Shellie's Wellies: Skim like a champion
The World Stone Skimming Championships. When I first heard about this, I thought it was a joke. But, my friends, it is no joke. There is a place where the stones are plentiful and the skimming is sublime. This place is the island of Easdale, which, at 62 acres, is the smallest permanently inhabited island of the Scottish Inner Hebrides.
Easdale is one of the “Slate Islands” and its rich deposits helped build the British Empire. The last slate was quarried in the 1950’s, leaving blue green pools around the island, with tons of little slate chips lying about. A stone skimmer’s paradise if ever there was one.
A small ferry takes visitors and residents the short distance from the island of Seil, which can be reached by car via the Bridge Over the Atlantic. Passengers unload onto a concrete ramp, and at the top a boat shed, a red telephone box and a bulletin board greet you. A modern community hall, a playground, an art gallery in an old stone cottage, called The Bothy, and The Puffer pub, with a patio beer garden in front, lie at the heart of the charming village.
Rows of neat whitewashed houses with brightly coloured overgrown gardens stand watch over the Firth of Lorn’s waters, which encircle the island like a bruised eye. It is nearly devoid of trees, rather undulating sea grasses dotted with wild flowers fade into slate pebbled dunes at the edges. Each house has a wooden wheelbarrow at its gate- there are no vehicles on the island and this is how the 60 or so folks that live here full time and visitors transport their groceries from the ferry.
I grew up skimming-or as we called it, skipping- stones into the cow ponds on my family’s Texas ranch every summer. My Dad had taught us kids the art of finding the perfect skip stone- round, smooth and thin, with a good heft in the palm. He showed us how to draw our arms back a bit more than halfway, then perform a slight flick of the wrist as the stone leaves your hand. So on my first walk around the island that day I couldn’t resist chucking a few. It was like riding a bike, and in no time I was sending stones skipping around a slate pool. And this was before I learned about the Championships.
Held each September, the World Stone Skimming Championships have been going on and off since 1983. It is now an annual fundraising event and brings hundreds of folks to the ordinarily sleepy island to skim, watch and party. A friend of ours has a holiday house on Easdale and invited us to stay over for a house party weekend. Heck yea!
We ferried over amongst bustling crowds of merry makers making the skimming pilgrimage from all across Europe, Australia and New Zealand, even Africa. The Dutch contingent was impossible to miss- masses of orange clothes and Dutch girl braid hats. A Japanese competitor dressed like an anime super hero was followed around by a crew of cameras like a rock star. Teams of men, women and mixed groups paraded around in matching costumes. The biggest of these was the West Coast Wallies team, all dressed as “Where’s Wally?” This was definitely going to be a party.
Our lovely hostess, who hails from Liverpool, served up traditional Skouse- a Liverpudlian traditional stew of chicken, beef and lamb with vegetables- to a crowd of festive house guests, ranging in age from 12 to grownups. Then we headed to the village hall for the kick- off concert, featuring the English funk band Kava Kava. The music was loud and the beat relentless, as hundreds packed in to dance sweatily into the night.
I hadn’t planned on competing. I mean, other than a few tosses on a previous visit, I hadn’t skimmed a proper stone in many years. But our hostess was throwing her stone in the ring, and I couldn’t resist- this was just fun, wasn’t it? What’s the worst that can happen? The day was sunny and gorgeous and the high spirits were contagious. The length of the queue-over 300 strong- to sign up that Sunday morning should have raised a red flag that this wasn’t a joke, but in a fit of adventurousness, I stood in line to sign up and pay my £4 entry fee. With a few hours before the women’s competition, I tucked into a hamburger and chatted with my friends. No big deal, right?
When I finally wandered across the island to where the competition was being held, I actually had to pause for a big intake of air. This was serious business. Hundreds-eeesh, many hundreds- of people crowded around a slate pool, which was marked out with 70 metre long lanes. At one edge, a large rock formed a throwing platform. There were television crews- not just the one from Japan, but the entire cast and crew of Blue Peter, the iconic British children’s TV series- and others. One crew even had a quadcopter GoPro in action, swooping back and forth over the scene. I wriggled my way through the crowd to near the edge in time to witness the next competitor be called. At this point the children’s event was still on, and I watched as twelve year old boys got up and tossed long, hard and far-over 40 meters. Oh, I thought, I am going to humiliate myself!
Panicking, I scrambled back up the hill and scurried to the other side of the island (which takes five minutes, remember this is a tiny island.) I picked up handfuls of slate stones and spent the next half hour practising my toss. The key was to toss the stone as far as possible- it had to skip at least three times, but otherwise, extra skips didn’t earn extra points. Oh well, I thought, I’m not going to get much less rusty in the next hour, so here goes nothing! Back to the quarry pool where the women’s event was just starting.
The term “throw like girl” isn’t an insult- not on Easdale. These ladies were tearing up the pool with their tosses. The Where’s Wally lasses might have looked silly, but those large fake glasses sure didn’t hamper their throwing abilities. Dutch girls in Dutch girl braid hats showed their tossing prowess. Lucy from team Skimmy Latte flung 38 metres. The competition was stiff. I was just hoping to not embarrass myself. Finally, I heard my name. “Michelle from USA!”
The whole thing was a blur. My cowboy hat drew a loud series of “Yeeeee haaaaw” s, led by the rowdy Dutch team. That gave me a bit of nerve. I picked my three stones out of the piles. As I appro1ached the throwing rock, I sussed out that I could get better footing without my Birkenstocks (wouldn’t want to slip) so in a motion, I kicked them off. More cheers and yeehaws erupted from the crowd. With a quick intake of breath, I let her fly. 17 metres, straight and true! Big encouraging cheers. Ok, y’all, I can do this. Whoosh! 20 metres! Bigger cheer! I wasn’t even in the ballpark of those pro tossers, but so far at least I wasn’t humiliating myself and my country- after all, I was the only American competitor. One more time, Michelle, you’re almost there. Aaaand…fling, 17 metres! I wasn’t in danger of setting any records, but, by gosh, I was pretty chuffed! I hopped down from the rock, slipped my sandals back on, and to back slaps and congratulations, including from Lindsay Russell, host of Blue Peter, I melted back into the crowd. I can’t remember the last time I felt that relieved.
As the day went on, the competition heated up for the men’s event. Those guys were tossing stones clear across the quarry and hitting the back wall. When I grew bored watching, I wandered back to the village hall area, where locals were dishing out barbecue and musicians were busking on the green. A few of us retired to the Puffin, where we entertained with an impromptu music session and enjoyed a few rounds.
18 countries were represented in Easdale that day. And while the championships were definitely no joke, the atmosphere was jovial and spirits were high. The contest was still going on at the pool when we decided to join the long line for the ferry and head back to Oban.
I learned a valuable lesson, one that is essential to any expat- sometimes you have to get out of your comfort zone and just get in there. You might humiliate yourself, or, like me, surprise yourself. I tied in the top third of the 75 ladies who competed! That’s not exactly chicken scratch, and I’ve got a great story to boot. Soon I’ll tell you about how I really got out of my comfort zone to compete in a Highland Games (no, not tossing the caber!) And as for my tossing career, I’m already in training for next year- I hike up to one of the two lochs near my house and fling a few now and then. See you on September 28th in Easdale!
In my blog, Shellie's Wellies, I share my experiences as an expat in Scotland.
Easdale makes a fantastic day tour from Oban for an off the beaten path experience. Get in touch today about a private day tour from Oban of the Slate Isles, including Seil and Easdale, for 2021 with no deposit or cancellation fee!