Welcome back: ‘We’re Open’

Volunteers from The Scottish Slate Islands Heritage Trust

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Volunteers at Ellenabeich’s Heritage Centre are welcoming back visitors 15 months after Covid shut its doors.

Helpers from the Scottish Slate Islands Heritage Trust who run the tardis-like museum in an original slateworker’s whitewashed cottage were reunited for the first time last week to mark the long awaited re-opening and celebrate the centre’s 21st anniversary.

Ellenabeich Heritage Centre curator Alice Clayton with the 150-year-old uniform that belonged to Easdale Volunteer John Brown
Volunteer Mary Sandilands with The Scottish Slate Islands Heritage Trust chairman Mike Shaw

Before the Open sign went up on the door, volunteers worked hard behind the scenes -signing, spraying and putting up screens – to earn their We’re Good To Go certificate, a COVID-!9 Industry Standard award backed by the National Tourist Organisations of Great Britain and Northern Island.

Trust volunteers and supporters gathered last Tuesday to raise a glass and toast a healthy future as visitors, up to 14,000 in a normal year, return to enjoy the museum’s collection of artefacts reflecting life on the islands.

Among those at the reunion was museum curator Alice Clayton who was keen to show off the Trust’s newest exhibition featuring a 150-year-old uniform that belonged to slate quarry worker John Brown who witnessed all 48 years of the Easdale Volunteer Artillery.

His descendants Ann MacQueen from Luing and her grandson Innes gave John’s uniform and other sundries on extended loan to the museum.

John would have been just eight when the Volunteers were formed as a new military force to deter a growing threat from France. At Easdale, 32-pounder guns formed a link in the chain of artillery defending Britain’s coast.

He was living on Easdale Island and was 18 when he joined up, rising through the ranks to become company sergeant-major and be awarded a long-service medal before being discharged in 1902 after 32 years of loyal service.

Six years later the nation’s Volunteers were stood down and a new Territorial Infantry company was raised at Easdale.

Still in tip-top condition, John’s uniform is now on proud display.

Alice said: ‘We’re thrilled to have it on loan and on show. It is in beautiful condition still with its braid and buttons – it even came to us on a hanger!’

Trust chairman Mike Shaw said the Volunteers are a huge part of the Slate Island’s heritage.

‘The men from the slate quarries were ideal for the Volunteers Artillery and the guns. They were used to working in teams under difficult situations, they were used to following instructions and most of them were experienced in using gunpowder. It was also something recreational for them, a bit like belonging to a social club and playing darts,’ he said although it was not all play, there were drills to be done, exercises and explosions. Men from Easdale also went off to fight in the Boer War,’ he said.

Today, recruitment of more volunteers is still needed but this time to take turn helping at the heritage centre.

Mary Sandilands has been a volunteer for 15 years and looks forward to her shifts. ‘It’s such a interesting place to be. It’s fantastic to be able to share stories about where we live and welcome people to our islands.’

What is the  question most often asked by tourists? ‘What do you do here in winter?’ said Mary.

Entry to the heritage centre is free with donations welcome to help the Trust keep up its work.


Caption: Volunteers from The Scottish Slate Islands Heritage Trust