IT was once the centre of the British slate mining industry and employed more than 500 people at its height before the industry was scuppered by a great storm in 1850 that flooded all of the island’s mines.

Easdale slate helped to build the major cities of the British Empire and can still be seen on rooftops as far afield as Nova Scotia, Melbourne, Dunedin and Dublin.

But the slate that made the island famous has now left the island without a ferry service after the tiny harbour was blocked by tiles that had been blown into it by Storm Dennis.

To make matters worse for islanders, a plan by two locals to ferry passengers back and forward to nearby Seil using a borrowed dinghy was thwarted when someone phoned the coastguard, who then stopped the scheme.

Skipper Joe Smith and his mate Steven Patterson stepped in to save the day on Monday when they transported mainland-bound locals from Easdale, in a borrowed dinghy for the half-mile five-minute ride before the coastguard banned a repeat.

As the Easdale ferry remained off service yesterday, with the harbour entrance blocked by windswept slates, a storm of protest broke out against the anonymous person who complained to the coastguard.

Mary MacDougall said: “All they were doing was using West Highland kindness and common sense. Too many people around who have never encountered it.”

Steve Barlow said: “Glad to see the MCA encouraging the Dunkirk spirit” while Daniel Brooks added: “That’s ridiculous when people are trying to help.”

Mr Smith, 32, skipper of the Argyll and Bute Council ferry which serves Easdale, which has a population of about 70 and is the smallest inhabited island in the Inner Hebrides, said: “We couldn’t get the ferry out, so we were a bit stuck and borrowed the boat. We were doing it free, off our own bat.

“There was a doctor who lives on the island who was in surgery that day, so we got her off, there was a family of four tourists who were stuck, a couple going to work and a teenager trying to get to school, so we got them off too.

“They were all in life jackets, it was all above board but we have now been told not to do it because of a complaint. We don’t know who it was from, it was anonymous.”

The coastguard advised that the operation “could potentially be considered as dangerously unsafe” But Mr Smith was adamant that it was safe and added: “There were seven qualified skippers there, who all agreed it was fine to get across, there were no weather or other issues.”

“The guy who owns Seafari (a local adventure boat company) kindly said we could use his dinghy, as long as life jackets were used and there was no payment.”

Mr Patterson, 59, a self-employed skipper with more than 20 years’ experience, who was due to help on the ferry on Monday, said: “The ferry couldn’t get out so Joe and I decided to help people on the island. We made them wear life jackets and they were all happy to go across with us. We did two runs.”

Seafari Adventures then received a letter from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency stating that their dinghy must not be used as a ferry service.

The coastguard representative said in the letter: “I believe the vessel s unsuitable for the purpose you are using it for and under Section 94 of the Merchant Shipping Act could potentially be considered as dangerously unsafe.

“While I appreciate the community aspect of what you are trying to achieve here, your company Seafari Adventures appears to be operating a ferry service between Easdale and Seil using an uncertified and unsuitable vessel.”

A spokesman for the Coastguard Agency said: “Surveyors from the Maritime & Coastguard Agency continue to work with Argyll and Bute Council, who operate the Ellenabeich to Easdale ferry route, in support of their efforts to re-establish a ferry service to support the needs of the local community.”