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A stone's throw from glory

On board the ferry to Easdale island – a small motorboat which seats eight at a push – a three-legged dog named Rolf is making his way around the vessel greeting each passenger.

A former poster boy for a dog rescue charity, Rolf is in his element as he nuzzles up to this morning's human haul, which includes a couple of daytrippers and three teenagers travelling across from neighbouring Seil island. The teenagers are of particular interest to Rolf as they are travelling with a big box of seafood. While waiting at the pier, the fishmonger had asked if they would drop the box at the island's only restaurant, The Puffer, on their way past.

After only a few breezy minutes, the boat turns into Easdale's harbour. Fifteen miles south of Oban, it is the smallest permanently inhabited island of the Inner Hebrides and home to about 60 people. It is also the venue of the 16th World Stone Skimming Championships.

As ferryman Alan MacFadyen ties up the boat, a passerby asks if a mutual acquaintance has left the island for the day. MacFadyen replies that he took him to the mainland about an hour ago. No-one gets on or off this island without MacFadyen. Like the island's landscape – open, craggy and with only low-lying shrubs – life here offers little in the way of hiding places.

"You know everyone and pretty much everyone's business whether you want to or not, but you have to sit on the fence with everything," admits MacFadyen. "You've got your own opinions but you've got to be diplomatic. You can't afford to fall out."

At the edge of the village an old-fashioned red phone box serves as an unofficial noticeboard for posters about upcoming events. Inside, it has been turned into a greenhouse and a crop of tomato plants is flourishing behind the sun-warmed glass. Next door is the waiting room, a low stone building. MacFadyen opens the door to reveal what looks like someone's front room, stuffed with books and ornaments, with seating along two sides. In the corner is a lifesize model of Santa, wearing bright yellow waterproofs.

MacFadyen has been ferryman here for the past five years. It's in his genes. His father was the ferryman and before that his mother's uncle. One grandfather was ferryman on Lismore while the other was on Kerrara.

"In the winter it can be pretty nasty," he says. "We start work and finish in darkness. But, in the winter, on a cold starry night, there's nothing better than going across the water. In the summer the holidaymakers come and they are always on good form. "

MacFadyen is well placed to fill them in on the charms of island life. He grew up on Easdale: "There was never a dull moment. There was always something happening."

After living in Oban for 20 years, he and his wife returned to bring up their children. "We've got two boys now, aged 12 and eight, and it was to try to give them a bit of the lifestyle I had."

He says he is often bemused by some of the tourists' questions. "They'll ask 'What do you do in the winter?' and 'Do people live here all year round?'. Well, just the same as everybody else in every other town and village. There are a whole variety of occupations."

While there's a steady stream of visitors during the summer, numbers peak during one day in September when the island hosts the World Stone Skimming Championships, a small-scale local event which has gained international cult status.

"The stone skimming has made a big difference," says MacFadyen. "Every month you get visitors asking where the stone-skimming quarry is because they've seen it on TV or in the paper. It generates a lot of interest. It's the highlight of the year."

Visitors come from afar to take part. A group from Denmark are coming this year, while last year the Royal Dutch Stone Skimming Association took part. "They came down with their gear, their hats and their big flag. For a wee place like this to attract so many people is phenomenal."

Donald Melville has lived here for the past 18 years and is one of the event's driving forces. As he strolls from the waiting room, through the village to the summit of the island – a short walk of 20 minutes – he reflects on living in the small community.

"When we first came here I said that I would make sure that I wouldn't chuck it the first winter. I would wait until the end of the second winter to see, but halfway through the first winter I realised that I really liked it."

Father-of-two Melville commutes to Lochgilphead, 40 miles away, where he works as a development manager for Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

While he insists that you don't have to be gregarious to enjoy island life, for him the social aspect of a tight-knit community is the main draw. His cottage, he says, is 42 steps from the pub.

At the summit, he points out the old slate quarry, now flooded, which is the venue for the stone skimming. It is hard to imagine last year's 323 entrants, plus spectators, clustered along its precarious edge. However, from this vantage point, it is easy to appreciate just how close together the houses are.

"People always say 'Oh, it must be awful living in each others' pockets'," says Melville. "No more so than you do in a block of flats in Glasgow. We've all heard stories of a house split into flats and you don't know the people next to you, whereas here you do.

"You know when folk have bothers and troubles. I just went through a period of personal upheaval. Folk say it must be awful on an island with everyone talking but folk were actually very supportive.

"While we do live cheek by jowl, we get on very well. We don't have the curtain-twitching that maybe you do in suburbia, that cul-de-sac thing when folk are bitching because they want to know, but they don't want to get involved. Here, people will get involved."

The other side of that coin is that conflict is somewhat inevitable. Eilean Eisdeal, the charity set up to make the island more appealing to tourists and residents, and which is responsible for the hall and the Easdale Island Folk Museum, has not been welcomed by all.

The stone skimming competition, one of its most high-profile successes, has become a point of dissent between those who are keen to embrace new ideas and those who want the island to remain unchanged.

"Some people don't like it and they go away for the day because they can't be bothered," says Melville. "You get people on the island who don't want it to change. You just kill things if you try to do that. It's got to develop and move on. If there aren't dynamic things happening, the island starts to stagnate and you end up with six people living here. That's the last thing you want."

When the quarrying died out at the beginning of the 20th century, most of the islanders left to find work elsewhere. At one point during the 1960s there were only four people living on Easdale.

The revenue generated by the stone skimming – last year around £6500 was raised in entrance fees, merchandise, food and drink – goes back into the community to fund the island's art programme and run the hall. The social enrichment is harder to quantify.

Down in the quarry where the competition is held, the island's current champion skimmer, Allan Laycock, 19, is musing on what it takes to be the best. "It's a long road," he says with a grin. "You have to train very hard. Up in the mornings."

The Bertie – named after the founder of the event, Bert Baker – is awarded each year to the islander with the best skim and Laycock has won it several times. When it comes to his technique, he is willing to share some tips: "It's all in the wrist flick. Then you direct the stone's trajectory with your index finger. I've been practising for 15 years so I've got a bit of a head start. There's not much else to do around here. I've been doing it every year since I was five or six. It's a real focal point for the community, especially in the summer."

He has lived on the island since he was three. "It was really great to grow up here. There are no cars so until you are about 12 you can just run around all day long, all night almost. If there was a ceilidh on, everyone would be in the pub and the kids would all be running around. That was good fun. But you get to a certain point, usually when you go to high school in Oban, when you grow out of that.

"I didn't have anyone my age on the island, so all my mates were up in Oban or elsewhere, so it felt like I was stuck here by myself, but you get past that and realise it's a pretty good place to be."

After leaving school, Laycock worked for Seafari, a company based on neighbouring Seil which takes tourists out on boats to spot wildlife. However, in common with many young islanders, he is keen to see the wider world.

"I want to work abroad and live in other countries," he says. "I'm not sure where. I just have that urge to travel. There is a world out there and you've got to keep that in mind. I think a lot of people don't and it can be easy to get stuck. Possibly I'll come back here. I'll just see what happens."

Laycock's experience contrasts with that of most of the other residents who came here as adults. Standing behind the bar of The Puffer, Keren Cafferty looks a permanent fixture but she and her husband moved here from Edinburgh only seven years ago. They had no prior connection and were looking to build a new life, at a slower pace, on Scotland's west coast.

"When we first started house-hunting, we came over to see a couple of houses and it was just the most amazing day – sunny blue skies without a cloud – and we fell in love with Easdale," Keren says.

After a year or so on the island, she ended up buying The Puffer. That was five years ago. Since then she has revamped the pub and restaurant and won several awards. The bar is the venue for the party the night before the skimming and it is its busiest weekend by far. Keren herself is not a skimmer. "I think some of them take it a little bit too seriously. Men mainly," she says. "The dance the night before usually throws up hilarious stories. There is a lot of boisterousness on the day."

With the added exposure the event has had recently, she thinks this might be a bumper year. "The Stone Skimming was listed in Lonely Planet this year as one of the top 10 things to do," she says. "Yesterday it popped up on Facebook which said that, if you've got the post-Olympics blues, Easdale is the place to be.

"It could be quite an interesting year."

It makes a pleasing symmetry, perhaps, that the slate which attracted quarry workers here in the 19th century – at its height the quarry employed 500 and its product graced the roofs of many of Glasgow's tenements – is now attracting a new generation of visitors. n

The World Stone Skimming Championships will take place on Easdale on Sunday, September 23. www.stoneskimming.com

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