For a year, photographer and history researcher Estelle Slegers Helsen has wandered around Lochaber in the footsteps of W.S. Thomson MBE (1906-1967). Estelle has made a series of remakes roughly 70 years after Thomson originally depicted the landscape. She has talked to local people along her journey and now Estelle will be taking you to the different places in Lochaber. This is article #14.
Just as W.S. Thomson was interested in the Lochaline sand mines 70 years ago, I am drawn to this topic when staying in the Morvern area for a series of remakes. Born in Belgium, I spent my youth in a region where the purest silica sand was mined in open quarries, creating crystal clear lakes, which became recreation areas and places where countless waterfowl wintered.
As a photographer, Thomson used camera lenses made from silica or quartz sand. The black and white photograph he took at the end of the 1940s, published in his booklet Let’s See Ardgour and Ardnamurchan, reads: ‘Entrance to the sand mine of Loch Aline. This sand is of the finest quality, suitable for optical purposes and camera lenses.’
To discuss the Lochaline quartz mine, Jennie Robertson of the Morvern Heritage Society arranged to meet me along with Creina Jackson (née Macgregor) and Kate Cruickshank (née Shirlaw) in the busy Cafe L.A. of the Morvern Community Business Hub. It became a lively conversation.
‘Mining in Lochaline started when the transport of quartz sand from the continent stopped because of the Second World War,’ says Creina. ‘My father, Jimmy Macgregor, was one of the first 12 men to be hired in July 1940 when the mine opened. We lived in Duror on the road from Appin to Ballachulish. Donald Noel Paton, the first manager of the mine, was a manager at the Ballachulish slate quarries. Like my father, he and other Ballachulish slaters came to Lochaline. My mother was born in Ballachulish. I was 7 when we moved west.’
Jennie explains the pre-WW2 history: ‘In 1895, geologists identified silica sand for the first time in Lochaline. A sample studied in 1923 by the Edinburgh Geological Survey was marked as one of the purest deposits in the world. Although mining, extraction and transport of first-class sand weren’t originally economically viable; the Second World War changed that view. There was huge demand for good quality silica sand because the British army needed glass for use in gun sights and periscopes.’
The mine grew between the 1940s and 1960s. By the 1950s, up to 65 men worked on the site, both above and below ground, undermining the north end of the village and creating an underground maze with hundreds of pillars. Thomson took his photograph facing the first adit, a horizontal passage leading into the mine. Over the years, seven adits were created, and most of them are now closed off.
Move the slider to discover what changed.
Then (left) – End 1940s © W.S. Thomson – Entrance to the sand mine at Loch Aline. This sand is of the finest quality, suitable for optical purposes and camera lenses. Published in Let’s See Ardgour and Ardnamurchan, p. 24
Now (right) – July 2022 © Estelle Slegers Helsen – One of the old entrances to the Lochaline quartz sand mine. Published in Travel in Time. Lochaber, Scotland (2022), p. 39.
Initially, horses were used in the mines, but this proved unsuccessful. A special arrangement was reached to operate diesel locomotives below ground. Thomson’s photograph shows rails on which locomotives with one-yard wagons ran. To the right of the photo, rails lead to a second and third adit, just nearby.
The rails on the left went to the pier. Creina says: ‘The first year unprocessed sand was shipped out by a puffer from the Old Pier. Due to various problems, processing and loading facilities were built at the West Pier at the Sound of Mull, and the railway line was extended along the village.’
Kate, who lived with her husband Jimmy in Bishopbriggs, north of Glasgow, moved to Lochaline in 1970. ‘My husband worked unsociable hours on machinery and electrics, so he hardly saw our young boys. One day he said he could have a job with more regular hours in Lochaline. I had never heard of the place.’
‘He started in the mine, which was more or less a 24-hours-a-day job,’ she adds, laughing. ‘When a boat came in at the West Pier to load the sand, he had to be there. But we were much better off. He ended up as the foreman of the workshop. He went underground, but only to supervise the electricians. In 1971, I started teaching at the Lochaline primary school, where I worked until 1996.’
The Lochinvar, a passenger ferry, was one of MacBrayne’s earliest motor vessels, built by Scott & Sons (Bowling) and acquired in 1908. For nearly 50 years, the Lochinvar was the island of Mull’s main contact with the mainland. She sailed daily from Oban to Tobermory via Craignure (where there was no pier and she had to wait offshore for a small launch to come out from the shore to take off passengers and mail), Lochaline and Salen.
In the 1970s, the processing and loading facilities moved north, a few hundred yards up Loch Aline.
The sand mine closed in November 2008 and 11 people lost their job. But less than four years later, in September 2012, the mine re-opened as a new company Lochaline Quartz Sand Ltd, a joint venture between an Italian mining company and a global glass manufacturer.
Lochaline villagers are working hard on making the story of the sand mine alive again. More info at the Lochaline Sand Mine Heritage group Facebook page.
Estelle has published a 64-page book with 30 side-by-side then-and-now pictures, which you can find in local shops or buy online. More information available here.