Locha­line’s fa­mous sil­ica sand mine

The Oban Times - - HERITAGE - Iain Thorn­ber iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­net.com

EV­ERY two years the Euro­pean In­no­va­tion Part­ner­ship on Raw Ma­te­ri­als or­gan­ises open days to pro­vide an op­por­tu­nity for thou­sands of visitors to ex­plore the world of min­er­als and discover more about an in­dus­try that af­fects ev­ery as­pect of our daily lives.

Last month Locha­line Quartz Sand Ltd wel­comed and hos­pitably en­ter­tained a cross-sec­tion of the lo­cal com­mu­nity, the Health and Safety Ex­ec­u­tive team, the Forestry Com­mis­sion as well as present and for­mer em­ploy­ees and their fam­i­lies to the first Euro­pean Min­er­als Day at the mine and to help them cel­e­brate the fifth an­niver­sary of ac­quir­ing it from Tar­mac.

The Locha­line mine pro­duces high qual­ity sil­ica sand with low iron con­tent and ex­cep­tional white­ness. It was first iden­ti­fied in 1895, when a huge de­posit of white cre­ta­ceous sand­stone run­ning north from the en­trance of Loch Aline in an 18ft seam was dis­cov­ered. Later, in 1923, the Ed­in­burgh Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey an­a­lysed sam­ples which showed it to be one of the purest de­posits in the world and, be­ing largely free from iron, was ideal for the man­u­fac­tur­ing of high qual­ity glass.

At that time it was cheaper to im­port sil­ica sand to Great Bri­tain than to mine and ex­port it from the re­mote Morvern penin­sula. It was not un­til 1940, when an­other source at Fon­tainebleau in France was over­run by the Ger­man Army, that the Locha­line mine went into full pro­duc­tion sup­ply­ing the raw ma­te­rial for mak­ing lenses for air­craft bomb­sights and sub­ma­rine periscopes.

In 1940, the mine pro­vided em­ploy­ment for 35 men and women, which in­creased to 65 in the 1950s. In 1945, the out­put was 35,000 tons and, over the years, has of­ten risen to around 100,000 tons an­nu­ally.

When the mine opened, horses were used to haul the sand from be­low ground to a pro­cess­ing plant near the mouth of the main adit. As the mine de­vel­oped, they were re­placed by diesel lo­co­mo­tives which pulled lit­tle wag­ons full of sand on a nar­row-gauge rail­way half a mile away to the West Pier on the Sound of Mull where it was washed, graded and loaded onto ships, eas­ing the trans­port cost.

Some of the ma­te­rial left by road were to be made into Caith­ness and Water­ford crys­tal. Other cus­tomers were the mak­ers of Ajax house­hold cleaner and Col­gate tooth­paste – both re­quir­ing a per­cent­age of light abra­sives.

The Locha­line mine is unique as it is one of only two work­ing un­der­ground mines in Scot­land. Min­ing the sand is done by what is known in the trade as the ‘room and pil­lar’ sys­tem. There are no pit props. The sand­stone rock is drilled and blasted, loaded onto dump trucks and taken to the sur­face plant. To­day most of the prod­uct is trans­ported by ship to Run­corn near Manchester. There it is turned into glass for so­lar pan­els.

Many years ago a small un­der­ground loch used to ap­pear when­ever the work­ing face dipped be­low sea level, which meant that some of the min­ers had to row them­selves across in a small boat to get to work.

The first com­pany to mine the sand com­mer­cially was Charles Ten­nant and Co, Glas­gow, which brought men and equip­ment to Locha­line from the slate quar­ries at Bal­lachul­ish, which it also owned. At a cer­e­mony when the mine was sold to Til­con in 1972, I re­call Ju­lian Ten­nant telling an amus­ing story of in­her­it­ing the com­pany when he was still a young serv­ing army of­fi­cer and ad­mit­ting that he was more in­ter­ested then in know­ing what was in a bot­tle than what it was made of.

Since work be­gan there has al­ways been a pleas­ant and pro­duc­tive re­la­tion­ship be­tween the var­i­ous own­ers of the sand mine and the lo­cal com­mu­nity. Not only has the mine pro­vided long-term, stable, em­ploy­ment (that is un­til 2008 when Tar­mac closed it with the loss of 11 jobs), it has also been one of the most gen­er­ous bene­fac­tors in the area in mak­ing trust funds, gifts of land and build­ings to the res­i­dents of Locha­line with­out any strings at­tached.

The Locha­line sand mine is a joint ven­ture be­tween Ital­ian-owned in­ter­na­tional min­er­als com­pany Min­er­ali In­dus­tri­ali (MI) and Pilk­ing­ton NSG, which owns 13 pro­duc­tion units in Italy, four in Europe, one in Asia, three in North Amer­ica and seven in Cen­tral and South Amer­ica.

In in­tro­duc­ing the pro­gramme for the open day from a tem­po­rary plat­form (made, ap­pro­pri­ately, with sil­ica sand), the com­pany direc­tors and the site man­ager be­gan by ex­press­ing their grat­i­tude to their 23 em­ploy­ees and the lo­cal com­mu­nity for their sup­port and en­thu­si­asm, with­out which they would not have suc­ceeded in putting the sand mine back on the world map.

Dur­ing the past year MI has in­vested over £1 mil­lion in the plant and un­der­ground ar­eas to make it suit­able for more prod­ucts. The com­pany is also ex­plor­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of opening a new mine mu­seum in Locha­line to show­case its work and ex­hibit old pho­to­graphs, doc­u­ments, arte­facts, sound record­ings and some of the many fos­sils which have been dis­cov­ered in the mine over the years. Sev­eral lo­cal and ex­ter­nal or­gan­i­sa­tions, in­clud­ing the highly ac­claimed Lochaber Geop­ark, have ex­pressed in­ter­est and as­sis­tance.

Pho­to­graph: Iain Thorn­ber

Locha­line sil­ica sand mine.

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