Roofing the World

Off the West coast of Argyll, in the Sound of Lorn a few miles South of Oban, lie the slate islands. One of the smallest of these Easdale, was so rich in deposits of slate rock that it became the centre of one of the largest industries of Scotland during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and gave its name to a band of geological strata stretching in a NE to SW direction across the Highlands, the Easdale Slates.

From earliest recorded history slate was taken from the shores of Easdale island. Large slabs of the rock were used to cover buildings and as grave and hearthstones.

Maybe the Vikings landed here and carried away the slate to their various settlements along the coast. The first recorded account of Easdale slate is in the writings of Dean Munro circa 1554.

At a later date men learned to split the laminated rock into thinner sheets which could be further cut into roofing slates as we know them today, rectangular pieces of rock which can be laid overlapping one another to form a watertight roof covering. Many ancient and prestigious buildings in Scotland are roofed with Easdale slate, Ardmaddy Castle in Lorn built 1676, Stalker Castle in Appin built 1631, Cawdor Castle in Invernesshire and Glasgow Cathedral among them.

The island of Easdale and the surrounding territory was part of an enormous tract of land twenty miles wide and stretching from Taymouth in the East to the coast of Argyll which formed the estate of the Breadalbane family, cousins of the Dukes of Argyll. By expeditious marriages and an uncanny knack of always being on the right side at the right time, the Breadalbane Campbells acquired this land and held it for more than four hundred years.

Naturally enough the Breadalbanes exploited the natural mineral resources of their own land so that we find many of the buildings they owned are roofed in Easdale slate and since from the eighteenth century onwards, the title Marquis of Breadalbane carried with it the ownership of Nova Scotia it is not surprising to find that public buildings in Eastern Canada also bear roofs of Easdale slate.

The Breadalbane estates were broken up early in the twentieth century but Easdale Island remained unsold until the 1950s when it was purchased by a local man, Donald Dewer. Under his ownership the island lay fallow, a very small population of elderly folk, the remnants of the once great slate quarrying industry, being the only inhabitants.

Subsequently the island has been owned by a succession of entrepreneurs each of whom has made some contribution to the island’s economy and population growth. One of these gentlemen, Chris Nicholson was responsible for the inauguration of the Easdale Island Folk Museum which exhibits a fine collection of nineteenth century photographs and artifacts, is a source of genealogical information for descendants of the quarry workers and is the focal point for those wishing to explore and understand the remnants of the slate industry on the island.