - Dun-da-ghaoithe (the hill of the two winds), Sgurrdearg (the red Scaur), Beinn Taladh (the mountain of alluring), An Creachan (The Scallop), Beinn Buidhe (the yellow mountain), and the mighty Beinn Mhor, tower majestically to the skies.

About a mile from Easdale, in a small sequestered amphi-theatre of rounded, grassy hills, is the township of Kilbride. It has many interesting associations. The lands were originally church property, but at the Reformation were given to a Patrick MacLachlan, from whom the MacLachlans of Kilbride and Kilchoan, in the same parish of Kilbrandon, were descended. This family was closely associated with the mediaeval Catholic church in the Highlands; one member, Farquhar, was penultimate pre-Reformation Bishop of the Isles, while so many had acted as vicars of the church in the perish, that at the confiscation of church property, the lands were given as from a prescriptive right to Patrick, the representative of the family at that time, who had, of course, embraced Reformation principles. In 1591 we find a grant of the same lands of "Kilbride-beg in Seall" to Neil, son of the deceased Patrick, entered in the Register of Privy Seal. In 1629 John MacLachlan, a son of Neil, became minister of Kilbrandon: he died in 1660. His son John, who became minister of the neighbouring perish of Kilninver in 1650, at the Restoration it is not to be wondered at, conformed to Episcopacy, which during the reigns of Charles II and James II was the established form of Church government in Scotland. His son, who succeeded him in the same charge in 1685, suffered (1697) as a non-jurant the penalty of "deprivation" under the Acts of 1689 which practically disestablished Prelacy. The family thereafter, for nearly a hundred years, appears to have devoted one of its members to tile service of the Episcopal Church in the parish, the last minister of the persuasion in these days being Mr. John MacLachlan, affectionately known as "Maighster Shon," a man beloved and revered in the district for his goodness and kindness of heart, who nevertheless during forty years of faithful ministry is said to have made but one convert to his church. He died in 1789 and is buried below the crypt of the old ruined parish church of Kilbrandon. A large flat slab of stone raised upon pillars, ornately carved with the MacLachlan coat of arms, and bearing a lengthy Latin inscription, marks the family burial - place. A curiously shaped fragment of basalt, resembling a human chin, rests upon the slab. It is known as "Smig mhic Mharcuis" (the chin of MacMarquis). It is popularly believed that this stone, by some supernatural power, revolves upon its axis and points with the chin to a new-made grave, remaining in the same position until a fresh interment takes place. It is also said that should the "chin" be removed from its place on the stone it will always return. Certainly on more than one occasion the stone has been stolen, but sooner or later was found resting in its old position. The old mansion-house of Kilbride has long since crumbled to ruins; but the garden remains, enclosed by a low turf wall and willow hedge, and paved a foot or so below the surface with large slabs of slate. Many old gardens are so paved, the idea being to prevent the descent of the tap-root of the apple and other fruit trees into the barren subsoil. An ancient pear tree still sends forth a few green twigs, but the garden is long out of cultivation. In later days the house of Yate, near Kilbride, became the residence of the family, but it, too, is fast becoming ruinous.

One of the most valuable and voluminous collections of ancient Gaelic manuscripts in existence was for generations in the possession of this family. It is believed that the majority of the older MSS formed originally part of the library of Iona. But the MacLachlans were a scholarly race, and lovers of the language and literature of the Highlands, so that it is likely the collection was the fruit of centuries of intelligent research. These manuscripts, known as the "Kilbride MSS", are now in the Advocates' Library in Edinburgh, having been placed there for safe keeping, about the beginning of last century, by Major MacLachlan, of the 55th Foot, who was then proprietor of Kilbride.

In the old churchyard of Kilbrandon there are many interesting memorials. A number of stones with fine carving may be seen. The carving is of the usual Celtic interlaced pattern; usually one, two, or three simple two-cord plaits running the whole length of the stone, the loops of adjacent plaits interlacing, or we may find a central figure or symbol such as a two-handed sword with a simple cord pattern on either side. Sometimes a large and small loop alternate, but we invariably find the larger loops filled in with a floral or leaf design, such as five obovate leaflets diverging from the apex of a short stalk or stalks, or decompound pinnate leaves with prominent midrib. The usual symbol is a claymore; sometimes a pilgrim's staff or crozier, and on one stone a dagger and pair of scissors or shears. On the west side of the enclosure there is a flat stone which bears the usual emblems of mortality, and round the edge the legend, "Here lyes Margaret Campbell, spous to Robert Grant of Branchell, who died at Obane, the ninth of September 1681." Branchell (Brenchoille) is on Loch Fyne side, of which district Grant was a native. Obane (ob - a bay; an dim.- a little bay) is Oban Seil, a township in the island of Seil, so called to distinguish it from Oban Lathurna (Oban in Lorn).

Robert Grant was factor or bailie for Lord Neil Campbell of Ardmaddie; he dwelt at Oban Seil, where the trace of the walls of his house map still be seen: a tree still flourishes which at one time was enclosed in his garden, and the well close at hand is known as Tobar Bhailie Ghrannd.

At one time he was sent to Islay to collect some rents due to Lord Neil, and on his passage home, through the Sound of Luing, he was seized by a marauding crew of MacLeans and carried to Duart Castle in Mull, where he was kept prisoner. There being bad blood between Duart and Lord Neil, the latter asked a mutual friend, MacDougall of Dunollie, to intercede with MacLean for the release of his factor. Dunollie proceeded to Duart, and MacLean, suspecting his errand, ordered Grant to be beheaded. The visitor was received with every courtesy, and his host asked him to delay speaking of business until he had refreshed himself. After dining, Dunollie spoke of the object of his errand, and asked MacLean, as a personal favour, to release Grant. To this request the fierce chieftain made answer: "You may take his body, which is in the courtyard, but I will keep his head". Dunollie made no protest; and probably glad to get away, removed the body, which is buried in the churchyard of Kilbrandon below the stone referred to.

A small, erect slab of red sandstone, bearing the Campbell Arms- 1st and 4th Gyronny of eight, 2nd and 3rd a lymphad (long fada - a large ship, galley) - marks a burial-place of the Campbells of Cawdor, a family now represented by the Earl of Cawdor. This branch of the House of Argyll at one time owned the small estate of Balvicar, lying in the east side of the island of Seil. Balvicar (Baile bhiocair, the vicar's township) was, previously to the Reformation, Church property, and mention is made of the buildings "of the vicar and the clerk" in the grant of lands in 1591 to the MacLachlans. The founder of the family of Calder was Sir John Campbell, third son of the third Earl of Argyll, Muriel of Cawdor, the heiress and representative of the old Thanes of Cawdor, being left an orphan, became the ward of the Earl, who determined to marry her to his son. Under pretence of getting the child properly educated he sent an escort of his clansmen, under Campbell of Inverliver, to convey her from Kilravock, where she stayed with her uncle. On the return journey the party had reached the head of Strathnairn, when they descried a strong body of Muriel's kinsmen, who did not like the method adopted of disposing of her fortune, in pursuit. Inverliver sent the girl forward with a small guard to make all speed into Argyllshire; while he faced about to engage the pursuers, stationing a man in the rear with a sheaf of oats wrapped in a plaid as if it were the child. The fight was bitter, and it was at a time when the issue seemed doubtful that the Campbell leader gave utterance to the saying, still used when a person is in distress with no immediate prospect of delivery:-" ‘S fada glaodh o' Loch Obha, 's fada cabhair o' Chlann Diune" (" ‘Tis a far cry to Loch Awe, and a distant help to Clan Duine"). Clan Duine was the old name of Clan Campbell. When the advanced party had gained sufficient distance, Inverliver retreated, and the heiress was conducted safely to Inveraray. Muriel was married in 1510, and died in 1575. Her grandson, the third Calder, was the victim of a plot, formed by the Earl of Huntly, Campbell of Lochnell, and others, to assassinate the Earl of Moray, Argyll (then a minor), and Campbell of Calder, trustee of the latter. Huntly encompassed his design of killing Moray, the plot against Argyll miscarried, but Calder was murdered by a shot fired through the window of Knipoch House in Netherlorn, when on his way to visit his estate of Balvicar. The lands of Balvicar were exchanged about 1770 for others in Benderloch.

Below the ruined hill-fort known as "An Tigh mor" (Temora), about a quarter of a mile from Kilbride smithy, there is a large tumulus of stones. It is told that, during the reign of King William, a succession of cold, tempestuous years had utterly destroyed the harvests; grain and fodder blackened in the fields; ultimately the ground was left untilled, and three years of famine, "the black years of King William," followed. Shell-fish and seaware became the principal articles of diet, and the starving people had the shores parcelled by lot amongst them. To add horror to their misery a, plague arose; great numbers perished. The apathetic survivors threw the bodies of the dead into a huge pit, over which this "cairn of remembrance" was erected. The hardship of these distant years is alluded to in the Gaelic proverb still current in the district, ‘S cruaidh an t-earrach, 's an cunntar na faochagan" (It is a hard spring in which we have to count the whelks).

In the eastern districts of Scotland the famine was even more severely felt, and "King William's dear years", as they were there called, lasted seven years (1693-1700). A writer of the times says: "Those manifold, unheard-of judgments continued seven years, not always alike, but the seasons, summer and winter, so cold and barren, and the wonted heat of the sun so much withholden, that it was discernible upon the cattle, flying fowls, and insects decaying, that seldom a fly or cleg was to be seen; our harvests not in the ordinary months; many shearing in November and December; yea, some in January and February; many contracting their deaths, and losing the use of their feet and hands shearing and working in frost and snow; and, after all, some of it standing still and rotting upon the ground, and much of it for little use either to man or beast, and which had no taste or colour of meal". We further read that "when the means of saving the living and of burying the dead began to fail, natural affection was in a great measure suspended. A man having carried his deceased father upon his back half-way from his home to the churchyard, threw down the corpse at the door of a farmhouse, with these words: ‘I can carry my father no farther. For God's sake, bury his body; but if you choose not to take that trouble, you may place it, if you please, on the dyke of your kailyard as a guard against the sheep’".

Now in King Charles II's reign, an Act was passed by the Scottish Parliament prohibiting the importation of meal while the price remained below a certain figure, and cargoes of Irish meal were actually seized off the Argyllshire coast, the barrels staved and the meal thrown into the sea. But in the presence of the famine this obnoxious mode of making the people's food dear and the farmers' trade lucrative was suspended; and not only so, but in 1698 an order in Council was passed absolutely prohibiting the exportation of grain. These measures helped to alleviate the distress, and probably saved whole parishes from depopulation; and yet so short is man's memory of great calamities that in 1701, a little over a year from the passing of the famine, the odious "protection" measures were re-enacted and orders given that ships seized with imported meal were to become the property of the captors, and the barrels of meal staved and sunk.


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