Country and Garden: Secrets of a mountain of wealth

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You can describe it how you like: as the only man-made structure on a wild and beautiful coast, or as one of the wonders of the modern world. The fact remains that the Foster Yeoman quarry at Glensanda, on the Morvern peninsula in the western Highlands, is not only a phenomenal engineering achievement, but also a rare example of how to create a major industrial undertaking with minimal damage to the environment.

Glensanda was once a thriving community of 500 people, but in 1812 the Maclean chieftain of the day took almost the entire population to seek a new life in Nova Scotia. The settlement lingered on, and a nice story is told of the last man to live in it. During the 1940s everyone else departed, defeated by the place's isolation; and for his final years there the sole survivor lost count of time, day and month. His only marker was a white horse belonging to a farmer on the island of Lismore, a couple of miles out to sea. If he looked across and saw the horse out in the field, he knew it was Sunday.

Such is the remoteness of Glensanda. Sheer distance from human habitation was one of the key factors that made the site ideal for what it is now - the biggest stone quarry in Britain. Ships carrying up to 75,000 tons of crushed rock slip away to destinations in Europe, unheard and almost unseen, moving their cargo 200 times as cheaply as it could go by road, without a single heavy lorry setting its tyre on a public highway.

The origins of this colossal undertaking lay in the Verney Report of 1976, a government study that analysed the shortage of aggregates for building, and recommended establishing coastal super-quarries from which stone could be moved in bulk by sea. John Yeoman, chairman of the Somerset quarrying firm Foster Yeoman, was on the lookout for opportunities to expand his business; and, armed with a copy of the report, he spent several summers exploring the west coast of Scotland in his motor cruiser the Rose of Devon.

In 1981 he fell in with James Thornber, a retired deer-stalker living at Lochaline, who told him that the Glensanda estate might be on the market. The place had everything he was looking for - isolation, deep water immediately offshore, and unlimited reserves of granite. Yeoman therefore made a proposal to the owners, and when this was favourably received, he began exploratory deep-core drilling into the heart of the mountain. A year later he bought the estate.

Finding his site was one thing; gaining permission for a quarry was something else. Rumours soon flew that the installation was really to be a secret submarine depot or a repository for nuclear fuels. Together with Thornber's son Iain - also a stalker, and a knowledgeable Highland historian - Yeoman held meetings in village halls roundabout; and so persuasive was his advocacy both locally and nationally that his application went through the Highland Council's planning department without any objections.

In 1982 Glensanda's assets amounted to the ruined tower of a 15th-century castle poised on a knoll above the sea, a couple of derelict cottages, and the wreck of an old cattle shed. The place had become known as "the Larder of Lorne", so heavily was it frequented by water-borne poachers of deer and salmon.

No road links the site with the interior, and because the mountains rise steeply out of the sea, the pioneer quarrymen had to land from small boats. Prominent among them was John Yeoman's American son-in-law, Kurt Larson, a mining engineer, who lived first in a tent, then in a caravan, as he made the earliest dispositions and had the first machines brought in by barge.

From that tiny beginning has grown a tremendous enterprise. Yet mere figures give no idea of the grandeur of the site, or of how skilfully Foster Yeoman has controlled environmental damage. As you approach from the sea, the dun-coloured buildings housing machinery blend into the steep face of the mountain. Horizontal ledges carved into the hillside, and pyramids of gravel in angular storage bays blasted from the rock, somehow suggest ancient Egypt - a touch of Abu Simbel. Visual disruption is minimised by a policy of progressive restoration. Newly created rock faces are hydro-seeded - sprayed with a slurry of water, grass seed, peat, fertiliser and a binding agent, so that they soon turn green.

Every precaution is taken to avoid contaminating the sea or nearby watercourses, and the search is now on for ways of using the fine silt produced by washing aggregate. One scheme is to combine it with bark and waste from fish farms to form a kind of compost; another, to use it for making concrete caissons and build artificial reefs in which crustaceans could breed.

As for wildlife, the quarry has had extraordinarily little impact. Red deer graze within 50 yards of the canteen and office buildings. Wild cats and pine martens inhabit the glen behind. Golden eagles work the ridges inland, and a visiting delegation from Scottish Natural Heritage was delighted to find not one but two coveys of ptarmigan at the top of the mountain.

John Yeoman died in 1987, before the quarry was in full production; but he was succeeded as chairman by his widow, Angela, who whizzes back and forth between Somerset and the West Highlands in a company aircraft. Under her benevolent but sharp eye the company retains a strong family feel, manifest in its easy atmosphere and relaxed industrial relations. When a union official recently asked her why the firm pays salaries rather than piece rates, she silenced him by remarking, "If you wanted to buy a house, you'd never get a loan if you were on piece rates. Would you?"

An ancient prophecy foretold that a fox would one day give birth to cubs on the hearthstone of Glensanda Castle, and that the event would herald a time of plenty in the land. Clearly the soothsayer was warning the Maclean of the day that his home would become a ruin before a vixen took up residence in it. Well, the castle has been roofless for generations, and now a fox has settled in. Stonemasons stabilising the north wall of the tower have seen one slip out through the door each morning as they arrive for work. Will she have cubs there in spring, confirming that unprecedented employment and plenty have come to the glen at last?

Glensanda: The Rock Business

RATHER THAN create a vast hole visible from the coast, Foster Yeoman sited the heart of its quarry a mile inland, and cut downwards into the mountain 1,600 feet above sea level. Blasting with explosives takes place most days. Each blast dislodges about 70,000 tons of granite. Huge dump trucks with 95-ton buckets trundle the pink-and-grey rock to the primary crusher, which reduces it to lumps no bigger than nine inches in diameter.

A conveyor belt transfers the raw aggregate to the top of the Glory Hole, a shaft 10ft in diameter drilled 1,000ft vertically down through the mountain. As the column of rock shifts downwards, primeval groans and crunches thunder from the depths.

At the bottom another conveyor belt ferries the aggregate along a mile of horizontal tunnel to the secondary crusher, and it then passes through screens that separate it into five different sizes. Finally it pours out on to stockpiles until a ship comes alongside - whereupon it is loaded at the astonishing rate of 6,000 tons per hour. Even the larger of the two bulk vessels retained by the company - the Yeoman Brook, which carries 76,000 tons - is away and gone in little over 12 hours.

With output at 6 million tons a year, and capable of rising to 15 million tons, the company needs markets far wider than Britain. Already ships sail to Amsterdam, Hamburg, Rostock and Swinoujscie, in Poland, as well as the Isle of Grain in the Thames estuary. Reserves of rock will last at least until the year 2100, by which time, if all goes well, excavation will have created a new corrie a mile and a half square and 400 feet deep.

In an area offering few other jobs, the quarry employs 160 people, of whom about 30 live on site for 10 days at a stretch. The rest commute by boat, a 35-minute run from the depot at Barcaldine, near Oban. Wages amount to pounds 3.5m a year, and since 90 per cent of the staff have homes close by, most of that money goes into the local economy. Rather than buy in food as cheaply as possible, Foster Yeoman has chosen to support the Appin Co-operative, where it now spends some pounds 50,000 a year.