Slate Islands Heritage Trust

The Volunteers

The Volunteers

In the mid nineteenth century relationships between France and Britain, always tenuous since the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, began to deteriorate once again. The British army of the time was spread thinly across the globe, protecting the Empire which had been created mainly during the previous century. In 1860, Queen Victoria authorised the raising of a volunteer army, similar to the Militias of earlier times. Recruits would be trained in order to defend their own homes against invasion by the forces of Emperor Louis Napoleon.

Easdale, having at the time a total workforce of five hundred men, was an ideal location for the formation of the 1st Argyll and Bute Artillery Volunteers. Coastal defence required long range weapons and quarrymen, skilled in handling explosives, were ideal recruits for an Artillery Battery.

Lord Breadalbane, sole owner of the quarries at this time, encouraged his quarrymen to enlist and ordered the building of a Drill Hall on the island for their headquarters.

This building with its unique pyramidal roof suffered from neglect over the years during which it has been used successively for net drying and as a fish processing plant. However, it was taken over by Easdale Island Trust who successfully raised the funds required to restore and extend it to provide a unique Community Centre.

A part of the harbour was filled in and grassed over to provide a square where the men could drill and a battery of canon was set up on the meadow to the West of the island overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

Reluctant to place good firing pieces in the hands of amateurs, the mother regiment, The Argyll and Southerland Highlanders, provided ordnance which had last seen action in the Peninsular Wars. Other cannon were discarded from naval vessels refitting on the Clyde. Although no shot was ever fired in anger, with this motley collection of weapons the Easdale Volunteers achieved a reputation for accurate firing, winning the King's Cup at Budden (1905) in competition with regular soldiers. Of these weapons, sadly only a gun carriage and a single barrel remain on the island. Some were swept away in storms later in the century, others were sold for scrap in the 1970s.

Enrolment cards for most Volunteers are in the museum and are a useful source of information for genealogists. At the turn of the century the Senior Officer in the Company was the Quarry Master, Major Wilson, and Dr Patrick Gillies was Honorary Surgeon.

In 1914, by which time the quarries had already fallen into decline, the population of Easdale had shrunk to a few elderly people. Some of the younger families had moved to the Lowlands to find work while others had emigrated to the Colonies, often settling in those places supplied by the slate boats in more prosperous times. Despite the disbanding of the Easdale Volunteers, many of the former members enlisted in their old regiment at the outbreak of war and the Easdale Island Roll of Honour makes impressive reading.

In 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, the ageing population of Easdale was still able to raise a coastal watch of Local Defence Volunteers, later to be known as the Home Guard.

Growing Up History Index The Volunteers