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As part of Morvern Games and Gala Week, there was a rare opportunity for visitors, including our correspondent Nic Goddard, to explore Lochaline Quartz Sand mine’s mysterious depths.
As part of Morvern Games and Gala Week, Lochaline Quartz Sand Limited offered a small group of visitors the chance to tour its plant and mine.
Tours are usually only held once or twice a year so this tour was fully booked.
We gathered and donned hard hats, sturdy footwear and high-viz jackets, clutching torches for an introductory health and safety talk and to sign in.
Our group ranged in age from teens to nonagenarians, all eager to learn more about the only underground sand mine in Europe on the tip of the Morvern peninsula.
Office manager Veronique Walraven explained the history of the site, telling us that Lochaline was first identified as a potential source of silica sand in 1895, with a sample studied by the Edinburgh Geological Survey in 1923 found to be one of the purest deposits in the world.
The logistics of extracting and transporting the sand at that time were not considered economically viable but during the Second World War when other sources were closed off and the demand for silica sand was high for producing glass for use in periscope and gun sights the mine was opened.
In 2008, the mine closed but in 2012 a partnership between Italian mining company Minerali Industrali and Pilkington-owned glass manufacturer NSG, re-opened the mine.
Veronique showed us photographs of the mine’s early operations in the 1950s explaining the principle for the operation is still fairly similar today with holes drilled, explosives planted and sandstone excavated.
The explosives are pushed in with broom handles which the plant order in large numbers, with Veronique adding: ‘Harbro must think we are the cleanest company around with the huge orders we put in for broom handles!’
Extraction methods have been modernised though with the sand now taken out of the mine by dumper trucks rather than the horses and later diesel locomotives of days gone by.
We then went into the main mine in use today, the entrance of which was built in the early 1980s.
The drop in temperature and the fusty smell was noticeable from a distance before we entered the mine and within just a few steps we needed our torches.
A main track, accessible for vehicles to extract the sand, has a network of corridors leading from it. The mine is ventilated partially by the design creating air flow aided by mechanical ventilators.
Geotechnical surveys help map the mine and it is anticipated there is another 40 years’ supply of sand still to be mined.
Mine manager Dario Coragliotto explained the room and pillar system operating underground, describing how 90 per cent of the mine roof is self supporting.
The better quality sand is from higher up. The second grade comes from the lower level of the sandstone seam. There are two products of silica sand sold from Lochaline mine – LQS85 and LQS500 – with one having a higher
The sand is used for various end products including glass used in lenses, whisky bottles and windows but Veronique said: ‘We recently supplied sand to film studios so maybe famous movie stars have frolicked in it!’
We completed our time underground with everyone turning off their torches so we could experience the complete darkness of the mine. You literally couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.
Despite being in a closely grouped crowd of people there was an eerie sense of being alone.
Returning to daylight, we finished the tour with a walk through the production plant where the sandstone is crushed, washed, screened and graded ready for transport.
The sand sits under purpose-built open sheds, sheltered from the Highland wind and rain, before being sent, mostly shipped by boat, from the pier adjacent to the works to its destination.
The logistics of the operation including staffing, ordering explosives, storing the processed sand and arranging transport can mean large orders are placed a year or more in advance, although small orders of sand can be delivered very quickly.
It is a very different place to work in 2019 than it was back in 1952 when Alistair Scoular was an employee.
I fell into step with sprightly Alistair, the oldest participant on the tour at 91 years old, on the way back down the fairly steep hill from the mine to talk about what life was like as a worker in the mine nearly 70 years ago.
He said: ‘This is the first time I’ve been in the mine in many years. When I worked here in the 1950s, I was based mostly down at the pier breaking up the stone that had come from the mine. I didn’t like being underground but breaking up the stone was no easy task. It was done with a hammer. It was like working on a chain gang!’
Photographs: Nic Goddard
Our correspondent Nic Goddard pays a fascinating visit to a sand mine at Lochaline.
NO F30 sand mine 04