Easdale Island Folk Museum is open daily from 1 April to 30 October
Easdale Island Folk Museum is situated on Easdale Island near Oban in Argyll on the west coast of Scotland. The island gained in prominance during the 18th century with the rise of the slate industry after the Earl of Breadalbane set up the Marble and Slate Quarrying Company of Netherlorn to exploit the local Easdale Slate.
The folk museum has well designed displays depicting a range of topics from the slate industry, army volunteers, education, and public health to geology, boats, and entertainment. There are genealogical records for the Kilbrandon and Kilchattan parish as well as rent books, Masonic records, and a map of Easdale Island circa 1881 on hard copy.
The whole of Easdale Island is of historical interest and any questions which arise whilst walking around will be gladly answered by the friendly and knowledgeable museum staff most of whom are local volunteers.
Easdale Island Folk Museum was set up in 1980 by the island’s owner at that time, Chris Nicholson, and without his interest and support the museum would not be here today. The original curator, Jean Adams, was a direct descendant of a slate quarrier’s family. It was Jean who, with the assistance of local residents and families associated with the island collected, collated and arranged the displays of artefacts, all of which originated in the locality. Jean, after 25 years sterling service, retired in 2006.
The museum today is now owned by the community under the auspices of Eilean Eisdeal, the island charitable company who managed at relatively short notice to raise the necessary funding in conjunction with the Big Lottery to purchase the museum in 2008.
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 New Crane – The new machinery promised by the Slate Company has been placed at the quarries, and is now in full working order.
Although not quite at the precise spot where the men would have liked it, they are pleased that this step has been taken in the right direction. Many of the workmens’ houses, which were sadly in need of repair, are being put to rights so far as the slates and lime go; but it appears that the woodwork also needs renewing.
Oban Times, 20 Nov 1886
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.
In the earliest days of the slate company all members of the family were expected to take part in the winning of the slate. Children wheeled barrows or carried baskets of finished slate or waste, away from the work face.
By around 1790 mechanisation of the quarries meant that children were no longer required and subsequently schools were established by the Breadalbane Estate for the children of Easdale. Today the island school is long closed and the children now attend the primary school in Ellenabeich, going on to the high school in Oban.
Although life was hard and money scarce the community never lacked entertainment. Social life centred mainly around the various churches in the parish. A woman’s guild, several friendly societies and the volunteers provided not only there specific functions but also through their fund raising activities a continuous source of entertainment such as Sales of work, soirees, ceilidhs, musical concerts, balls, regattas and Highland games were held regularly at Dunmore farm as they are today.
The Friendly Societies were mainly temperance groups formed to combat the rising problems of alcohol consumption. Their other important function was to provide sickness benefit and assistance with funeral expenses.
Picnics were arranged during the good weather and photographs show us that these were attended in splendid garb and the ladies are to be admired for their ability to wear such large hats on Easdale.
Politics engendered little excitement. The Breadalbanes were Whigs and in the later part of the 19th century supported the Liberal Party. The men of Easdale tended to support the Marquis’s party even though, strictly speaking, they were not his employees. At a meeting on the 14th May 1887 they voted in support of Home Rule for Scotland and Ireland. In at least one household there was a supporter of woman’s franchisement leaving to us a badge “VOTES FOR WOMEN”.
Today the refurbished Volunteers Drill hall, now Easdale Island Community Hall, and the Puffer Bar and Restaurant are the main centres of activity. The hall has a thriving arts program that caters for all tastes while keep fit activities, childrens parties, community meetings being just a taste of other pursuits the hall caters for. The Puffer provides food and drink to a very high standard, impromptu music sessions, a darts venue, again are just a small sample of the activities that this small but growing vibrant community indulge in.
Tap/Click the photos below to enlarge them. Please contact us if you can help fill in the blanks.
1984: 1 Denny Wernham; 2 Paul Wernham; 3 Archie Wernham; 4 Tracey Fleming; 5 Helen McFarlane; 6 Garth Waite; 7 Vicky Waite; 8 Colin Makie; 9 ?; 9a ?; 10 ?; 10a ?; 11 Christine Nichol; 12 Peter Nichol; 13 Wendy Blakey; 14 Ron Blakey; 15 Jack Buchanan; 16 Alice Clayton; 17 Lynn Mackenzie; 18 Hazel Mackenzie; 19 Michael Mackenzie; 20 Lin Swann; 21 ?; 22 Christopher Adams; 23 Judith Adams; 24 Reg Hill; 25 ?; 26 Margaret Long; 27 Johnny MacFadyen; 28 David Adams; 29 ?; 30 Mr Jones; 31 Malcolm Swann; 32 ?; 33 Mrs Jones; 34 ?; 35 Justine Swann; 36 Pippa Wernham; 37 ?; 38 Dewar Fleming; 39 Chris Nicholson.
2003: 1 Fiona Blakey; 2 Mike Mackenzie; 3 Michael Briarley; 4 Phil Bull; 5 Jan Fraser; 6 ?; 7 Jenny Smith; 8 Henry Tarbatt; 9 Tina Jordan; 10 Liz Davies; 11 Blue ?; 12 Colin Blakey; 13 Keith Oversby; 14 Kay Carmichael; 15 Colin Davies; 16 David Donnison; 17 Hugh Fraser; 18 Vivien Stern; 19 Andrew Coyle; 20 Sarah Fairbairn; 21 Ron Blakey; 22 Wendy Blakey; 23 Margaret Lyall; 24 Derek Lyall; 25 Bert Baker; 26 Kay Penman; 27 Michael Baldock; 28 Wendy Baldock; 29 Donald Melville; 30 Grant MacDonald; 31 Maggie MacDonald; 32 Sandra Melville; 33 Ghalia Asaid; 34 ?; 35 Morag McKay; 36 Iain McDougall; 37 Stephen Brown; 38 Dave Rockley; 39 Annabel Gregory; 40 Willie McNee; 41 Geoff Heslop; 42 Billy Robertson; 43 Ross Kerr; 44 Christine Kerr; 45 Hazel Mackenzie; 46 Katya Pfeutzner; 47 Dorte Pfeutzner; 48 Lynn Mackenzie; 49 Leslie Wolfson; 50 Sheena Robertson; 51 ?; 52 Brenda Wallace; 53 Ian Wallace; 54 Petre Withall; 55 Mary Withall; 56 Jean Adams; 57 Allan Laycock; 58 ?; 59?; 60 Jamie Melville; 61 Simon Fraser; 62 ?; 63 Neil Fraser; 64 ?; 65 Craig Robertson; 66 ?; 67 ?; 68 ?; 69 Catriona Melville; 70 Fergus McNally; 71 Robin Blakey; 72 Stephen McNally; 73 Sorley McNalley; 74 Brenda Heslop; 75 Anna Heslop; 76 Willie Fairbairn; 77 Euan Fairbairn; 78 Rosie Collinge; 79 Rosie Noble; 80 Bethan Noble; 81 Alma Wolfson; 82 ?
In the mid nineteenth century, the French Emperor, Louis Napoleon, began to make threatening noises against the British. Much of Victoria’s regular army was engaged in winning and controlling her Empire across the seas. Volunteer forces were, therefore, recruited by the major Scottish regiments, in order to defend the more isolated areas of coastline against invasion by the French. With more than five hundred men employed by the Easdale Marble and Slate Company, it was natural that the first of these volunteer Companies to be recruited by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, should be at Easdale.
Lord Breadalbane, sole owner of the quarries at this time, encouraged his men to enlist in the citizen’s army and provided a Drill Hall in 1870, (later a fish processing plant, and renovated in 2003 to become Easdale Island Community Hall), and an area of ground on which to set up a battery. At Ellenabeich a second drill hall was constructed and this remained as a community centre until 2007 when it was replaced on adjacent land by Seil Island Community Hall.
Reluctant to place good firing pieces in the hands of civilians, the mother regiment provided ordnance which had last seen action in the Peninsular Wars. Other cannons had been discarded by naval vessels refitting on the Clyde.
With this motley collection of weapons the Easdale Volunteers won many competitions for accurate firing, though no shot was ever fired in anger. Most notable among these achievements was the winning of the Kings cup at Budden in 1905.
The general health of the Easdale inhabitants has been good for the period which records exist. The survey for 1791 (displayed In the volunteers section of the museum) describes a population healthy, of good spirits and above average in learing and in intelligence. Smallpox had been eradicated by a system of inoculation (note that Edward Jenner claimed the success of his system of preventing the disease in 1796, many years after the scourge had disappeared from Easdale).
The doctor was kept busy with accidents happening in the quarries and at sea. On display is an iron splint much in use in the late C19th.
The most prevalent diseases were rheumatism and arthritis, brought on by working, usually up to the ankles in water, often in rain and chilling gales.
Poverty, poor sanitation and overcrowding resulted in many cases of tuberculosis towards the end of the century.
At the same period the cities of Scotland were being visited by another virulent disease, cholera. The only cases of this recorded on Easdale Island, were brought in by visitors from Glasgow, coming to the island to recover their health.
The most enlightening records came from Dr Patrick Gillies’ book of draft letters, written during the 1890’s and 1900’s while he was the Medical Officer for the Easadale Slate Quarrying Company. His annual reports on the public health of the parish of Kilbrandon and Kilchattan, provide a fascinating insight into all aspects of life at the time. The Gillies family provided medical care for the district for many generations.
An extract from Dr Gillies’ report on the drainage at the village of Ellenabeich on Seil Island.
“In my report of 1st Nov. 1895 upon this matter I called attention to what I was convinced is the source of evil, a badly constructed drain. A drain which , in its total length of 50ft., has a fall of about 2ft. or one half percent, and no means of flushing. Such a sewer cannot be expected to serve any useful purpose, it serves only one apparent purpose, that is, it forms an excellent breeding ground for the propagation of the typhoid bacillus and its allies.”