The Marble Quarry is a place where you can allow your imagination free rein. The old machinery was abandoned when the quarry closed in around 1918 and stands silently a testament to a time gone by. The big saw dominates the ruins and although rusted and now silent it strikes awe into the soul when one wonders how it got there with the limited resources available to the men at the time. There is no access by road: there is only the sea and the ‘pier’ they used is just a rock beside a turbulent and dangerous stretch of water.
Man power created this enterprise and the entrepreneur at the time was cashing in on the popularity and everlasting attraction of Iona and its spiritual draw. These men hammered the stone out of the cliff faces into massive blocks of stone and manhandled it over the shore and up onto a pier to then be swung over the sea onto a waiting vessel. This whole procedure would take immense skill and involve expert teamwork from all the men involved. It was a time when engineering and machinery were creating new opportunities for everyone in the country and as always money was to be made.
A few hours can be spent very pleasantly sitting on one of these huge blocks casting the eye around the detritus of the workings. It might fall on the huge block of stone with the saw marks clearly evident on the face of it. The drill holes can be seen on the working face where the gunpowder was inserted to loosen the rock. Dynamite was too powerful and it would have shattered the marble destroying it for economical use. If you walk above the working face there is a track leading to the small gunpowder house which has been ingeniously built into the rock well away from the living quarters.
Some of the machinery has been painted by the National Trust for Scotland who are trying to preserve it and this black adds contrast to the other parts which are red and rusty. The great face of marble rock still looms over the whole setting clearly showing the site of activity where the blocks were hewn out. When disbanded some of the rails were taken to the village to make slipways to slide boats out of the water. One of the huts was re-erected in the village and is still lived in today.
It is easy to imagine the local men who joined the quarry men crossing the heather hill from other parts of the island in the early morning to join them in their tasks. There would have been camaraderie amongst them and the ruins that you see as you approach the quarry were once the accommodation and the tea hut for the men to use. Perhaps the islanders brought in the supply of milk every day along with mutton, potatoes, turnips and anything else that would be produced on the island at the time.
The product eventually ended up in various churches all over the world, a few being, St. Columba’s Church Pont Street in London famous for the parachute padre, Fraser MacLuskie. Scots Kirk in Paris famous for the Tartan Pimpernel, Donald Caskie who was an Islay man. It also ended up in St Andrew’s Church in Jerusalem, Tibilsi in Palestine and Adelaide in NSW and can locally be seen in Iona Abbey.
It is easy to see why this site is designated a SAM and the fact that it has almost preserved itself is part of the attraction. The quarry is not an easy place to find and can be dangerous on a wet day when the hill is slippy and boggy. Good footwear is needed and it is always best to let someone know you are going there and when you will return. You would need at least 3 hours to enjoy it. Most people recommend taking the route via St. Columba’s Bay and coming back out of there take the second gully on the right and cut across from there, check the map. Take the approach keeping to the right as you descend down to the quarry as there are some nasty deep overgrown gullies to the left side. Great care is needed in the area so please be cautious.