Ancient Silver Roads on Islay

In earlier days lead and silver was mined on Islay and on the RCHAMS website you can read that many of these former lead-workings date back to medieval times, but this wasn't always the general idea. The lead-workings were distributed over a wide area which extends from Balulive in the north to Loch Bharradail in the south (The Ballygrant and Robolls Hills area). "In 1549 Donald Monro referred to the occurrence of 'mekle leid ovir (much lead ore) in Moychaolis'. An abortive attempt was made to realise some of the value of the lead deposits in 1619, and from about 1680 onwards the workings were intermittently exploited by a succession of lessees, most notably during the third quarter of the 18th century and again after 1862. Mining operations ceased in about 1880 and much of the plant and machinery was sold after the termination of the final lease in 1904. Detailed reports compiled in 1770 gave a comparatively favourable account of the physical condition and potential capacity of the mines, the expense of working them and the quality of the lead itself. The reports provide some indication of the amount and value of the lead extracted, but the only available annual set of figures on output relate to the last active phase at Mulreesh between 1862 and 1880; during that nineteen-year period a total of 1,919 tons of ore produced 1,426 tons of lead and 18,424 ounces of silver." Continue reading....

A lot of visual evidence of this mining period has been destroyed although there are still remains of mines and buildings to be found around Ballygrant. For archaeologists it's interesting to find out when mining started on Islay and it was in 1999 that "help from above" revealed things that could never have been visible from down below. When the Space Shuttle orbited the earth with its ultra-sophisticated radar it detected a network of medieval roads around Loch Finlaggan and Ballygrant. The roads, or "hollow ways", linked the valuable lead and silver mines of Islay with ancient seaports then governed by the Lords of the Isles. The find confirms that lead and silver were being mined far earlier than archaeologists thought, say researchers from Edinburgh University, who carried out the study with Nasa, the United States space agency. Gary McKay, a Nasa scientist working with the geography and archaeology faculties, and who's roots go back to the Isle of Jura said: "the Shuttle radar identified the moist, densely packed ground under the roads, estimated to be up to 40ft wide. "It was so obvious something odd was present," Dr McKay said. "I thought it was a natural river course, then I realised this `river' ran up and over the hills, ignoring the geological structure. It had to be artificial."

A copy of a newspaper article from 1999 - Images courtesy Rona Mackenzie & Carl Reavey

One road from around Loch Finlaggan stretched to possible ports on the coast, known as Fionnphort and Port Bhoraraic. Another network surrounded Lochs Ballygrant and Lossit, which contain extensive deposits of lead and silver. David Caldwell, curator of the National Museums of Scotland, said lead would have been used in building construction, and silver for trade and ornaments. The Lords of the Isles, traditionally Macdonalds, dominated the region until their decline in the 15th century when the title was transferred to the Crown of Scotland, and later to the British Crown. Many Scottish clans paid homage to the lords, who were treated as independent princes, Dr Caldwell said. "If you have a `Mac' in your name, the chances are your ancestors owed allegiances to them."

There is more relevant information on this fascinating subject on the Ballygrant feature page and there are two articles written by Catriona Bell who outlines the achievements of the Ballygrant and Keills Action Group in developing a local history project. These articles by Catriona consist of Ballygrant Keills History part one and part two. The first image in this post shows the cover of a book titled "The ancient Metal mines of Islay" written in 1984. It's without a doubt available in the extensive library of the Islay museum.

Tag: history mines silver lead ballygrant keills robolls nasa