Scottish Slate Industry

Historic buildings were traditionally roofed with Scottish slate.

A brief history of the Scottish slate industry

Slate quarrying was one of Scotland’s most significant building material industries throughout the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. It was concentrated at four geological areas namely: (1) Ballachulish near the Great Glen Fault, (2) Easdale and the surrounding Slate Islands near Oban, (3) a series of quarries just north of the Highland Boundary Fault and (4) the Slate Hills in Aberdeenshire and Banff.

Location of main slate producing areas in Scotland.

In the 18th century Easdale and the adjacent Slate Islands were the centre of the Scottish slate industry, but by the 1860s production of Ballachulish slate had exceeded that of Easdale and it continued to dominate the Scottish industry for the next hundred years. At the time of maximum production, the main Ballachulish quarry at East Laroch was producing 15 million slates per annum (Mineral Statistics 1882-1888), or approximately 18,000 tonnes. The expansion of the railway system in the second half of the 19th century facilitated the transport of cheaper Welsh slates and heralded the decline of the Scottish slate industry as a whole. However, the inroads made by the Welsh industry were not felt immediately and production in Scotland continued to increase, reaching its peak of 45,000 tonnes at the end of the 19th century. Production started to decline soon after 1900 and had already dropped to half its maximum level by 1910. Production ceased completely during World War I due to lack of manpower. The industry partly recovered in the 1920s and 1930s from 3 tonnes per annum in 1920 to 23 tonnes in 1929 (Statistics: Annual Report of the Mines Department, Board of Trade), but by then manufactured clay tiles had become a major competitor taking an increasing proportion of the roofing market. No separate figures for slate production were reported for Scotland between 1945 and 1964 but the last return in the statistical accounts recorded 5 tonnes in 1966. At this time the final quarries closed, although some small-scale production by individual quarrymen continued after that time.

There has been no production of Scottish slate since the 1960s. However in an effort to identify new indigenous sources of slate, the Scottish Stone Liaison Group carried out a programme of tests  from 2002 to 2005 at two locations; Khartoum, one of the Ballachulish group of quarries, and the Hill of Foudland one of the Macduff group in Aberdeenshire in order to assess the feasibility of establishing a new source of Scottish slates. The results of these tests are reported in two research reports Ballachulish Slate. Extraction and testing of slate from Khartoum quarry  and Macduff Slate. Extraction and testing of slate from the Hill of Foudland both published by Historic Scotland in 2008.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *