Ten miles miles South of Oban on the A816 you come across a minor road heading west signposted to Easdale and, more intriguingly, to the Atlantic Bridge. This is a diversion worth taking. The road leads to the Island of Seil, the most northerly of the Slate Islands.
Opinions differ about whether Seil should be counted as an island at all. The Atlantic Bridge or "Bridge Over the Atlantic" mentioned on the signpost links Seil to the mainland. It is more properly known as the Clachan Bridge and was built in 1792/3 for the sum of £450.
The single arch of the bridge is 72ft wide and is steeply humped to provide a clearance above high water of 28ft to avoid obstructing the passage of small vessels. Originally designed to have two arches by John Stevenson of Oban, the plans were amended to the single arch that was built by Robert Mylne.
Just over the bridge you come to the attractive and welcoming Tigh an Truish Inn. The name means house of the trousers and comes from the period after the 1745 rebellion when kilts were banned. This was the place where islanders heading for the mainland (then without the benefit of the bridge) were said to have swapped their kilts for trousers.
Further onto the island, you'll find a pepper-potting of white cottages and more substantial residences throughout the length of the eastern half of Seil. The main settlement on this eastern side is Balvicar, which is now home to the island's main harbour. Balvicar is also the location of the Isle of Seil Golf Club, while the Balvicar Stores lies close to the main spinal road running the length of Seil.
As you head west from Balvicar the character of the island changes dramatically as scattered habitation and cultivation are swapped for a much rougher and rockier feel. This becomes increasingly true as you approach Ellenabeich, the largest village on Seil (sometimes, very confusingly, given the nearby island of the same name, referred to as "Easdale").
From here you begin to understand why the islands of Seil, Easdale, Luing and Belnahua are known as the Slate Islands. The very shape of the landscape around Ellenabeich, and of Easdale Island in particular, have been transformed by an industry that lasted for centuries and which led to the term: "the islands that roofed the world".
The industry was already well under way on Easdale Island itself by the mid 1500s, and more widely across the islands from 1745. It continued at Ellenabeich until 1881 and on Easdale Island until 1911. A slate quarry at Balvicar was reopened in the late 1940s and operated sporadically for two decades more.
The southern half of Seil is less populous that the northern half, and less visited. The small village of Cuan lies at its southern tip. This is primarily known as the ferry terminus for the five minute crossing to the island of Luing, rather larger but considerably more remote than Seil.
En route to Cuan is Kilbrandon & Kilchattan Parish Church, home to a remarkably good collection of stained glass windows, and well worth a visit in its own right.
Seil is an interesting island, and one of remarkable contrasts; plus a history that adds greatly to its fascination. It makes an excellent day out from Oban, and has the added advantage of being one of the few Scottish Islands for which a ferry timetable is not needed.
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