The first written reference to Easdale slate occurs in the account of the region of Netherlorn, given by Dean Munro, in 1554. However, no records exist of slate being taken from the area, on a commercial basis, until the 17th century. It is possible that the slate, exposed at high tide, was taken prior to this date and that early inhabitants of the coast would have used the thin rock slabs to floor their dwellings and certainly to make their tombstones.
Ardmaddy Castle, built in 1676, was roofed with Easdale slate, (easily recognised by its iron pyrites crystals). In the 19th century, when the castle was largely restored, the slates of the old roof were in perfect condition requiring only renewal of the wooden pegs by which they were suspended. Castle Stalker at Appin, built in 1631, is also roofed with Easdale slate, suggesting that Ballachulish was not a source of supply at that early date. Cawdor Castle, near Inverness, one of the best preserved of the Scottish castles, is also thought to be roofed with Easdale slate.
Argyll, including the islands of Lorn, was Campbell country. The owner of the lands of Lorn in the mid 18th century was John Campbell, Earl of Breadalbane, whose estates stretched across Scotland. Together with three of his kinsmen, Charles Campbell of Lochalane, Colin Campbell of Carwhin, and John Campbell, cashier of the royal bank of Scotland, the Earl set up the Marble and Slate Company of the Netherlorn in the year 1745. It seems that while the rest of Scotland was busy trying to put Bonnie Prince Charlie on the throne, the men of Easdale were concerned in matters closely related to their pockets!
In the year that the company took over, more than a million slates had been manufactured. By the year 1800, the production rate had risen to 5 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.
The quarry at Ellenabeich reached a depth of 250 feet, while the dumping of waste slate to form a causeway converted ‘the island of birches’ (Ellenabeich), into just another village on Seil.
The Marble and Slate Company of Netherlorn was dissolved in 1866 and the various quarries, Easdale, Balvicar and those on Luing came under separate ownership. A consortium of business men, Messrs Andrew and Alexander Ross, Mr Hodge and Mr Dairy, all of Glasgow, and Mr J Gillespie, a slate merchant of Paisley, acquired the lease of Easdale quarries. For the first 10 years, this new company prospered, living on the fat of earlier investment in machinery and equipment. As time went on, the operation began to be less efficient, owing to the lack of financial support. Working conditions became dangerous. The company’s directors relied entirely upon their manager, Mr McColl, who often, through no fault of his own, was less than efficient as a manager.
Following the disastrous tidal wave of 1881, which had left the quarries flooded, McColl left Easdale to be replaced by Mr Wilson, a gentleman of much greater enterprise and energy. He set about putting the Easdale quarries into as full production as possible, using equipment from the submerged Ellenabeich quarry to better effect on the island.
Together with Dr Patrick Gillies, Wilson set about cleaning up the villages, improving in particular the sanitary arrangements. He was active in the Volunteers where he held the rank of Major. Despite Major Wilson’s important contribution to the Easdale Company the industry never again approached the levels of production of former years, succumbing to the competition at the first from Ballachulish and later from Welsh quarries.
The last slates to be taken from the Easdale quarries on a commercial scale were shipped in 1911.