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slate islands

The Slate Islands

They were once the heart of the slate industry, but now these small
islands offer other wonders, from spectacular wildlife to one of the
world's most notorious whirlpools.

BY KENNETH STEVEN

The crossing of the Clachan Bridge, better known as the "Bridge over the Atlantic," feels like the beginning of the journey to the Slate Islands. Half an hour south of Oban and everything here by the west coast's edge feels as though it's breaking into islets and sea lochs and a distant jumble of high hills and cloud. I remember the first time I went over the famous bridge (years before I came here to settle with Kristina) and how magical it seemed at midsummer. Lemon-coloured lights shone out over the narrow strip of water separating the mainland from the Isle of Seil. The hump-backed bridge is ordinary enough, but at its summit (were you to stop the car for a moment) you'd look north on one side to the distant hills of Mull, and south towards the islands of Luing and Scarba and Jura.

This corner of Argyll is much less often frequented by tourists than others, Scots included. At the height of summer, pilgrims are making the crossing to Mull and heading as fast as they can for the Celtic Christian treasure house that is Iona. Either that or they're leaving Oban for the Outer Hebrides and Barra, South Uist and Eriskay. Few of them will be choosing the road south to this rattle-bag of landfalls called the Slate Islands.

On much of Seil, the first of those islands you reach by the famous Bridge over the Atlantic, you don't think about the slate almost bound to be beneath your feet. Certainly not at this, the top end, of the island. Further south there are rocky green hills, little lochs rich in birdlife and an ancient hazel wood that stretches down the island's eastern edge to its southern tip. But only when you reach those south-facing shores do you first notice beaches composed entirely of slate and deep quarry pools long flooded with seawater; slates were quarried here for several hundred years and left by the millions in the ships that came to carry them away. This and neighbouring islands are often described as having roofed the world.

The little village of Ellenabeich at the southwest corner of Seil starts to offer a sense of a world that was. To begin with, these narrow streets of clustered cottages once belonged to slate quarriers. And one of those cottages is now a museum to the life the miners led.

The full text of this article is available in the Summer 2018 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photo © Allan Wright / Scottish Viewpoint