WHILE tourism currently grabs most of the headlines in news reports about Skye and is Trotternish’s main economic driver in 2017, it was not always so.
Back in the 1950s, men in Staffin, Kilmuir and Uig were employed in the diatomite industry, which also attracted significant press attention given the product’s versatility and fact it was a major employer in the post war period.
Loch Cuithir in Lealt, Staffin, was found to have a deposit called diatomite, a clay-like floury grey substance, known in Gaelic as caile.
Green in colour, it became pure white once extracted and dried. It was used in matches, in alcohol filtering, paint, cosmetics, toothpaste, and as a polish, filler and insulator. Diatomite was first discovered in the freshwater loch in the 1880s where it transported by a tramway to nearby Invertote, close to Lealt Gorge, before being transported by steamer via the sea.
Production stopped between the First and Second World Wars. However, Scottish Diatomite Ltd took over in 1950 and a front-page newspaper article, recently uncovered by a Staffin resident, outlines the company’s activities and aspirations via a senior official, called Mr Boyd, whose first name is not provided.
Mr Boyd dismissed the lazy Highlander stereotype in Scotland and paid tribute to the work ethic of his employees. The report also outlined the shocking high employment rate in Skye, a whopping 24 per cent, and the local authority’s attempts to secure an air service for Skye at that time
Following extraction, the diatomite was taken by lorry from Staffin to Uig Pier and dried fully, before being delivered to the buyers, which included the giant British chemical company ICI.
“THE prospect of the Scottish Diatomite factory at Uig providing employment from at least 100 Skyemen in the not too distant future was mentioned at the annual meeting of the Skye Council of Social Service in Portree last Thursday by a representative of the Company, Mr Boyd.
This was one a number of interesting topics dealt with at the meeting, at which members heard satisfying accounts of the activities of the Old People’s Welfare Committee, the forthcoming tourist season and Skye Games – favourable, despite petrol rationing – and forestry work on the island.
But a less hopeful account was given of the Council’s efforts to obtain an air service for the island. These efforts had only resulted in disappointment, it was stated, with British European Airways refusing to extend a service unless there was a direct subsidy for the purpose.
Mr I.R Hilleary was in the chair and Mr Struthers of the Scottish Council was present. Mr Hilleary, in introducing Mr Boyd, said that his talk on the industry would be of special interest because of the high figure of unemployment in the island. The figure had now reached 358, which was 23.9 per cent of the registered working population.
Mr Boyd explained that Scottish diatomite had to meet many obstacles and suffered many disappointments but now they could take out of Loch Cuthir 300 wet tons a day, or 79 dry tons. Uig had been chosen as a site for the factory because of the flat ground near to the pier and the availability of labour. The Bealach had been at that time in a reasonably good state of repair. The Company had had about one and a half years’ serious trouble with the plant, for which he blamed their German suppliers. He added, however, that the company was well on the way to success. More firms were finding uses for diatomite, but, in each case there had to be a period of trial and some trials had gone on for well over a year before the material had proved satisfactory. The Company were now supplying I.C.I with regular quantities.
Diatomite was used for incombustible boarding on ships, for the heads of safety matches, for filtering processes in preserve making, brewing of beer and distilling of whisky, and in the making of glue and wax. In all these uses the material found in Skye had proved better than the American, Algerian and Kenya diatomite.
The Company could export 1,000 tons a year and in the not to distant future they would employ 100 people. But, Mr Boyd said, there were too many rumours and these did the factory no good. On one occasion the Sanitary Inspector had gone to Uig to investigate a complaint about rotting seaweed. The factory happened to be closed at the time for repairs, and that news was round the island at once that the Sanitary Inspector had ordered the factory to close down.
Mr Boyd paid a warm tribute to Mr Armstrong, manager in Uig, and to the workers. He had heard it said often enough that Highlanders were lazy. This was “a dastardly lie”. The Highlander was not lazy, but he did suffer fro a dose of defeatism, a result of the failure of successive Governments to do anything for him. The new Highland Industrial Committee had been set up to stop this tide of depopulation and the Highland Fund was a doing a fine job of work for its 700 clients and had only contracted one bad debt. The works, under wise management, had proved themselves excellent fellows.”
Sadly, as a result of being able to compete against cheaper foreign imports the factory shut in the early 1960s, a serious economic blow to Trotternish. It is understood that around 30 men were in employment for the comapny at that time.