Easdale Island, Argyll and Bute

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There are many islands in Scotland, over 790 at the latest count. Easdale is the smallest permanently-inhabited one in the Inner Hebrides, lying just off the west coast near Oban. To reach it, get the ferry from the small settlement of Ellenbeich (also known as Easdale) on Seil Island (not actually an island). The ferry is no CalMac behemoth, but a 12-seater motor boat which nips over to the island as and when required. Just push the button in the waiting room to summon the ferryman. How’s that for personal service? A quick zip over the water, with plenty of spray in your face and you’re there.

Easdale is an island of two halves. At one end there is a tight-knit community made up of a few small cottages, a community hall, one restaurant and a museum. The further you get from the hustle and bustle (what there is of it), the more Easdale’s past reveals itself. There is slate everywhere – in the walls, on the roofs, on the beaches and sitting in great piles all over the island. In fact, it’s pretty hard to spot anything that isn’t made from slate. Remote and rocky, it suddenly feels like landing on another planet.

On the western edge, where the Atlantic batters off the rocks and sea foam flies everywhere, derelict buildings are all that remains of Easdale’s busy slate-mining industry. It’s hard to believe but at one time Easdale was the centre of Scottish slate production with over 500 residents employed in up to seven quarries. Slate from Easdale and the other Slate Islands – Seil, Luing, Lunga, Shuna, Torsa and Belnahua – built settlements locally and across the world until the last slate was quarried in the mid 1950s.

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This was almost the beginning of the end for Easdale. By 1965 the population was down to five plus the ferryman and his wife. The prospects for Easdale looked bleak. However, the community pulled together and with the help of a sympathetic owner, families returned to the island to rebuild its fortunes. It now has a population of 65 and is particularly popular with artists and musicians. For them the isolation is a plus point, not a barrier. The distance to the main land is short enough to build a causeway but the residents don’t want one. There is no room for cars anyway, so what would be the point?

Today the quarries are deep, tranquil pools and the slates make perfect skimmers, which is why Easdale plays host to the World Stone Skimming Championships. For one day a year the population of the island increases dramatically as aspiring “tossers” come to try their hand. It’s fun for some and deeply competitive for others. Whether you take part or not it’s a great time to visit the island and enjoy the entertainment which is specially laid on. If you do go, don’t forget to see the other side of Easdale. A walk round the island takes 20 minutes or so. It’s like stepping into another world before the quick skip back to reality.

The World Stone Skimming Championships take place on 26 September 2010.

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