Volunteers defend Seil against fear of French
TWO artillery companies, called the Easdale Volunteers, guarded Seil’s western shores for 50 years against the threat of French invasion, wrote Lt Col Tim Sinclair, a former gunner, of Clachan Seil.
In 1859, Britain feared it faced naval attack from France’s Emperor Napoleon III and within two years 161,000 had signed up for a volunteer corps, including 12 artillery companies in Argyll and two on Easdale: 1st Corps the Argyll Artillery Volunteers, which formed on March 7, 1860.
Under the command of Captain Angus Whyte, the slate quarry manager, the two companies drilled their artillery skills on four huge 32-pounder guns, firing cannon balls from Easdale’s shores 1,200m out into the Atlantic.
The men of the slate quarries, immaculate in their blue artillery uniforms, then took charge of more powerful 64-pounder guns in 1891 – the barrels weighed three tonnes alone, heavier than a Range Rover – and they fired heavier, spinning shells twice as far. So skilled were the Easdale gunners, they won the King’s Cup in a contest organised by the Scottish National Artillery Association in 1905.
Lt Col Sinclair documented the story of one day’s artillery training in 1899, when the manager of the slate quarries, Major Matthew Wilson, gauged the range and accuracy of shots fired from the guns at a tiny floating target, a wooden barrel anchored in the Atlantic swell, bobbing 2,000m away. As deafening explosions pealed across the island, it took the 29kg shells just six seconds to splash into the sea 2km away.
Forty-eight years later, the Easdale gunners stood down, and in 1908 the volunteer force gave way to the Territorial Force – today’s Territorial Army.
‘Gunnery was a skill the islanders trained hard to master,’ wrote Lt Col Sinclair. ‘For the 48 years of its existence, the volunteer artillery never had to fire its guns in anger. The threatened invasion never took place. But if the Easdale gunners had ever been called upon to defend these islands from attack, they would have been ready.’
The exhibition featured a life-size model of the 64-pounder guns – but, while most of the originals were swept away by storms or sold for scrap, one iron-wheeled, oak and teak gun carriage and gun barrel, fired by this great, great-grandad’s army, still survives on Easdale today.