Seil: Population 551 (2011), Inner Hebrides, one of the “Slate islands”
It was a sunny May morning when I packed the camera gear – together with an overnight bag (just in case) – and set off towards the town of Oban on the west coast of Scotland. Two and a half hours later I was cruising through a very sunny and exceptionally busy seaside town, attempting to avoid the steady stream of visitors who seemed far more interested in crossing for an ice cream than road safety!
I love Oban. My first ever commission after I’d finally braved the world of self-employment was here; I’ve had holidays based here, and others which departed from the ferry port here; I’ve had some great nights out and even saw in New Year once (can’t beat a west coast Hogmanay!)
So as I drove past the familiar sights of the sea front it felt more like a holiday than an effort to do some serious “work” on the new project.
I managed to avoid the temptation to stop for fish & chips and continued south back out of town. Approximately 8 miles from Oban a sign points right where a narrow road hugs the shore of Loch Feochan. The sign reads “Atlantic Bridge, Isle of Seil, 5 miles”
Turning here I set off along a narrow single track road that climbs steeply past a small cottage before turning south and continuing past Loch Seil. A mile or so beyond the southern tip of the loch the road forks, taking the right fork the route continues for another mile until a thin blue band of sea comes into view, not very far away. After passing a long low lying white farmhouse and a short stretch of single track road, suddenly right in front of you, sits Clachan Bridge.
Completed in 1793, Clachan Bridge spans the 22m wide Clachan Sound in a single arch.
As Clachan Sound links at both ends with the Atlantic Ocean it is often said that this is a “Bridge over the Atlantic”
It’s quite an experience driving over the bridge for the first time as it’s remarkably steep (12m above the sea bed) and the fact that it’s single track and a blind summit means there’s a little bit of finger crossing that no one’s coming the other way as you climb to the top and tip down the other side onto the island.
The collection of grooves and scratches on the road at the summit of the bridge are testament to others who have underestimated the sudden drop and found themselves grinding the underside of their cars into the asphalt.
Once safely on the island I parked in the car park and walked back to snap the view north along the narrow Clachan Sound towards the islands of Kerrera and Mull – more islands for me to visit in the near future…
(the view north from the bridge along the Clachan Sound – taken during a previous visit – March 2017)
Apparently every now and then whales have been stranded in the narrows here. Entering from the open sea the animals find they have no room to turn and as the shallow waters of the Sound restrict their ability to maneuver they beach.
According to wikipedia a 24m (79ft) long whale met this fate right here in 1835, and in 1837 a pod of 192 pilot whales did the same.
After a little exploration of the coast and some more photography I decided to head south to see some more of the island.
Seil is one of the “Slate Islands” a group of islands where the underlying geology is of Dalradian Slate. Slate has been mined here since at least 1630 and only stopped on an industrial scale at the turn of the 20th century.
The other isles in the group are Easdale, Luing, Lunga, Shuna, Torsa and Belnahua.
Of these only the first two are permanently occupied and so I’ll only be visiting those on this tour.
Interestingly there was once another Slate Isle, Eilean-a-beithich (island of the birches) but extensive quarrying on that island to a depth of nearly 250ft below sea level left nothing but the outer rim to show where the island had once stood. A storm early in the morning of 22 November 1881, combined with an unusually high tide swept most of the outer rim away and today there is little left to see of Eilean-a-beithich – although the town which sprang up to house the men who quarried the island stills bears it’s name – Ellenabeich.
Wiping an entire island off the map just for some roof slate… ?! Insane.
I drove south from the bridge through the village of Clachan Seil and on to Balvicar. At Balvicar the road splits. To the right the road heads to Ellenabeich, the ferry port for Easdale. Straight ahead leads to Cuan and the ferry to Luing.
I intended to visit both islands today anyway, and since Easdale is by far the smaller of the islands, I decided to head to Ellenabeich first, assuming Easdale wouldn’t take very long…
The drive out to Ellenabeich is lovely, especially once the road reaches the sea. The view out over the small islands to your left is beautiful and with plenty of parking places you can pull over to enjoy the view or picnic by the sea.
I was very impressed with the village of Ellenabeich, it’s a lovely little place and well worth the journey even if you have no intention of crossing over to Easdale.
In addition to the Easdale Ferry, the village is home to a Heritage Centre, Art Gallery, Restaurant / Bar and the Seafari Adventures boat tours (who run trips out to the Corryvreckan Whirlpool and wildlife trips to see seals, dolphins and whales, or out to Iona and Staffa puffin watching)
My trip to Easdale will be the subject of a separate blog, so I’ll just say that I had a great time on the island and it’s another place I plan to revisit in the future.
(above: Ellenabeich harbour with former slate quarry behind & Easdale Ferry – white boat – and Seafari boat – orange)
Back at the car following my Easdale adventure I set off again for the short drive back to Balvicar then onwards to Cuan and the ferry to Luing.
Cuan feels much more like a working ferry port. There isn’t an awful lot more going on in the village other than the regular sailings across the fast flowing Cuan Sound to the isle of Luing.
As with Easdale, I’ll leave the details of my trip to Luing for another blog. I feel that I probably need to visit the island once more to do it justice. My trip to Easdale took longer than expected (for reasons you’ll discover in the next blog post) and so I didn’t have much time on Luing. Also, seeing that the ferry could only take 3 cars at a time and there was at least 15 cars already waiting on the island to get back over to Seil I thought that perhaps I’d be tempting fate a little to take the car over. Consequently I was only able to explore the area immediately around the ferry jetty.
Back on Seil, it was time to head north and back over the Bridge over the Atlantic then on towards my hotel for the night.
I thoroughly enjoyed my day exploring the Slate islands. If I’m honest, when I was planning the whole project I had expected this to be one of the least photogenic parts of the trip. Who wants to see lots of cold, grey slate, disused quarries and industrial landscapes, right? I was wrong. Seil is a lovely little island, Ellenabeich is a great village and the isles of Luing & Easdale.. well, I’ll tell you about them in my next blog 🙂
So… 4 islands done, just another 47 to go! 🙂