Ellenabeich is the largest village on the island of Seil. And Seil, connected to the mainland by "The Bridge Over the Atlantic" is the most easily accessible of the Slate Islands, a dozen miles or so south of Oban.
There is some confusion about Ellenabeich's name. Its origin is in the Gaelic Island of the Birches. Which is a little odd as it isn't an island, and there are few signs of birches. Originally, however, much of Ellenabeich was on an island just offshore from Seil. But over time spoil from the slate quarrying that has transformed the local landscape filled in the channel, and the distinction was further masked when the filled in channel was then itself built on as the village expanded.
Just offshore from Ellenabeich is Easdale Island, and the real confusion over Ellenabeich's name is that the village of Ellenabeich is often itself called "Easdale": leading to two Easdales marked in close proximity to one another on the Ordnance Survey map. Our guess is that as all the slate from this area was known as "Easdale Slate" (because it was first exploited on Easdale Island in 1500s) it was easier to apply the badge to the quarry at Ellenabeich when it started operations in the mid 1700s. And in time this led to the name being applied to the village as well as to the nearby island. We've stuck with Ellenabeich to avoid any confusion, and because it seems the name favoured locally.
Ellenabeich is mostly made up of long lines of white-harled workers cottages that on a sunny day make it gloriously attractive. However, the real story of Ellenabeich revolves around part of the village that is at first far from obvious. On the shoreward side of the village, immediately behind one of the rows of cottages, is what at first looks like an atoll, a large very roughly circular line of rock apparently enclosing an arm of the sea.
This can look like a harbour from a distance. Actually, it is all that remains of the slate quarry that led to Ellenabeich's growth. This was started by the Campbells of Breadalbane in 1745, and by 1842 new steam powered pumps meant that quarrying could take place to a depth of 250ft below sea level, in a vast pit separated from the sea by just a narrow wall of rock.
At the height of the industry in the 1870s the combined output of the quarry at Ellenabeich and those on Easdale Island filled ten steamers each week that called at the specially built pier in the channel between Seil and Easdale (of which, today, only a collection of posts remain). It was justly claimed that, together with the nearby islands of Luing and Belnahua, these were "the islands that roofed the world".
A storm in 1881 breached the wall around Ellenabeich's quarry and it was inundated by the sea. Fortunately no one was in it at the time. As the slate here was nearing exhaustion in any case, this spelled the end of slate quarrying in Elleneabeich and the several hundred jobs it provided. The same storm badly damaged some of Easdale Island's quarries, but these were pumped out and reopened, to survive in production for another thirty years.
Today's Ellenabeich has a timeless quality. The quarry is much as it was left in 1881, while the village itself seems little changed in over a century. Today, though, it is more a place for people to escape the bustle of Oban or places further afield, and where you come to catch the small ferry to Easdale Island.
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