Author Archive

The Dagenham Boys : Albert Baker & Petre Withall



by Mary Withall

They were different as chalk and cheese.

Bertie the entrepreneur, the ideas man who was always willing to try something new; a Metropolitan Policeman; a Canadian Mountie; chauffeur to politicians; builder; proprietor of Bertie’s burger bar; manager of the Puffer bar on Easdale island. An active force within the Slate Islands community, he was for eight years commodore of the Easdale ferry – none dared question the instruction to ‘Sit there!’? He was an amateur actor, community councillor and champion darts player. Who could have imagined that a chance suggestion made on one wet Monday evening over a couple of cans of McEwans, to run a stone skimming competition for a fun day on the island would place Easdale more firmly on the map than all the articles and books ever written about the slate industry?

Petre on the other hand was a meticulous academic, a quantity surveyor, construction manager and teacher, a poet and in retirement an honorary secretary. But for a brief spell in the army in the late nineteen-forties where he rose to the rank of sergeant instructor signals in the 4th tanks, together with the inevitable introduction to the brewer’s art, he would almost certainly have become a Methodist minister.

These two otherwise dissimilar characters, found themselves united by extraordinary co-incidence.

Bertie was born on the 9th of July 1928. Petre’s birthday was August 9th 1928. Both were raised one on either side of the Heathway, the main artery through the town of Dagenham in Essex. They attended different primary schools and at the age of eleven Petre won a place in Dagenham High School while Bertie went to the Secondary Modern school and thence into an apprenticeship. As boys growing up on the outskirts of London during the war, they never met but both experienced evacuation and bombing during the blitz and by doodle-bug.

It was not until 1986 when Petre and Mary Withall hired Jean Adam’s cottage on Easdale Island for a week that the two men, now in their fifty-eighth year, met for the first time and in casual conversation discovered their shared background. Bertie had met and married artist Jean Adams and come to live on Easdale when Jean inherited her uncle’s cottage on the island. Petre and Mary negotiated the purchase of No.36 Easdale Island during that week. They had found the place to which they were going to retire.

The boys had more in common than age and place of birth. Both were adventurous, curious about the world in general and shared a love of the very English game of cricket. They also shared a wicked sense of humour. There was always laughter when the two got together.

Inspired by Jean and Bert’s many extraordinary adventures abroad, Petre and Mary took to travelling around the world by sea on cargo ships. When Bert and Jean built a holiday home in Sri Lanka, Petre and Mary visited them and then as a foursome they travelled to Hong Kong and toured China in company with Petre and Mary’s son and future daughter in law, Andy and Bianca.

Jean had set up the Easdale Island Museum in 1980 and by the time Petre and Mary had settled into their new home in 1988, she had already received commendations for her work as a curator. In due course Jean was awarded an MBE for her services to small museums in Scotland. Mary took on the role of archivist while Petre became the Hon. Secretary of the museum. Bertie’s role had always been to take care of the fabric of the building.

At a garden party in Ellenabeich in 1999 the four fell into discussion with Mike Shaw about the possibility of setting up a second museum in Ellenabeich village. This would provide information for the public who came to Seil in their thousands by coach and car but never crossed to Easdale Island and learned nothing of the great industry which had given birth to the villages. The discussion ranged further into the need to conserve what remained of the slate industry and the people who worked in it. This would mean gathering together other like-minded lovers of the Slate Islands and so the concept of the Heritage Trust was formed.

At first the physical work of setting up the heritage centre fell entirely upon the four initiators of the scheme but slowly others gathered around. Volunteers began to take over the desk and help with practical matters like the electrics. Photographs and artefacts began to appear like magic after spending years in dusty draws and attics. The Centre became a full-time occupation which remarkably cemented even more closely the relationship between the Dagenham Boys. There was never a disagreement.

When Bert and Jean decided to pull up their roots and move permanently to their house in Sri Lanka it was left to Petre and Mary to carry on with the help of Pat Jones who for the next year shouldered the bulk of the work in the Easdale Island museum. Eventually that enterprise was taken over by the Eilean Eisdeal Trust leaving the Heritage Centre in the hands of a growing army of volunteers with Petre as Secretary and Mary as Curator.

The friendship continued with visits to Sri Lanka by Petre and Mary and to the caravan near Dunoon which Bert and Jean had wisely bought as a bolt-hole for their occasional visits to Scotland. When Bertie fell ill and had to return to cooler climes he and Jean moved permanently into their caravan and subsequently into one of the log cabins on the same site. Visiting became more regular but with the advancing years expeditions abroad were out of the question. In the latter days it became a matter of meeting halfway between Dunoon and Easdale at Inveraray where the staff of the Inveraray Inn became familiar with the noisy conversation of four old-age pensioners three of whom were wearing hearing aids.

Bertie died in Dunoon hospice on the 26th of November 2016. Petre died at home on Easdale Island on 30th of November. As Mike Shaw suggested in his funeral oration, Bertie was probably sitting up there on his cloud when Petre arrived. He would have been smiling broadly and claiming to have thought of it first!

Copyright Mary Withall 2017. Reproduced by permission of the author from the Summer 2017 issue of The Scottish Slate Islands Heritage Trust’s The Journal. Paper copies of The Journal can be obtained from the Trust’s Heritage Centre in Ellenabeich; an electronic version can be obtained by e-mailing The Journal’s editor Tim Sinclair: tjb.sinclair [at]

For more information about the work of the Trust, visit the website HERE

It’s been a bad week …

During the last week two of the island’s stalwart “elders” both passed away.

On Saturday night (26th November) Bert Baker died peacefully in his sleep in the hospice in Dunoon and on Wednesday night (30th November) Petre Withall slipped away at home on Easdale.

Both had almost reached their “four score years and ten” and both will be sorely missed. We hope to publish remembrances of them shortly.

This will be a very difficult time for Jean and for Mary and our thoughts go out to them.


More sad news.

We heard today that our former ferryman Tom Plunkett has recently died.

He ferried us back and forth from 1991 to 2002, and after his retirement he and Dot moved to Dingwall where they settled in very happily, returning here every couple of years or so to renew old acquaintances.

Our thoughts are with Dot.


Some pretty stormy weather during last week, but fortunately there was only one casualty.


Mr. McSkelly has now been restored to an upright position and is seated by the living room fire warming his chilled bones.


Easdale weather!

easdale-rainbowPlease check the local weather forecasts if you’re planning to travel to Easdale from far afield – or even from quite close at hand – because the weather here can be very different from that in Oban … or even in Balvicar!

Have a look at “Weather Watch” on our Handy Info page.

This evening was gorgeous, with the horizontal rain and Force eights died down, and a beautiful rainbow filling the sky!



Look what passed by Easdale Island a couple of days ago …



Sunset from Easdale Island 7-2-15

Amazing support for RNLI

For the first time within living memory Stone Skimming Sunday dawned bright, clear, sunny and warm and – astonishingly – remained like that for the whole day. So the Fairbairn family were pleased to be able to set up their RNLI stall under sun-shade parasols rather than under rain- and wind-swept umbrellas!

Tombola, RNLI merchandise, soft drinks and crisps were on offer, all with the aim of raising funds for the RNLI.

With Willie acting as a most effective “barker”, visitors stopped by, looked, bought, and enjoyed their winnings from the tombola. (Thanks to so many generous donors, there were very good prizes to be had!)

And the amount raised on the day by the Fairbairn family’s stall was sufficient to attract funding from the TSB to bring it up to a truly staggering total of:


to help fund the work of the Oban Lifeboat.

The Island Residents’ Association also played a small part, with a stall inviting passersby to “Save the Sailors from the Cruel Sea : and help the RNLI save real lives at sea”.

Adults and children alike enjoyed making helicopter noises  – chug-a-chug-a-chug-a-chug-a  – or THWACKA!-THWACKA!-THWACKA!-THWACKA! – as they lifted the mariners from the water with a hand-held SeaKing! The modest amount of £32.90 was taken. But every little helps.

Remember that the RNLI is a charity, funded solely by donations, and that its crews are all volunteers. Those guys put their lives at risk every time they go on a “shout”.

Have a look HERE  for more about what the Oban Lifeboat does, and HERE to vote for RNLI to receive £50,000 from the Postcode Lottery. 

Meanwhile, we ask how much money went into Eilean Eisdeal’s coffers from this year’s Stone Skimming Day? This has yet to be revealed.

Apparently £9,500 was realised from the Stone Skimming event last year. That’s A LOT OF MONEY!!

Where has it gone? How have islanders benefitted from it?? Rhetorical question probably, because … we … just … don’t … know!!

We also ask ourselves what happened to the money received from the Climate Challenge Fund:

  • Eilean Eisdeal Energy Education Programme. The Easdale Island energy education programme aims to raise awareness of energy usage, change behaviour and reduce household energy consumption and the carbon footprint of the island. The installation of a whole-island electricity usage meter with detailed information displayed via a large screen monitor in the ferry waiting room will raise awareness and assist in evaluating the progress of the project. £12,060

 Now, that’s certainly A LOT OF MONEY! Raise your hand if you’ve been engaged in an “energy education programme”, or if you’ve seen that “whole-island electricity usage meter” in the ferryshed.


H’mm. If that money wasn’t used, was it forfeited?

In the same way that a load of the GreenStreets grant money was forfeited when it became abundantly clear that island residents did not want a wind turbine!! And abundantly clear, in fact, that islanders hadn’t been consulted before that GreenStreets money was applied for.

From Eilean Eisdeal’s Newsletter no. 49 dated November 2012 we also learn:

  • We received our first payment from British Gas who are our feed-in tariff provider for the solar PV panels on the Hall roof. This came to just over £700 for 7 months, 20% of which will go to the island children for whatever project they decide.

OK, that’s almost a year ago. And presumably there’s another year’s-worth of feed-in tariff received by now. So how have the island children been involved and invited to decide how that money (we calculate £140 for the first year and now presumably doubled) should be spent?

Again … we don’t know. Parents don’t know .. children don’t know. So … where IS that money… ???

Lots of questions … no answers!

Ferry Information

The winter ferry timetable commences on



ASP Ship Management (the company who have taken over the ferry operation on behalf of Argyll & Bute Council) have issued a notice to passengers, and a link is given below so that all are aware of the rule now in force:

Passenger Notice


Following a spate of incidents unpleasantly targetting one of our ferrymen, Argyll & Bute Council have re-issued their notice indicating what sort of actions and behaviour cannot be tolerated towards their employees. It is very sad that this has been necessary, because our ferrymen are our friends and neighbours, and we rely on them totally for the excellent service they so willingly give. Click on the link below to read the notice:

Unacceptable Actions

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Reproduced from Private Eye, with a little addition of our own.