Slate Voices: Islands of Netherlorn & Cwmorthin is a collection in two voices exploring change in two extraordinary locations. Observing the metamorphosis of both land and culture, this dual collection builds into a powerful psycho-geography of place and people in relation to the poets sifting through ruins and remnants. Once thriving industrial centres, characterized by harsh lives, premature death, and loss, Cwmorthin and the Islands of Netherlorn also thrummed with strong traditions, flourishing cultures and local language. Today Cwmorthin in North Wales and the Islands of Netherlorn off the coast of Scotland are rural havens. The slate remains; stacked in stark and remote peace around the lake at Cwmorthin, littered amongst tiny, far-flung communities in the islands. The harsh life has gone; Cwmorthin is no longer ‘the slaughterhouse’ where twelve year olds worked by candle-light; Belnahua is no longer the unforgiving home without the ‘luxury’ of fresh water and the constant pounding din of the pumps. But so much else has gone too: incomes, culture, tradition.
In these locations of startling contrasts two poets sift through the wreckage and the paper trail to find echoes of life and death that is transformed into a series of formally inventive poetry sequences. Using prose poetry, lyrical glossaries, found material, the patterns of nursery rhymes and the rhythms of liturgies, Slate Voices resonates with compelling narratives and a visceral sense of place in poetry that is fresh and precise, enhanced by black and white photographs that chart the changes.
Four years ago, realizing that I had not yet visited the slate islands of Argyll, I booked a holiday cottage at Kilninver. My intention was to visit Seil, Easdale and Luing, and in so doing, to return home with material and memories for at least one poem for each of these small islands. I could not have imagined how much writing would follow.
I had long been familiar with the white shell-sand beaches of Tiree and the outer isles, the Red Sandstone sands of Cumbrae and the varied shades of brown across a whole range of islands. So the stark black beaches of the slate islands came as a surprise. Beaches heaped with slates smoothed by the sea and worn down to tiny black fragments were new to me.
The proximity of one small island to another and the abundance of small islets and seaweed covered skerries produces a complex seascape. From a distance, and in dull weather one island seems to merge into another. On sunny days, sea between islands dazzles to give an impression of hundreds of small isolated lochans.
Reaching the Isle of Seil is easy now. Once people waited for low tide, or paid a penny to ride on an old woman's back. Since 1791 they have crossed over the bridge that spans a narrow channel of the Atlantic Ocean. The currents that flow between the islands can be treacherous, and crossing to either Easdale or Luing, both accessed from Seil, is occasionally impossible.
But when you can cross, there is the novelty of reaching Easdale in a small open boat, a journey of three minutes that takes you to a world without roads or cars. Reduced to a handful of elderly residents in the 1950's, it now supports a small but vibrant population. A village hall, pub, restaurant and a museum well-stocked with local artefacts add interest for visitors.
The eastern end of Easdale is clustered with terraced cottages linked by wide grassy squares, steps and pathways. The rest of the island is dominated by the remains of the slate industry. Deep flooded quarries, tons of surplus slate, and overgrown garths are dwarfed by a whinstone ridge. From the top one can look as far as Scarba, Jura, Colonsay and Islay.
On my first visit I sat on a small grassy rise. The day was beautiful, the sky a cloudless blue. Between discarded scraps of slate, wood sage and harebells were in bloom. But as I looked into the quarry water I was overwhelmed by thoughts of the industry at its peak. Of men hacking, breaking, shaping slate, and of women and children labouring through all weathers.
Crossing the Sound to Luing takes less than five minutes in the small vehicle ferry. From the jetty, the road runs to the villages of Cullipool and Toberonochy. Here too, there is evidence of an industry that not only roofed many buildings in Scotland, but also sent slates as far afield as the West Indies, Canada and New Zealand.
From Luing's western shore I looked past the Fladda lighthouse to another tiny island. Through my binoculars I could see a two-storey house and a terrace of small roofless cottages. Behind them a ridge rose against a backdrop of Mull and the black slate shore was silvered by the sun. On consulting the map I learned that this was Belnahua.
I had an uncontrollable urge to learn about the people who had lived there and soon discovered that the island had been deserted at the time of the First World War. The men left to join the forces or to work in Glasgow's shipyards. Thinking the war would be over by Christmas, they left the women to man the pumps, to keep the quarry dry for their return.
The war went on, life on an island where water had to be brought over from Luing became too onerous. The women packed their meagre belongings, gathered the children together and left Belnahua for the last time. I was desperate to visit, but on that occasion could find no-one willing to take me. A year later, I visited the area again and was able to land on the island.
Walking through the deserted houses made me want to know about the people who had lived and worked there. I perused census material and was moved by the sparse details of Janet McPhail who died at the age of eight. Investigating her family led to my finding her grave on Luing, and to writing a series of poems in her memory.
By this time my three poems had extended to twenty-three; and the urge to keep on writing had not diminished. I then discovered that a fellow poet, Jan Fortune, was also writing about slate. Her subject was Cwmorthin, a slate mine in the hills above her home at Tan y grisiau near Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales.
We discovered similarities and differences between the two locations, the methods of working and the way of life. Over the next three years I returned again and again to walk the slate islands and to spend hours in the museums at Ellenabeich and Easdale. The landscape became familiar and I continued to learn about the history and the lives of those who worked the slate.
Together, Jan and I have completed our book. It is a collection of poetry and prose poetry. Prose poetry is a genre which is rather more poetic than prose, but without the lineation of poetry. Published by Cinnamon Press, it is a hardback book which opens from either end. Jan's section is entitled ‘Slate Voices: Cwmorthin’ and mine is ‘Slate Voices: Islands of Netherlorn’.
Our aim was to revisit the past and to speak for those who were employed in winning the slate; whether underground in the Welsh hills, or facing the wind and rain of the Argyll islands. The women, rarely mentioned, have been given voices too. Their contribution to the physical labour, to supporting their menfolk and to raising children cannot be underestimated.
On that first visit I had no idea that I would be inspired to spend three years in researching and writing. Only a fragment of what I have learned has found its way into the text, but none of it has been wasted. It has been an enriching and humbling experience and I hope that the following introductory paragraph will give an insight into my fascination with the slate islands of Netherlorn.
The islands are quiet now. Museums strive to keep memories alive, but no voice is left to tell the way it was. Yet stories speak in quarry walls, in flooded pools, in ruined powder stores, in rows of whitewashed cottages, in beds of ancient slate. Fields strewn with slate, tombstones carved from slate. Slate on cottage roofs, in harbour walls, in barriers built to try to stem the sea. Beaches heaped with slate. Waves turn and toss it, shift and sculpt it, but cannot wash it away, for these are the slate islands and slate will remain.