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The Story of the Ballachulish Slate Quarry

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

Quarry at a distance by Anika Martin

Across from the Ballachulish Visitor Centre, a sandstone obelisk marks the entrance to the remains of the Ballachulish Slate Quarry. Today the site offers a peculiar sort of beauty to visitors. Exposed shale cliffs reveal the marks of its mining past, blue pools obscuring what was previously the floor of the quarry, all with the scenic view of Beinn a Bheithir in the distance.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the quarry to the industrial heritage of the region. In fact, one could go so far as to say modern Ballachulish is the product of the slate quarry.

Once called the “Slate Capital of Scotland,” for over three hundred years Ballachulish was a juggernaut of the Scottish slate industry, producing more than half of all domestic slates quarried at the turn of the last century. At its height the mine employed over 500 workers, many of whose decedents still live in the area today. Yet just 50 years after its zenith the quarry would close, a casualty of the collapse of the Scottish slate trade.

What is Slate? Why Do We Use It?

Slate example by Anika Martin

Slate is produced through a two-step process: compaction and metamorphism. This begins when fine grained sediments settle into layers at the bottom of a body of water. 550 million years ago Scotland, or rather, the area that would eventually become Scotland, was under the ancient Iapetus Ocean. We know this partly thanks to the abundance of slate found throughout the country today. Over time, the layers of sediment were flattened by the weight of the material above and became compacted, squeezed tighter and tighter until they formed a whole new rock.

This new rock, a mudstone or siltstone, was then placed under an incredible amount of pressure when the continents around the Iapetus Ocean crashed into one another. The rocks were super-heated, stretched, folded, and flattened through a process called “metamorphism,” until they finally settled into overlapping shelfs of slate. Incredibly, all this movement strengthened the minerals in the rock, making Scottish slate some of the strongest in the world!

During the 17th century, slate started to become a popular building material. Historically, Scottish buildings were “thatched,” meaning their roofs were constructed using a mix of dried vegetation like straw, heather, or sedge. At the Museum, you can see examples of heather thatched cottages from the early 19th century. But even though thatching material was abundant, and the process both waterproofed and insulated the buildings, it was also very flammable! In fact, the Museum’s own thatch roof was set on fire by an arsonist in 1984. Thankfully, a quick response by the village saved the Museum building and most of the exhibits inside.

Image of Glencoe Folk Museum's newspaper clippings booklet

In 1621, Edinburgh banned thatched roofs in the name of fire safety, and many major towns and burghs soon followed suit. By the turn of the century, slate was the go-to replacement for thatch, not only in Scotland but across the whole of Britain. The legacy of this shift is still apparent in modern times, with both the Edinburgh and Glasgow skylines still featuring plenty of Scottish slate roofs.

Work and Life at the Quarry

Image from Barbara Fairweather’s 'The 300 Year Story of Ballachulish Slate'

The quarry opened in 1693, just one year after the infamous Massacre of Glencoe. Traditionally, the story goes that some slate quarry workers were passing through the village and noticed the stone, leading to an investigation and the founding of the mine. In its earliest days, the quarry was split between two sites: the West Quarry and the East Quarry. The West Quarry, so named for its position at the west end of Ballachulish, consisted of two smaller pits. These pits have since been filled in, and now form the village ‘industrial estate.’ The larger East Quarry remains and can be found opposite the Visitor Information Centre.

The mine grew steadily over the first century of production. By 1791, there were 322 people engaged in the local industry, though most of these workers came from Cumberland. The language spoken in the mine was Gaelic, meaning anyone who wished to work there needed to speak the language. The families of the workers lived near the quarry, with 2/3rds leasing houses and lands on the Ballachulish estate itself.

Also, around this time, it was noted that the quarries were located near the bottom of the hill. This allowed for easy access to the ships in the harbour waiting to take the slates away to places like Glasgow and Edinburgh for roofing. Ships were commonly loaded through a process called a ‘rank,’ whereby planks of wood were placed between a ship and the shore and men lined up to hand each other slates in a chain until all the product was safely onboard.

Image from Barbara Fairweather’s 'The 300 Year Story of Ballachulish Slate'

The 19th century saw an incredible boom in business, which resulted in an expansion of the quarry. In 1875 there were nearly 600 men employed at the site, working a wide array of support jobs such as blacksmithing and carpentry. By then, the larger quarry had grown to an impressive 216 feet (66m) in depth, and 536 feet (85m) in length. That year 26 million slates were quarried, an incredible feat considering the amount of time and effort it took to produce even a single slate.

Quarrying the slate was a precarious process. Slate naturally “cleaves,” or forms break points. Scottish slate had good ‘slaty cleavage,’ meaning it was especially strong and more easily broken into usable pieces. This made it a higher quality than the slate found elsewhere in Britain, like England and Wales. Unfortunately, Ballachulish slate was not quite as sturdy as the slates quarried elsewhere in the north of the country. This was thanks to iron pyrite (also called ‘fool’s gold’) inclusions in the rock, which weathered and rusted quickly when exposed to the elements. Because of this, only around a quarter of the slates produced were considered suitable for roofing, while the more ‘imperfect’ slabs got repurposed for an array of other uses such as flooring. The Museum itself features a Ballachulish slate floor, and keen-eyed visitors may notice how the pyrite gives the ground a subtle sparkle.

Image of Glencoe Folk Museum's accessioned powder horn

To break the slates from the quarry wall, the rock had to be blasted. This meant workers had to drill deep holes into the rockface, carefully fill them with black powder, and then blow the hole to break slabs of slate off into the pit. This blasting usually took place at 10am or at 3pm, and a whistle would sound off before the explosion, warning everyone in the vicinity to take cover under rough slate bothies (small huts). After the blast, workers would climb the side of the quarry and separate out usable rocks from waste. The rocks would be transported down to the shoreline for splitting, at first carried by hand and then later by horse-drawn carts on rails. Workers would identify the natural slabs inside the rock, break the rock along these planes, and then meticulously carve the slate into a usable shape.

Image from Barbara Fairweather’s 'The 300 Year Story of Ballachulish Slate'

Being a slate worker meant you had to be a highly skilled craftsman, and these talents extended beyond their professional work. In Ballachulish you can still find small sheds and intricately carved gravestones made of slate. Families also got involved in the slate business. Children were known to carry tea down to the men, and boys as young as eight could begin easier work in the quarry. The women of the village took pride in making white moleskin trousers for the workers, keeping them clean and presentable despite the hard labour.

Image of Glencoe Folk Museum's accessioned slate stencils

Decline and Closure

Though slate production in Ballachulish peaked around 1900, the Scottish slate industry was starting to decline. In fact, between 1895 and 1910, slate production across Scotland had more than halved. This was due to the increased import of cheaper slate from Spain, and the advent of machine-cut slate in Wales, which was easier to manufacture. Clay tiles also rose in popularity around the turn of the century, as they came in a wider variety of colours and were far more affordable than even the cheapest slate.

Image of Glencoe Folk Museum's accessioned poster

Conflict at the quarry also contributed to its eventual closure. In 1902, the quarry doctor, a man named Dr Grant, was suddenly dismissed. As part of his terminated contract, Dr Grant was supposed to leave the distract immediately. But he was very popular among the workers, and they rallied around him against the owners. The men unionized, and demanded not only the reinstatement of Dr Grant, but also safer working conditions, better contracts, and fair pricing from the company store. The dispute ultimately resulted in a 1903 lock-out, which completely shut down production for 18 months. In the end, Dr Grant was re-hired, and the gates were opened, but the time lost had hurt business. Unfortunately, another labour dispute erupted in 1905, again over the treatment of Dr Grant and the abuse of quarry workers. This second lock-out lasted until 1907.

The Great War, and then World War II, spelled the end for the Ballachulish Slate Quarry. The mine shut down completely during the first war, and afterwards it was a hard time getting production back up and going. Though a new company was formed through the partial ownership of the workers themselves, and enthusiasm was high, the industry was against them. After the Second World War, the mine was almost completely unprofitable. In 1951, only 20 workers were employed at the mine, a massive reduction from the turn of the century. Then, in 1955, the Quarry finally shut down entirely.

Visiting Today

Quarry over water by Anika Martin

Today, the East Quarry of Ballachulish is owned by the Highland Council and maintained in conjunction with the local community. Two trails around the site welcome visitors with engaging interpretive material about the history and geology of the mine and the surrounding geographical area, while picnic tables make day outings easy.

Slate arch by Anika Martin

The second of the two walks takes one around the backside of the quarry to a slate arch constructed in 1822. The historical structure dates to the 19th century and was constructed to help transport wagons of slate from the quarry to the loch. The arch is an impressive feat of engineering and has been restored in recent years, designated a scheduled monument by Historic Scotland.

Quarry in the distance by Anika Martin

A third walk, The Brecklet Trail, extends above the slate quarry and takes hikers into the woods up the back of Ballachulish. A beautiful trail in its entirety, the path also features an amazing view of the quarry from above, as well as the valley and Loch Leven beyond.

For locals and travellers alike, a day spent exploring the Ballachulish Slate Quarry is well worth the trip!

- This blog was researched and written by Anika Martin, a MSc Museum Studies student at University of Glasgow, as part of her work placement with Glencoe Folk Museum between January-April 2023.

Did you enjoy reading this article? We hope you learned something! If so, we would be very grateful if you would consider donating the cost of a coffee to help us continue providing our digital heritage offering. Thank you!

Further Reading:

On the History of Scotland’s Slate Industry:

On the Historic Ballachulish Slate Arch Project:

For a more in-depth history on the slate quarry, visit the Museum and pick up a copy of our founder, Barbara Fairweather’s, pamphlet on the subject:

The 300-Year Story of Ballachulish Slate

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