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Lochaline’s famous sand mine

Every two years the European Innovation Partnership on Raw Materials organises open days to provide an opportunity for thousands of visitors to explore the world of minerals and discover more about an industry that affects every aspect of our daily lives.

Last month Lochaline Quartz Sand Ltd welcomed and hospitably entertained a cross-section of the local community, the Health and Safety Executive team, the Forestry Commission as well as present and former employees and their families to the first European Minerals Day at the mine and to help them celebrate the fifth anniversary of acquiring it from Tarmac.

The Lochaline mine produces high quality silica sand with low iron content and exceptional whiteness. It was first identified in 1895, when a huge deposit of white cretaceous sandstone running north from the entrance of Loch Aline in an 18ft seam was discovered. Later, in 1923, the Edinburgh Geological Survey analysed samples which showed it to be one of the purest deposits in the world and, being largely free from iron, was ideal for the manufacturing of high quality glass.

At that time it was cheaper to import silica sand to Great Britain than to mine and export it from the remote Morvern peninsula. It was not until 1940, when another source at Fontainebleau in France was overrun by the German Army, that the Lochaline mine went into full production supplying the raw material for making lenses for aircraft bombsights and submarine periscopes.

In 1940, the mine provided employment for 35 men and women, which increased to 65 in the 1950s. In 1945, the output was 35,000 tons and, over the years, has often risen to around 100,000 tons annually.

When the mine opened, horses were used to haul the sand from below ground to a processing plant near the mouth of the main adit. As the mine developed, they were replaced by diesel locomotives which pulled little wagons full of sand on a narrow-gauge railway half a mile away to the West Pier on the Sound of Mull where it was washed, graded and loaded onto ships, easing the transport cost.

Some of the material left by road to be made into Caithness and Waterford crystal. Other customers were the makers of Ajax household cleaner and Colgate toothpaste – both requiring a percentage of light abrasives.

The Lochaline mine is unique as it is one of only two working underground mines in Scotland. Mining the sand is done by what is known in the trade as the ‘room and pillar’ system. There are no pit props.

The sandstone rock is drilled and blasted, loaded onto dump trucks and taken to the surface plant. Today most of the product is transported by ship to Runcorn near Manchester. There it is turned into glass for solar panels.

Many years ago a small underground loch used to appear whenever the  working face dipped below sea level, which meant that some of the miners had to row themselves across in a small boat to get to work.

The first company to mine the sand commercially was Charles Tennant and Co, Glasgow, which brought men and equipment to Lochaline from the slate quarries at Ballachulish, which it also owned.

At a ceremony when the mine was sold to Tilcon in 1972, I recall Julian Tennant telling an amusing story of inheriting the company when he was still a young serving army officer and admitting that he was more interested then in knowing what was in a bottle than what it was made of.

Since work began there has always been a pleasant and productive relationship between the various owners of the sand mine and the local community. Not only has the mine provided long-term, stable, employment (that is until 2008 when Tarmac closed it with the loss of 11 jobs), it has also been one of the most generous benefactors in the area in making trust funds, gifts of land and buildings to the residents of Lochaline without any strings attached.

The Lochaline sand mine is a joint venture between Italian-owned international minerals company Minerali Industriali (MI) and Pilkington NSG, which owns 13 production units in Italy, four in Europe, one in Asia, three in North America and seven in Central and South America.

In introducing the programme for the open day from a temporary platform (made, appropriately, with silica sand), the company directors and the site manager began by expressing their gratitude to their 23 employees and the local community for their support and enthusiasm, without which they  would not have succeeded in putting the sand mine back on the world map.

During the past year MI has invested over £1 million in the plant and underground areas to make it suitable for more products. The company is also exploring the possibility of opening a new mine museum in Lochaline to showcase its work and exhibit old photographs, documents, artefacts, sound recordings and some of the many fossils which have been discovered in the mine over the years. Several local and external organisations, including the highly acclaimed Lochaber Geopark, have expressed interest and assistance.

Iain Thornber