Raasay Books - The Raasay Iron Mine
The Raasay Iron Mine:
Where enemies became friends
by Laurence and Pamela Draper
Available from the authors or from Isle of Raasay establishments and all good booksellers.
The Story Behind the book
A human and technical story of First World War international friendships under trying circumstances.
It was a hot sunny day in the summer of 1981 when we first visited Raasay, an island in the Inner Hebrides. After a six-mile drive up the main road to Brochel Castle, and then back, we boarded the small car ferry for the return journey. It was only then that we saw what looked like ancient earthworks above the pier, which itself was remarkably large for a small island. "Can you tell us what went on there?", "It was an ironworks in the First World War - there was a railway from the mine in the mountain down to the kilns here, and it was worked by German Prisoners of War," replied the sailor who had just finished securing the loading ramp.
When it sank in that there had indeed been a railway on Raasay, and several more on Skye, to boot, the obvious questions began to arise: What gauge of railway? What was the motive power and are there any photographs of the locomotives? Why was it built at this particular location, and why isn't it working now?
In no time at all serendipity stepped in, as we learned that out of fewer than 20 islanders who had actually worked at the mine in the First World War, three were still not only alive but hale and hearty and very happy to talk to us. A letter to The Scots Magazine produced a reply which read, "My father was the Mining Engineer, would you like to see his personal notebook and some early photographs?" How lucky could we get? Many hundreds of letters later... the story was pieced together, and what a fascinating one it is, involving many characters from Winston Churchill onwards.
Just before the First World War the Scottish coal and iron-ore mining, and iron-smelting, firm of William Baird and Company opened up an iron-ore mine there. In association with the mine, Baird's built several kilometres of narrow-gauge railway, a crusher, five calcining kilns, a huge ore hopper and a reinforced concrete pier. Many aspects of the installation, such as this pier, diesel-electric power generation and the provision of powerful external electric lighting, were very advanced for their time.
Because most of the local men had been called to the colours, Baird's arranged for German Prisoners of War to work the installation from 1916 onwards. In permitting this, the British Government appears to have contravened the Hague Convention which specifically banned the employment of Prisoners of War on munitions production; in 1920 the British Government attempted to destroy all relevant records, and was largely, but not entirely, successful. We still enjoy the mischief of having a splendid Government-banned [and supplied] British Geological Survey photograph on the front cover showing German soldiers actually working at the mine.
To enable prisoners to be used, the project was effectively nationalised (although that word was not actually used), with Baird's operating it as agents for the Government; this was a standard system of management in the First World War. Prisoners and local people worked in harmony together as colleagues, but relationships between Baird's and the Ministry of Munitions were at times hostile. At the end of 1917 the local men, who were badly paid compared with men doing similar work elsewhere, went on strike, and there were allegations in Parliament that German Prisoners of War were being used as strike breakers, with a result that Winston Churchill himself made statements in response; these allegations were at best only half truths.
Production rose from mid-1916 to the end of the War, a probable total of almost 200,000 tons of raw ore being produced. After the end of hostilities, production was dramatically reduced, and stopped within six months. Although everything was maintained in full working order, almost the only further iron to be yielded, in the Second World War, came out as scrap from the dismantled installation itself .