The signs of a once thriving industry are dotted around the island of Luing: deep water-filled pits in the ground, beaches with layers of ocean-washed stone, and in gardens and dykes, on roofs and paths, there is even more smooth grey slate. 

Blasted from the ground amid swirling dust, accompanied by the noise of hammering and cutting, during its peak years Luing slate provided for its population of more than 600, gave many Scottish roofs a distinctive look, and travelled to distant corners of the world

Once on top of the world, the thriving slate industry ground to a halt 60 years ago; falling demand and cheaper imports meant even the slate roofs of some homes in Luing ended up with foreign-made tiles in place of the once much prized local slate. 

Now, however, hopes are rising that the revival of Luing’s slate industry are within touching distance. 

“Slate is everywhere and in everything here,” says Colin Buchanan, Director of the Isle of Luing Community Trust, the group behind a £1.4 million plan to revive slate quarrying on the islands. 

“The village is built on slate; it sits on reclaimed land that is spoil from the quarry. The houses have slate walls, slate roofs. It feels like everything is made from slate. 

“Slate was a very important industry here,” he adds, “and we are on tenterhooks waiting to see what might happen.” 

That is because word on whether the group has successfully passed the first stage of a complex series of funding applications is due to drop into its inbox any day now. 

The Herald:

If their phase one application to the Scottish Government Regeneration Capital Grant Fund is approved – meaning the group has successfully demonstrated what it wants to do and why - the doors will swing open to the crucial second stage of securing the £1.4 million the community group needs to make it happen. 

There will still be planning hurdles to overcome – and some people still to convince it’s a good idea: not all, says Colin, believe it is for the best. 

But should all go according to the Trust’s plan, the first proper slate quarrying work since the 1960s could be underway on the island by next winter. 

For Colin, whose great-great grandfather worked at  the island’s quarries during their 19th century heyday, reviving the slate industry feels like retrieving a missing jigsaw piece and popping it back in its rightful place. 

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“I was nine or ten when it stopped in the 1960s,” he recalls. “Although I didn’t live here then, but my family came from here and we had a house here. 

“We’d come back and spend summer here, and I can remember the slate industry in operation. Of course, it was much smaller than it once was – by then, there were around 20 people still working in it. 

“But I remember the big tipper collecting the slate, and the men sitting on the shore making it. 

“In fact,” he adds, “one of the best memories I have is of seeing a puffer coming in and the men putting the slate onto the puffer for it to be taken away. 

“One of the last batches was for a housing estate in Oban - lorry loads of roofing slate went there.” 

The Herald: Colin Buchanan 

By then, the island’s slate industry was a slim shadow of its 19th century peak, when there were 15 quarries or workings dotted around Luing, with hundreds of workers and the bustle of trucks, boats and the occasional ground-shaking eruption. 

In those days, the material was blasted from the ground in huge explosions, the rocky material transported on dolly tracks and then shaped by hand using basic tools by men huddled together in groups outdoors to avoid breathing in the dust. 

Even as it drifted to an end, the scale was impressive: in June 1960, a cargo of 90,000 slates made the journey from the Luing village of Cullipool to Islay, courtesy of the puffer ‘Moonlight’. Countless more set off from neighbouring islands of Seil, Easdale, Shuna, Torsa and Belnhahua – collectively known as the Slate Islands. 

Along with work and income, waste material from the quarrying process was put to important use, supplementing the beaches and providing defences against the rising tide. 

Should it happen, the new slate industry will replace spoil lost down the years to the sea and which has left the fragile coastline and the village’s houses exposed to the harsh Atlantic storms. 

Still, it will be small scale compared to the huge industry of the past, adds Colin. 

The Herald: Luing cottages with slate roofs 

“It was noisy and busy in those days, much bigger than what is planned now. It’s a very different kind of operation. 

“Back then, they were making hundreds of thousands of tons of slate a year. We are looking at more of an artisan business than a commercial one. 

“Even methods of extraction are different,” he continues. “In the past, the men drilled holes in the rock and there would be a huge explosion. 

“But that’s not what is done now. We’d work from top in small sections can use hydraulics to split the rock.” 

Instead of gaping holes on the landscape, plumes of dust and loud blasts, the modern slate quarry should be unobtrusive and barely visible, he adds. 

“It’s a very different quarry, inside the hill and not open like it used to be. And health and safety are far more stringent now than then. 

“In those days, they carried the slate to the men who sat outside and worked it. Now there’ll be a modern, sound-proofed building with dust extraction, and they’ll spray the tracks when moving things around to keep the dust down.” 

Old images of slate workers show men in flat caps, sleeves rolled up and overalls. Modern slate workers, he adds, will wear masks and head to toe protective gear. 

There is even talk of powering the operation using renewable energy, most likely harnessed from the power of the tides. 

The trust plans its new slate bed at Cullipool quarry, not far from the village of the same name.  

The Herald: Slate island 

The plan has several threads: as well as the revival of a lost industrial heritage, new jobs and the potential to use slate spoil once again to shore up the beach and protect the village of Cullipool from the impact of climate change, there is the potential to tap into a surprisingly vibrant trend for ‘geological tourism’. 

While the slate produced would help meet the “critical” need for Scottish slate at pre-1919 buildings across the country, where existing slate is becoming thin and in need of replacement. 

“There are buildings all over the country in dire need of slate,” says Rob Black, Development Manager at the “Some slate is so old, it is almost turning to dust. 

“For example, at Glasgow School of Art, Scottish slate was used at Glasgow School of Art and it’s what they will need to rebuild it.” 

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Alternative slate and tiles from Spain, Italy and even Brazil have filled the gap since Scottish production ended. But, he adds, imports do not have the same look and may not be as effective at coping with the Scottish climate 

“Plus there’s the miles involved in bringing it here,” he adds. “If you can produce something that’s fairly carbon neutral here, there is very minimal impact compared to shipping from Italy and Spain. 

“And this is something local that tells the story of a Scottish product,” he adds. “I think that alone means it’s more favourable than having to ship in from abroad. 

“This is a heritage product. “ 

The Isle of Luing Community Trust’s project is  supported by Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Historic Environment Scotland (HES). 

Graham Briggs, Project Manager for Skills and Materials at HES, said: “Over the last few years we’ve been supporting The Isle of Luing Community Trust, who have been exploring the opportunities that a small-scale slate enterprise could bring to create and support good local jobs for people to work and live on the island. 

“It would generate a modest income for the local community to develop other projects, expand the island economy and make it more sustainable. 

“Establishing a new slate industry would not only create material for our historic built environment, but it could also create material to help the island manage the impacts of climate change and the issue of coastal erosion which threatens the village of Cullipool.”