Slate Islands Heritage Trust

Food and agriculture

Food and Agriculture

In the earliest times the inhabitants of Easdale and the surrounding district depended upon the sea for their food. What they caught was augmented by grain crops grown on the more fertile islands of Luing and Seil and hedgerow fruits in season. Sheep and a few milk cows provided an additional occasional source of protein.

As the population increased the provisioning the workers and their families became problematic. Supplies could come in on the slate boats but this meant that fresh fruit and vegetables were a rarity. The Company encouraged the islanders to grow their own root vegetables by allocating areas of ground for gardens. Because the shallow soil on Easdale Island is largely powdered slate with little humus the slate boats began to bring in soil, particularly from Ireland, as ballast. This was spread on the garden plots, each of which was surrounded by a protective wall of slate rock. The sites of gardens are still visible from the hill even today.

Cattle roamed on the meadow to the west of the island while a few sheep were grazed on the hill. A larger flock of sheep was kept on the uninhabited island of Inish a mile or two to the north of Easdale. Recently a letter was received from a man who spent his boyhood here, recalling how at the end of every summer, island lads were employed to round up the sheep and get them on to rowing boats to be taken to market on the mainland.

In recent years there have been several experiments with livestock. Bullocks, goats, donkeys and horses have roamed the island. While the animals were useful in keeping down the vegetation, their preference was for the cultivated goodies in the resident's gardens and the wrangling that ensued between neighbours meant that none of them remained for long.

Today, the meadows and the hill are left to the only indigenous mammal on the island, a tiny field vole. Otters rear their young along the coast and can be seen occasionally on the island and in the sound, while seals visit the sea filled quarries fishing for ling, saithe and cod which become trapped by the falling tide.

There is a huge population of toads feeding off the slugs and snails so abhorred by Easdale gardeners while sea birds regularly nest on the cliffs and in the wilder areas surrounding the quarries and other uninhabited parts of the island.

Migrant birds are a constant source of interest to ornithologists and the island supports a flora which includes several unique varieties of coastal species such as stone crop, hawkweed and sea lavender.

Throughout the nineteenth century a meal made from oats or barley was the staple food. It was sold by the boll (8Kg). In times of unemployment the poorest families were allocated a boll of meal by the Parish Council. This would be augmented by whatever the family could catch at sea, or gather from the land until such time as work became available. By the 1890s white flour was being imported from the South and the housewife's baking became more sophisticated. The presence of white scones on any tea table was a mark of affluence and respectability.

The main vegetable crop was the potato. In addition, cabbages, spinach and turnips could be grown, although carrots fared badly in the rough stony soil. Salad vegetables were virtually unknown until the later years of the nineteenth century when summer visitors began to demand them. By this time the daily steamer run was available to bring fresh produce from the Glasgow markets.

Cows kept on the island provided milk which together with milk from goats and sheep was used to make a variety of cheeses as well as butter. Crowdie (curds and whey) formed an excellent food for infants and invalids.

Meat was relatively scarce and came only from older animals. Cows were slaughtered only when their milking days were done. There was insufficient grass to graze beef cattle so that the calves were sold on to cattle farmers in more fertile areas of Argyll. Sheep were shorn many times before they became mutton chops.

On rare occasions when there was cause for celebration, the birth of a Breadalbane heir or the accession of a monarch for example, the Marquis would order venison from his vast estates to be distributed to the workmen's families.

Every part of the animal was used. The best of the meat was soaked in brine and smoked in the kitchen chimney. The remainder was salted down for later use. The liver, kidney brains and heart were used immediately, providing a special treat. Blood was collected and boiled to make black pudding a dark sausage with a skin made from the animal's intestines. When times were very hard it was not uncommon for a living milch cow to be bled for this purpose.

The sea provided the bulk of dietary protein. White fish was cured and smoked. Herring were pickled in brine. A cod's head was considered a great delicacy. Salmon was plentiful, so much so that it was considered to be poor man's fare and quite unsuitable for the Laird's table. One island resident recalls her embarrassment if, as a schoolgirl, she was given salmon sandwiches for her piece. More affluent children would not even consider swapping with her!

A large variety of shellfish was also available. Oysters, mussels, lobsters prawns and scallops were used for soups and fillings. In very hard times even limpets found their way to the table, while seaweed offered an additional source of nourishment, the most favoured variety being Carrageen or Iceland Moss. This, when boiled, became a gelatinous mess rich in protein and easily swallowed. It was particularly useful for feeding infants and the sick and elderly.

The Company Store provided dry goods and household necessities for those who were in work and could afford to pay. Because they were paid so infrequently, the men were allowed to accrue debts which were paid off on the settlement day.

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