As I have visited all of the Slate islands (Seil, Easdale, Luing and Belnahua) and read about the slate industry through other books such as ‘The islands that roofed the world’, I was really looking forward to reviewing this book by Mavis Gulliver. As well as visiting all of the Slate Islands, I have also visited the Easdale Folk Museum several times (it is one of my favourite Museums) where there are some interesting artefacts from all of the Slate islands, related to the slate industry. The book is actually part of a double collection with the other book being ‘Slate Voices – Cwmorthin’ by Jan Fortune. However, I shall only be reviewing the ‘Islands of Netherlorn’ section.
The book is actually split into four chapters, one for each island. The first chapter is based around the island of Seil. In ‘Going to Church‘ Mavis (I hate using authors surnames, it’s very impersonal) describes the tortuous route the islanders travelled to get to Church. Mavis follows the same route:
“We followed in their footsteps,
climbed up and over moor
where rain flew in
like needles on the wind”
I can vouch for having felt rain like that! It’s a lovely expression which perfectly captures the hardiness of the islanders and the harshness of the conditions they often had to deal with.
The next chapter is based around the island of Easdale. This is a tiny island and is reached by a 3 minute Ferry journey from Ellenabeich on neighbouring Seil. Within this chapter, there is a re-imagined account of the storm that flooded some of the quarries. This poem is entitled, ‘The night of 21-22 November 1881‘. Throughout the poem, there is a feeling of relief but the overall emotion is one of sadness, whilst reflecting on what the future will hold:
“our boats all shattered, broken, lost at sea –
the things that take a lifetime to collect …
and how can we buy more – always in debt –
lives ‘on the slate’ one pay day to the next
for on that day there’s nothing left to spare”.
The phrase ‘on the slate’ has been around for many years. Originally, customers debts to a particular business were written on a slate, hence the term. It must have been a grim life, if everything you own can be washed away in one, albeit severe, flood. Again, Mavis is able to condense the brutal existence of the islanders into considered prose that paints a picture of the desperate lives many of the islanders had.
The third chapter is based on the island of Luing. On my last visit there, I travelled down to Blackmill Bay in the south west corner of Luing. In the Victorian era, it was a thriving port and the hub of the island. Slate was transferred to and from the Steamers that plied the Firth of Clyde to Inverness. In ‘Blackmill Bay‘ Mavis talks of:
“No slate is shipped, no steamers call,
no mail arrives, no puffers carry coal,
no cattle go from here to Oban’s mart.”
and in ‘Ticket Office, Blackmill Bay‘ Mavis describes how nature has enveloped the old wooden Ticket Office, that still clings to former glories on the shore at Blackmill Bay:
“The door is padlocked
but there’s life inside,
nestlings call for food,
keep up a constant chirping
as swallows swoop,
flit in – flit out again”
My favourite section of the book is the chapter on Belnahua. Mavis explains how it was difficult to get to this uninhabited island, but her perseverance paid off and she was finally able to visit this fascinating island. I visited Belnahua several years ago and it is a place that plays with your senses. The island was abandoned in 1914 and there are numerous roofless abandoned buildings, rusting machinery, abandoned quarries and most unusual of all, a slate beach. Wandering through the ruins, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of sadness that so many people lived in these harsh conditions. At it’s peak, the island held (if that is the right word) a population of around 200. For more information on my trip to Belnahua, please read ‘Visiting Belnahua‘.
Perhaps the most powerful poem in the book is ‘Catherine McPhail, Remembering 1840‘. This poem details the grief of Catherine McPhail, for her daughter, Janet. It really is an incredibly emotive poem and really tugs at your heart strings. The poem starts with the death of Janet:
“I wrapped her in my shawl – my Sunday best,
no matter that I’ll miss it when the wind
blows from the North with ice upon it’s breath”
and then continues
“… to think on that – her lying there alone.
I fell down on the slate, the cold, hard slate
and prayed and waited for my man’s return.”
‘Searching for Janet‘ continues the theme from the previous ‘Catherine McPhail‘ poem and outlines Mavis’s search for Catherine’s daughter, Janet, in Kilchattan Kirkyard on Luing:
“I tread between lean and list
of weathered slate,
gravestones scabbed and scarred
with lichen growth, circles and rings”
Mavis has pulled off that rare feat of making a location come alive. Reading this book has made me think more about the people and the locations that I visit on the Scottish islands. This collection is one I would highly recommend especially in-conjunction with a visit to each island. The next time I visit any of the Slate Islands, I will have ‘Slate Voices – Islands of Netherlorn’ to hand and I shall read it as I travel throughout each location, described within the book. Any visit to the Slate islands is incomplete without it. Even without visiting the Slate islands, this book is essential reading. It is easy to read, but difficult to forget …
For more information on Mavis Gulliver, please go to mavisgulliver.co.uk