Stone Walled – A Story of Aberdeen Granite

This month marks Aberdeen’s first granite festival: a celebration of the city’s iconic stone industry. While granite has long been used in construction in the North East of Scotland- St Machar’s Cathedral is the city’s earliest granite building extant –
it emerged as an industry in the 18th century concurrent with and part of the urban and commercial expansion going on at the time evolving from small workings of easily gathered and quarried stone to an industry of international importance.

An igneous rock, granite has been created from melted rock – magma or lava from volcanoes – cooled into various shades of grey, reds, blues, blacks, pinks and greens. This makes it very hard, an intractable stone to work, but until the invention of pneumatic chisels in the later 19th century was, nevertheless, cut by hand.

However as early as the 1830s Alexander Macdonald working in his granite yard in Aberdeen had applied steam power to sawing, turning and polishing stone and this breakthrough brought granite working into the industrial age. The ability to polish granite surfaces was significant for the expansion of the monumental trade and led to a fashion for polished memorial stones (gravestones, statues etc) to commemorate some dear-departed and, of course, demonstrate a family’s wealth for these polished stones were not cheap.

With urbanisation, streets across Europe were laid with Aberdeen granite setts (known locally as cassies but frequently misnamed cobbles [wooden]). The setts easily coped with the pounding of iron-hooped cart and carriage wheels. Durability also made it ideal for civil engineering projects such as bridges and harbour works. So it was that Aberdeen’s stone industry literally underpinned the massive urban growth of the 19th century. The streets of London were not paved with gold but hundreds of thousands of North East setts.

The workforce of stonecutters and building masons were proud of their skills and enforced a strict apprenticeship on anyone entering the trade. The granite Union negotiated terms with employers to reduce the incidence of disputes within the industry but the possibility of militant action was there if employers proved recalcitrant.

The granite masters were organised into cartels which controlled entry into the trade by fixing prices for worked stone and enforcing regulations. It was within this cartelisation that the union was able to achieve a working relationship with employers effectively working out conditions and rules seen as mutually beneficial to labour and capital.

By 1900 the industry had peaked – foreign competition brought about its decline together with an increase in the use of cement, artificial stone, steel – not to mention the growing popularity of cremation. Local sources of good stone were also becoming scarce while Scandinavian countries output increased.

Aberdeen granite yard production always remained within small industrial units never achieving the benefits of scale found in other enterprises and by the 1960s the writing was on the granite wall. Firms merged or went out of business. Granite working was fast becoming a niche industry. In 1971 Aberdeen’s famous Rubislaw Quarry closed. It was said that much of 19th century Aberdeen was built from its granite quarried to a depth of 400 feet.

For 300 years, North East craftsmen quarried, worked, shaped, built and exported the area’s native stone. The nature of its hardness means it can still be seen today in the classical architecture of the city, as setts in some of its streets – along Union Street, Aberdeen’s Granite Mile, in its many superb buildings including Marischal College (Europe’s second largest granite building),
the statue of the Duke of Gordon (Scotland’s oldest granite statue and one of the first statues cut in granite since the Ancient Egyptians).

North East granite can be found in many parts of the world: cladding on the Scotland’s Parliament, bridges in Glasgow and its City Chambers, the Tay and Forth bridges, mausoleums, memorials, obelisks, thousands of gravestones across the USA, Canada, South America, Russia, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, across the Continent – as memorial stones on battlefields where British dead lie, Catherine II’s memorial in Vilna, Edinburgh’s Princess Street, the Paris Opera House, Brisbane Town Hall, Liverpool’s Liver Building, bank interiors in this country and across the world including Melbourne, the terraces of the Houses of Parliament, the fountain bases in Trafalgar Square, several London bridges, the Thames Embankment, the polished columns of the London Stock Exchange, the Foreign Office, Australia House – all in Loondon.

And the industry’s skilled craftsmen, like the oil and gas specialists around Aberdeen today, granite workers and local technology were sought for their expertise around the world and were involved in building many outstanding buildings such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

If you’re in Aberdeen this month check out the events to commemorate the industry and if you miss that then next time you’re in the granite city use your eyes and look up as you walk around the centre and prepare to be impressed.

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