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Of Slates and Survival


The beach in Ellenabeich is made out of slate. The entire Isle of Seil is a big chunk of slate set out in the Atlantic, with Ellenabeich on its far western tip. For years, Ellenabeich, and the surrounding quarries, were at the centre of the world’s slate industry, with over 8 million slates a year being exported by the early 1900s. Slate quarries are documented in the area dating back to the 1500s.

The Isle of Seil

In 1881, a storm caused Ellenabeich’s main quarry to flood, filling the rounded hollow with turquoise water. Overnight, the slate industry collapsed. Today, endless piles of slate line the beach, chalky black tiles chipping away as the tides rise and fall and rise again.


My footsteps crunched as I walked along the beach. Each step rubbed the slates together, mingling with the clashing of the waves and the calling of the seabirds. There was nobody else about, save a few sheep on the hillside above. Ellenabeich seemed a perfect coastal town, a picturesque remnant of a history steeped in industry and tradition. It reminded me of Goa for some reason. Perhaps it was the dramatic grey skies, hung low with imminent precipitation, or the simple white cottages lining the street. Maybe it was the reliance on local industry, the way the rocky shores were the lifeline of the community. I pictured the colourful fishing boats of Palolem Bay, anchored to the shores, bobbing in the waves, as I watched the tiny passenger ferry shuttle back and forth between Seil and the neighbouring Isle of Easdale.


All throughout my road trip I encountered landscapes full of stories. The harbour at Mallaig was full of boats, all docked up without the seafood to sell and the tourists to ferry around. Seagulls perched on the masts, hungry with the local chippie closed for the season. A lone man stood on deck of the nearest ship, polishing the windows.


In Bracorina, I passed a shepherd gathering his flock. The sheep ran past on the muddy path, scattering up the hillside to the left, or right towards the waters of Loch Morar. He smiled at me as he passed on his ATV, stopping and starting as he followed the sheep. We remarked briefly on his flock, and then he was gone, a fleeting moment in both of our lives.

Moine Mhor Nature Reserve

Last week was Burns Night, commemorating the birthday of Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns. It’s good fun, and highlights include the spearing of a haggis, lots of Scots poetry, and plenty of tartan. I remember Burns Night last year, when I was still quite new to Scotland. My friends and I sat at the Shul Burns Supper, wrapped in tartan and picking at the kosher haggis. It all seemed quite exotic then, and we gawked at the speakers, reading out poetry we could barely understand.

The hills around Ben Cruachan

I spent Burns Night this year alone at home, watching the specials on TV. Sipping at my whisky, and reflecting on the past year, I felt a deep connection to Scotland. I certainly know it far better than I did this time last year. I’ve walked through glens and slept on the beach, sheared the sheep and immersed myself in this incredible landscape.

Ben Cruachan

On Sunday BBC Scotland aired a documentary called ‘Beyond Burns’. It followed Scotland’s Makar, or national poet, Jackie Kay, as she explores some of Scotland’s lesser-known poets and their deep relationships to the country. Kay herself is of mixed Scottish and Nigerian heritage, and her own poems, as well as the others shared in the documentary, highlighted the depth of narrative present in Scotland, and the vibrancy of stories that make up this nation.

Aird Jetty on the Craignish Peninsula

One of the things I love about Scotland (though there are many), is the ability to find yourself totally encompassed by an environment. There were so many moments during my recent road trip where I found myself in some incredible setting and became completely absorbed in the moment. They say that Scotland changes completely depending on the season, with the same hillsides changing from vibrant green to crisp auburn, from snow-covered summits to slopes full of blooming heather. The landscapes are so varied, with hills, mountains, beaches, glens, meadows and cities, all forming their own distinct part of the country.

Glenuig Bay

What I’ve loved about visiting so many of these different places is the relationships I form with them, the experiences I have which are uniquely mine, but which bind me to this place and the countless others who have experienced them and will continue to do so. In a tiny hamlet called Glenuig, nothing more than a few houses clustered around a bay, I happened into a community shop. Two bins of yarn scraps sat on the counter, labelled ‘free’. Wool scraps in hand, I sat on a rock and watched the sun set over the water, while I crocheted spirals with my new found treasures.

Above Ellenabeich

High above Ellenabeich, a rough sheep path leads up into the hills. Each step brought into view incredible vistas, sun-drenched hills against stormy skies, and fairy-like rolling hills. Sheep roamed freely, amidst the crumbling remains of sheep fanks, used by the community of Ellenabeich for generations. In the distance, the snow-capped peaks of Mull loomed through the mist, while steep cliffs plunged into the waters below.