BELNAHUA – MOUTH OF THE CAVE

One of the four main Slate Islands of the Firth of Lorn, Belnahua is situated in the middle of open water with Mull to the north, Easdale five miles to the east and Scarba to the south.  The small, deserted island is still dominated by the great quarry at its centre.   Until World War 1, 20 or 30 families were crammed into Belnahua’s 27 acres.

The Marble and Slate Company of Netherlorn opened a quarry on Belnahua in 1766. 20 years later, annual production had reached a million slates employing ‘30 men… who work by the piece, or twelve shillings per thousand slate.’ 

By 1881 the island boasted a two-storey manager’s house, quarriers’ cottages, school, company shop, machinery, pumps, derricks, tanks and a store. The workforce included the company manager, one blacksmith, two engine drivers, a carter, a merchant’s assistant, a teacher and around 40 slate quarriers, labourers, and their families. Winning the slate was difficult.  Angus Shaw, whose family owned and operated Belnahua Quarry in the years before World War 1, recalled,

Slate quarried on Belnahua was of high quality and is reputed to have roofed Glasgow University and Glasgow’s Cattle Market. The main problem …was the constant seepage of sea water which demanded almost continuous pumping as the quarry deepened. There were other hazards. Frequently the quarriers had to be suspended on ropes on the slate face while, with the aid of a long steel rod, they bored holes preparatory to explosive charge being rammed home…. the quarries then split the slate into ‘wafers’…with knives about a foot in length.  The fashioned slate was then taken for loading on to the company puffer ‘Sylph’, which traded regularly to Glasgow, the Outer and Inner Hebrides and all intervening harbours.’

Another quarrier recalled,

‘In the frost the ropes would be frozen and the men were having to hang on in the cold, sitting on the bank dressing.  In days of rain they just had to come home, and there was no pay and things were very, very poor…I remember my grandfather with a candle, filling the hacks in his hands with wax.  But the real accidents happened with the gunpowder.  A bull is a crack in the rock, and they used to pour gunpowder into it and seal it with soil all round and then the fella lit the fuse, and the explosion just happened because it hadn’t been properly sealed –  and it blew OUT the way. He was killed and another… was never well again.  No national health, and no one to represent the men. The families maybe got £200-£300 compensation.

The island had never been self-sufficient;  everything was brought in by boat. Going to church involved a five mile sea journey by open boat to neighbouring Luing.  Even water had to be shipped to the island in barrels.  For the women, wash days involved rowing the two and a half miles to Eilean Dubh Mor where there was plenty of water and wood for fires. 

Eilean Beul Na h-Uamha

Siuthadaibh ‘illean, cum rith’fhireabh, Cum a gualainn dhan an fhuaradh; Siuthadaibh ‘illean, cum rith’fhireabh, Eilean dubh mor ‘n aghaidh sruth lionaidh   Siuthad a chaileig, nis dean cabhaig, Buir na Caillich trom na sgornan; Dir an cladach, sguil fo’d achlais, Muir bho lausgan, suala beo-ghorm.   Cualan chonnaidh ‘m barr a chladaich, Teine a sradadh, bragadh beo; Praisean goileach, tuban daraich, Caileag cas-ruisgt’ stampadh clo.   ‘N cumin fiodha buirn ga tharruing, Sapluisgean le cop air chaoch; Fasgadh plaidean, aodach ‘s annart, Speachd geal samhraidh air barr fraoich.   Siuthad a mhnathan leig bhur ‘n anail, Coir’ air slabhraidh, poi tri eibhleag; Bonnach coirc’ is fuarag bharra, Biadh math taitneach riamh nach diult iad.   Fir aig dachaidh an ceann an cosnaidh, Sgleat ‘ga gearradg ‘m Beul na h-uamha; Suil a mach air Eilean dubh mor, Mnathan air aiseag dhachaidh ‘n uair sin.   Siuthadaibh ‘illean, cum rith’ fhireabh, Cruach mor Scarba air a sliasaid; Siuthadaibh ‘illean, cum rith’ fhireabh, Raimh ‘s na bacannan a diosgadh.   Siuthad a chaileig, seinn an t-iorram, Llinne Lathernach mar ghuirmean; Marbh-shruth fodhainn, gaoth na deireadh, Bealach a choin ghlais a durghan.  
Tormod eile  
Come on my lads, row together Keep her moving, bows to wind; Row together keep  her moving To Eilean Dubh Mor ‘gainst the flood tide.   Come on lassies, move on smartly To Corrievreckan’s sullen roar, Climb ashore with laden baskets Restive seas form live blue swell.   Gather faggots from the shore line, Kindle sparking crackling blaze; Boiling cauldrons fill the wash tubs, Bare foot lassies tramp the clothes.   Pails of water filled and carried, Frothy suds are bubbling live; Wring blankets, clothes and linen To lay on heather like summer snow.   Now good wives just take a breather, Kettle boiled and pot by ember, Oaten bannocks, creamy fusrag, Tasty, welcome, wholesame fare.   Their daily tasks the men pursue Winning slate on Belnahua: Watchful eyes on Eilean Dubh Mor, Wives to ferry home on time.   Come on my lads, row together, Scarba’s hill looms large astern; Row together, keep her moving, Oars in rowlocks rhythmic creaking.   Come on lassie, sing the iorram, Azure, placid the Linn of Lorne, Slack the tide with breeze astern us; But ‘Grey Dog’s’ growl is deeply warning.  

Domestic life was cramped. In the 1880s, Hugh Gillies, his wife Ann and eight children lived in a small two-roomed cottage.  Neil MacDonald, who drove the engine from the quarry to the pier, lived next door with his wife Ann and six children. At that time 36 children attended the island school.   One slate quarrier remembers his childhood: ‘You played at quarries – played at blasts as kids.  We had slate knives that were our toys and when we were 14 we were apprenticed into the slate making.  But every boy wanted to be a quarrier.’

Quarrying, the sole source of income, was supplemented by fish and lobsters when the market for slate was slow. Angus Shaw remembered,

The turbulent waters teemed with fish. It was not unusual for saithe to be so tightly packed while passing between Belnahua and Fladda Lighthouse that they threw themselves ashore in hundreds.  The islanders picked them up…they were then gutted, salted and placed on the roofs of the houses to be dried.’ 

World War 1 dealt the fatal blow to the island community. As the men signed up and left, the quarry fell into disuse and, unable to sustain life on the island, the women and children gradually drifted away. The island, having survived the great storm of 1881 which flooded the quarry, and then endured the slow collapse of the slate market through the turn of the century, finally fell silent.  All that now remains of this Gaelic speaking community are the roofless quarriers’ cottages. 

My own family moved to Glasgow shortly after WW1 broke out’ Angus concludes, ‘the ‘Sylph’ was commandeered by the Navy, and the workforce on the island vanished month by month as the active services called for more men.  When I returned to Belnahua about 1937, it was like visiting a settlement hit by some mysterious plague.  Doors banged to and fro in the deserted houses, the shop scales still stood on the counter of the little store; and mouldering books littered the cupboard shelves in the empty school.  The bogeys could still run along the rails but the quarry winding gear was rotted and rusted; the quarry itself was filled to the level of the sea.  It was the end of an era, the end to a way of life….’

With thanks to: ‘Clean Cuts’ BBC Radio Scotland (1994);  Innes MacLeod ‘Belnahua and the Slate Islands’ – a talk given to the Gaelic Society of Glasgow (1985); Jean Adams and Mary Withall, The Oban Times, The Scottish Slate Islands Heritage Trust. 

Photographs: Anni Donaldson 2004

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