The Quarry

In 1841, the same year as the Powder Mills opened, William Sim from Glasgow had permission from the 7th Duke of Argyll to open up a quarry on the lands of Craleckan. The new demand for dressed stone was for paving the streets of the city of Glasgow, and the big appeal of Furnace was due to its proximity to the loch. Easy transportation was by sea, in the days before motorised vehicles. William Sim also opened a quarry at Crarae, in conjunction with the Campbells of Succoth. The Succoth Papers show that they levied a charge on every ton of stone removed from the site, a “nice little earner”.

William Sim also had an interest in the quarry at Bonawe, on Loch Etive, and once again families moved from there to Furnace to find work (as they did when the furnace was in operation). There was also an influx of families from the quarries at Condorrat, near Cumbernauld.

As time passed and the quarries expanded, more families arrived; from the slate quarries at Ballachulish, the granite quarries in Aberdeen, and from England, Ireland and Wales. Some of them were Episcopalians and a new church, St Brendans, was built for them.

The families lived in rows of cottages close to the quarry, “tarry row”, and “red row”, and the quarry manager’s house was right in the quarry itself. There was also a smiddy, and a small wooden office with a weathercock.

The dressed stones were called setts, and sett-making required a lot of good quality stone. William Sim devised a system of large blasting, where a mine was cut deep into the face and packed with gunpowder. Gunpowder was, of course, a locally supplied commodity. It was estimated that 60,000 tons could be brought down by a “monster blast”, but only about 15% was of good enough quality for the making of setts. 

This arrangement lasted at Furnace right up to the 1950s, only the main output then was curling stone blanks, not setts for Glasgow’s streets. Each mason had a small, triangular portable wooden shelter, where he stood chipping away at the stones with hammer and chisel in all weathers. A hand pushed bogey on rails transported the semi-formed stones to the “big quay” where a puffer was usually waiting to take them away. The big steam crane, acquired at the end of the 19th century and operated for a time by old Baldie McInnes, was still there but no longer in use.

The “monster blast” was also employed at Crarae, in one case with a tragic outcome. On Saturday 25th September 1886 the Clyde steamer “Lord of the Isles” was more full than usual for its daily sail to Inveraray. Among the 1,000 people on board were many of Glasgow’s councillors and officials with their families.

It had been arranged that the blast would be set off as the steamer was approaching Crarae pier, and this duly happened. There was great excitement among the passengers, some of whom were due to leave the steamer at this point to inspect the results of the blast and attend a reception laid on by the quarry owners.

It was a dead calm, misty day on Loch Fyne, and after the steamer docked about 200 passengers disembarked and made their way the few hundred yards to the opening to the quarry face, some running in their excitement to see what had happened.

It was recalled later at an enquiry that the visitors noticed a damp, disagreeable smell, and that there was a cloud of brown-coloured smoke at the mouth of the quarry, which was then much narrower than it is today. As the quarry owner and workers were answering questions someone who was in the crowd was seen to collapse in a faint. A shout went up: “run for your lives!” As people turned to flee they were collapsing, even after reaching the road outside. A crowd of local men who had come to see the blast, including Dr Archie Campbell senior, Brenchoille, rushed to give aid.

There were of course no ambulances, nor even local hospital treatment, so when the “Lord of the Isles” made the return trip from Inveraray it was met with a melancholy scene. Five people had already died and many were lying on the pier in a gravely ill condition. After being loaded aboard, another man died on the sail back to Glasgow.

The investigation into the cause of the tragedy found that death was due to asphyxiation for want of oxygen. The “brown cloud” was composed of a mixture of nitrogen, carbonic oxide and hydrogen sulphide. Willie “Bilsey” Laing recalled his father, quarrier Barron Laing, saying the silver watch chains of the victims had a bluish taint due to reaction with the gases. Whether Barron was one of the quarrymen who gave aid or heard this story second hand is not known.

This story is recounted in Alexander Fraser’s book “Lochfyneside – A History of the District in Recent Times”, but is attributed to a later incident at Furnace.

As work at the quarries continued into the 20th century more accommodation was sought to replace the inadequate housing in the vicinity of Furnace Quarry. Bridge Terrace was built in 1905, when one of the local masons was Caluim Clachdar, Malcolm Munro from Auchindrain, whose son was in the 1923 Camanachd Cup-winning shinty team.

The quarries went through several changes of ownership during this period, before and after the First World War. The firm of McCreath, Taylor & Co. Ltd took over at Crarae but Faill & Co still owned Furnace. In 1920 they presented stone for the War Memorial, which was designed by Francis Nicol, later to become quarry manager: the iron work was made by the quarry blacksmiths, led by Alexander Cockburn. The Memorial was unveiled in 1921, and at about this time 180 men were employed at Furnace.

Recreation was also a consideration for the quarrymen. As well as the shinty, in 1931 the quarry manager had constructed a bowling green near the Pennymore end of the site. This had room for three rinks and, while it was reported that “about seventy men used to take advantage of this amenity”, but the mid-1950s it was overgrown and already starting to fall into the sea through erosion.

By the 1950s both Furnace and Crarae quarries were in decline. Furnace still manufactured the curling stone blanks that had replaced the setts, and the puffers still brought coal to the village and took away the stones. In 1962 the Alexandra Transport Company took over, producing road metal, chips and bottoming, which they transported in their fleet of two-tone blue lorries.

By this time the Hopperton family from Ayrshire had done much the same at Crarae, with their Metlox Company and fleet of red and white lorries. By the mid-sixties, both quarries were booming, and competition was fierce. The rail carrying trucks across the road at Crarae was lifted, to be replaced by a large tractor. As the A83 was getting busier, a flag boy was required to allow safe crossing: in 1964 the flag boy was Douglas Smylie, when at the same time the County Council flag boy was yours truely Duncan Beaton. Rest assured, there was no “Battle of the Flags”!

In 1966 the Alexandra Transport Company took over Crarae from the Hoppertons, and started to run down the site. Eventually only two men were left to look after Crarae on a care-and-maintenance basis prior to closure: Archie MacInnes and his cousin, Duncan Bell. Today the place is used for fish farming, and the Quarry Point tearoom.

Furnace Quarry was taken over by Tilling Construction Services Ltd, and a contract was won to supply chips and stone to Germany for use on their autobahns. From September 1969 ships began to call at Furnace once more. In 1970 a new pier was constructed, making use of the deeper water at the south “tip” or breakwater. The 3,200 ton Greek registered ship “Nordheide” called in July that same year, to be loaded with 3,000 tons of chips for Germany. The “Squeak” (Argyllshire Advertiser) reported that stone was also to be sent to the Netherlands for use in dyke building and land reclamation.

Unfortunately the optimism reported in the “Squeak” was not to last: the shipments to mainland Europe ceased and ownership of Furnace Quarry continued to change. Although there was continued investment in new plant it led to more automation and reduced opportunities for employment. However, the quarry is still with us today, an enduring industry in our village.