Posts tagged ‘granite’

April 28, 2017

“Up Fittie down with the Hun”: 1920s xenophobia and trade

Guest post by Textor

On April 2nd as many as 3000 gathered at the fish market intent on stopping all landings. Fish was dumped, boats cast adrift and strike breakers intimidated. At one point police threw a cordon between Torry and the town in an attempt to stop fishermen moving en-masse to the centre. Baton charges were made. Not to be outdone the women of Torry gathered bowls, jars and stones to pelt the police. When police cleared the streets men and women took refuge in tenements reappearing as the waves of law and order moved on, all the better to attack from the rear. Meanwhile across on the north side of the harbour the families of Fittie gathered crying Up Fittie Down with the Hun. With creels and baskets full of stones they proceeded to pelt boats entering or leaving the harbour, forcing skippers to the south side of the channel where they were met by a barrage from the Torry men and women. The police were undone by this pincer movement.

German Trawlers 4

At a time when the unpleasant whiff of xenophobia drifts over the stinking frame of crises ridden economies it’s worth recalling that there is nothing new in this. It’s what the class divided beast does; cling to backward-looking, mythologised national identity; to blame others for what are in fact consequences of the endemic conditions of international competition is so much easier than seeking out the social foundations of crises.

This is not to say that xenophobic opinion has no location in objective reality, that it is necessarily the manifestation of mad psychologies. No. The current spectre haunting Europe and beyond draws on ways in which the “free movement” of labour has increased competition between workers and helped keep wages down. In other words “foreign” workers are in a sense a threat to older labour markets. But it is the underpinning forces which mobilise them.

In the 1920s Aberdeen was hit by problems and disputes across two of the most important sectors of the local economy: trawling and granite. The foundation of both lay in intensification of international competition and the legacies of the Great War, and both centred on foreign labour undermining British industry.

 

German Trawlers 5

Trawling

It was hardly surprising that when the German trawler Bremerhaven attempted to dock and land fish in Aberdeen in 1919 that there was a wave of revulsion. The war had just ended and Aberdonians, like so many others, had suffered deeply in the slaughter of 1914-18. Men gathered at the quayside to refuse the Germans the right to land. Following its search for a berth the trawler eventually grounded and its crew stoned with the demand the German flag be run down. The local paper described the skipper’s attempt to land as brazen insolence and sinister and making clear its animosity to German trade said it was an unfriendly act of a nation not penitent but revengeful. The editor went so far as to sneer at the country’s Kultur of dried raw fish as a delicacy. Bremerhaven was forced out of Aberdeen, eventually landing at its home port where the Social Democrat Party came to its fishermen’s defence and denounced the Aberdeen men as an English rabble claiming Aberdonian screamed Baby killers. Pigs. Shoot down the Huns.

Three years later the trawler Else Kunkel II steamed into Aberdeen hoping to land its fish; again there was opposition to former enemy, now called alien exploiters who were threatening the livelihoods of local families. Aberdeen’s fishermen were said to hold bitter hostility against their former enemy. However their fish was landed and so the trade was continued sporadically through the year. Skippers and mates appealed to the Government for enforcement of the Reparations [Recovery] Act and that it applied 26% duty on German fish. No help was forthcoming. Matters were made more difficult when the particular interests of buyers and fish processors opposed the embargo demanded by trawlermen; and there was local bitterness when Peterhead harbour offered to give room to German boats, not through internationalism but for the money to be made. The local newspaper acknowledged the need for Europe-wide trade in fish but realised with more powerful trawlers and crews able and willing to fish dangerous Icelandic waters the local industry faced a serious threat: A German monopoly of the fish trade of Aberdeen would leave the consumer in the grip of alien exploiters and would mean a disaster to a great local industry.

German Trawlers.jpg

 

So matters simmered until February 1923 when skippers and mates voted to strike. Once again the rhetoric of wartime found a voice: you are fighting the Hun a second time for your rights. By the end of the first week of March 100 boats were tied up with hundreds of men out of work. Share fishermen, skippers and mates, led the dispute fearing for their livelihoods. Waged men, deckhands and engineers, were what you might call victims rather than being instrumental in this strike. Although local communists mobilised meetings around the notion of the internationalism of the working class as distinct from men such as skippers and mates there is no evidence that any significant animosity split the ranks nor that the waged men felt kinship with the German crews despite rumblings about some share men having avoided service in the war and making money out of wartime demand.

In fact solidarity within and across the fishing communities of Torry and Fittie was strong enough to draw them together to fight German landings, strike-breakers and police. When one local boat decided to scab hundreds turned out from Torry to confront the skipper and turn him back. Boats were sabotaged including the German trawler Senator Sache; while its crew slept the moorings were cut; eventually saved from grounding by the local pilot. Porters landing German fish were threatened with violence and police were defied. On April 2nd as many as 3000 gathered at the fish market intent on stopping all landings. Fish was dumped, boats cast adrift and strike breakers intimidated. At one point police threw a cordon between Torry and the town in an attempt to stop fishermen moving en-masse to the centre. Baton charges were made. Not to be outdone the women of Torry gathered bowls, jars and stones to pelt the police. When police cleared the streets men and women took refuge in tenements reappearing as the waves of law and order moved on, all the better to attack from the rear. Meanwhile across on the north side of the harbour the families of Fittie gathered crying Up Fittie Down with the Hun. With creels and baskets full of stones they proceeded to pelt boats entering or leaving the harbour, forcing skippers to the south side of the channel where they were met by a barrage from the Torry men and women. The police were undone by this pincer movement.

But so much conspired against the lcoal trawling industry, both men and forces of international trade. Trawl owners looked for compromise, buyers needed the Icelandic fish brought by Germans, the herring industry needed access to the German market and the British government was unwilling to hamper this sector of international trade. From the German side it made so much sense to continue coming to Aberdeen or failing this perhaps Peterhead. With the German Mark devalued, and the hyperinflation of 1923, the prices realised at British ports easily covered the costs of labour and coal. Stones and insults were little compared to the high explosives of the Great War.

 

Granite Yard

Granite

Much less militant but driven by very similar forces Aberdeen’s granite industry also found itself in 1923 under threat from German competition. It is probably the case that much of the militancy of the fishermen and their families was born from the closeness of their communities with so many of them living together in the tenements of Torry and Fittie. Granite workers had a much more fragmented life style.

Granite like fish was as open to international competition. And like the owners of trawler Bremerhaven German manufacturers could and did take advantage of the opportunities afforded by devaluation. Selling in the British market was more profitable and vitally gave payment in Sterling, then an important international currency.

Just as the trawler dispute had at times adopted a stance of being anti-German as opposed to anti German competition so also did the dispute with foreign granite traders. Not that Aberdeen’s stone trade was against the import of foreign granite in fact since the later 19th century the trade had depended on imports to meet the fashion for greater variety of colour in memorials. What disturbed Aberdeen’s granite manufacturers was the threat of dressed stone being sold to British customers.

The first hint that there might be competition coming from Germany was reported in 1921when the defeated nation was found to be trading in France. Bad enough there being a competitor on the block but made worse by the belief that monuments made by the one-time enemy were to be erected over the graves of dead French soldiers. In the following year one Friederich Hagelauer of Fürth was said to have been offering memorial crosses for British graves.

German Granite Leaflet 1923

By 1923 the “scandal” was being highlighted in Aberdeen’s Press & Journal with German’s accused of dumping fish and dumping granite. The Sunday Post took up the cry of an insult to our heroic dead the stones being erected where woman pray . . . and children weep. Aberdeen’s granite manufacturers sided with the newspapers and led the way in Scotland to enforcing an embargo on this foreign stone. However, it was one thing to achieve success in the home country it was another to get English dealers and customers to agree to a boycott. For customers there was the incentive of cheaper stone, if they were willing to turn a blind eye to origins; and for dealers there was the carrot of more profit. With the English market still accepting German imports Aberdeen’s trade with the south was threatened.

The difficulties Aberdeen’s stone trade faced were nothing compared to the chaos hitting Germany as it struggled to meet reparation demands of the Versailles Treaty. Its economy had all but collapsed, made worse when France occupied the Ruhr bringing its vast coal industry to a halt. Compared with the French the British state favoured a more conciliatory attitude to the defeated enemy, favoured international trade and stabilisation of the German economy.

Consequently when the granite traders approached the Government and asked for an increased tariff on German stone, like the trawlermen they met with refusal, indeed they faced the prospect that the existing tariff might be cut. The Press & Journal argued the local case, believing (and this sounds eerily like opinion in 2017) that by giving up free trade and enforcing tariffs the grave menace of foreign competition could be brought to heal. Regardless of the clout the local press had in the North East its opinion failed to sway the government and into 1926 imports continued.

Employers led the way in this dispute. There were no bands of granite-cutters and families guarding cemeteries, dinging doon German memorials; the nature of the trade simply did not lend itself to this form of action. But labour did have a voice which put itself behind the demands of the masters. George Murray, who lost a son in the Great War said it made his blood boil that German stone should even be offered as suitable material for British graves. Putting a stop to this, he said, was not only the correct thing to do but also good for the industry and what was good for business was good for workers: We in Belmont Street [offices of the Trades Council] are always favourable to the bosses . . . but of course we expect a good living wage from them in return.

 

 

Apart from the notable success in Scotland the best legislative advance made was to seek the protection of the Merchandise Marks Act, at one point speaking to Sidney Webb at the Board of Trade arguing that the granite imports should be marked “Made in Germany”. Eventually in 1929, after extensive evidence given including opposition from granite retailers, the Government decided that stone should be marked with its country of origin. Although important to local communities across Britain the Government had decided the granite industry was of no great significance in the national economy hence refusal to “safeguard” it from overseas competition. Marking stone was the most it would concede but even here it was niggardly in the eyes of merchants as only the slightest of marks-stencilled- was insisted on, not the heavily-cut lettering asked for by manufacturers.

The year after being given nominal protection the complaints continued. Germans were accused of stealing designs, appropriating the names of granites made famous by the Aberdeen industry and despite the legislation they palm off cheaply produced monuments . . . as British made.

British made; a rallying cry of the period as the United Kingdom hoped to engender patriotism in consumers and at the same time draw from the still important empire preferential treatment for manufacturers. But even here, with the cold wind of protectionism blowing across economies dealing with slump and the fall-out from the Crash of 1929, even here Aberdeen’s granite merchants struggled. Canada, for instance, did a curtsy to the “Mother Country” but refused to bow the knee. Canada gave some slight advantage to British granite but it still bore a tariff of 27% thus favouring Canadian manufacturers.

 

Cheyne Nellfield granite Works 1915 (2)

And so the Aberdeen granite industry, along with other British manufacturers, found the battle largely lost, found its markets shrinking and in an increasingly unstable world was forced to look to improving its competitive position by reorganising the use of labour and introducing new technology to raise productivity. And where in 1936 did Aberdonians go to see how granite could and should be handled? Germany.

Under the auspices of the British Institute of Quarrying a deputation representing the trade plus engineer Frank Cassie were content to take lessons from “the enemy”. At one site near Dresden they visited a quarry where 2000 men were said to be employed, where 250 men working at stone-splitting machines produced thousands of granite setts. Although Frank Cassie believed Aberdeen granite was unsuitable for mechanical sett-making overall the deputation was impressed by the thoroughness with which the German does the job, and the importance attached to organisation. Three years into Hitler’s rule the British deputation was envious of Germany’s road and bridge building – a policy they said the British government should put in hand. Whether the deputation witnessed other aspects of the young Nazi regime is not recorded.

 

Pneumati Tools

The pressures of social disruption and global economic crises exposed the trawling and granite industries as poorly equipped to meet the threat of external competition. Trawl owners were content to fish middle-distance waters using an ageing fleet and granite merchants managed an industry characterised by a few large employers in a sea of small businesses, far from ideal when foreign competition became very keen.

March 21, 2015

Rubislaw Quarry versus the Planners from the Dept of You Couldn’t Make It Up

Rubislaw Quarry

 

Rubislaw Quarry

Rubislaw Quarry

You could not make it up, as they say.

I think there ought to be an inquiry into the quality of planners at Aberdeen City Council. At the very least those employed there should have to undergo an aptitude test – and fast.

There is no logic, no understanding the poor unintelligible decisions that emerge from this dismal department.

They approve the worst sorts of development that offer the city neither architectural merit nor understanding the area’s historical references. It is as if Aberdeen City planners are basically ignorant and talentless as well as devoid of any positive vision to enhance the attractiveness of the city.

The latest shambles is the planning department’s negative response to a proposed heritage centre at the iconic, and it really is iconic, Rubislaw Quarry.

The concept is brilliant and admirable. The guys behind it should be lauded for its potential impact on the city as a tourist attraction. What is there not to like?

This type of development is precisely what Aberdeen is desperate for.

Aberdeen and the northeast is defined in part by the granite industry and this idea would provide it with a fitting memorial. Something of the kind should have been constructed decades ago. Years ago I suggested that when St Nicholas House came down a granite look-out tower should be erected, to mark the industry, from where people could view the city, the sea and over the land. Of course nothing came of it. The truth is Aberdeen City Council is as good as its officers and their impact on the cityscape speaks for itself. This is a council that understands nothing beyond the mundane – beyond retail and more retail. When it comes to culture and heritage there is a gap as wide and deep as Rubislaw Quarry. There is no comprehension of the value of heritage. No concept of collective pride that comes from a shared industrial or cultural inheritance. No pride in the past. No veneration of local craftsmen and women. No understanding that heritage tourism is an immense economic driver that attracts visitors to places to discover what makes them distinctive.

It came as no surprise a recent poll showed Aberdonians feel less pride in their city than elsewhere in Scotland. In Aberdeen the past is brushed aside like so much detritus. Look around there is very little to see and this reinforces the idea that there is nothing of Aberdeen’s past worthy of commemoration.

There is NO museum dedicated to Aberdeen and its surroundings. That says it all. So much of immense importance happened in Aberdeen but so little is widely known and as a consequence Aberdeen and the northeast are largely written out of the histories of Scotland. Aberdeen City Council is complicit in this state of denial.

The people behind the Rubislaw heritage proposal should be welcomed with open arms instead of being met by carping petty obstructiveness. They are doing what the council should have done. Their attempts to preserve this amazing landmark from which the city was built is commendable.

Rubislaw Quarry

So why are the planners at Aberdeen City Council not falling over themselves to grasp this opportunity with open arms?

They are so blinkered they cannot understand why the visitor attraction should be based at the quarry – the very quarry that is being commemorated and one of the biggest man-made holes in europe. Yes that is what they said. The Rubislaw Quarry visitor attraction could be anywhere – because frankly, these jobsworths do not have the first understanding of how heritage works.

Plonk a visitor centre anywhere and you might attract visitors. Position a visitor centre within the context of its subject and you immediately enhance its value.

It appears the dullards at Aberdeen City Council’s planning office are more concerned with some trees that would have to be felled than losing a great granite memorial and potentially first-rate tourist attraction.

I love trees and don’t like to see them taken out but sometimes you have to for the greater good. This is one of those times. I do not recall the same outcry from the Council when removal of mature trees from Union Terrace Gardens was being approved.

Several years ago a handful of people promoting culture in the Council tried to get a development underway at the Quarry. It was hoped it might be drained and something like the proposed centre built, an indoor rainforest experience created at the bottom of the drained quarry and perhaps sports activities such as climbing walls within the quarry. Drainage was going to be hugely expensive and nothing came of the plans – but they were within the auspices of Aberdeen City Council so of course nothing came of the plan.

 

 

It is time to tip these planners out of their cosy existence with Aberdeen City Council and have them named and shamed. They do Aberdeen a great injustice by their feeble timidity and the people of Aberdeen deserve and should demand much better.

Show your support for the Rubislaw Quarry proposal and give Aberdeen City  council and its planning department the bird.

 

http://www.rubislawquarry.co.uk/history/

March 16, 2015

In the midst of poverty there was plenty: William S Rennie – Socialist

William Simpson Rennie Aberdeen

William Simpson Rennie
Aberdeen

William Simpson Rennie: Socialist & Stonecutter

Guest blog by Textor

William Simpson Rennie, 1866-1894, was a man of his time and one who would have asked questions of the present morass of greed, wars and crises.   Sadly aside from labour historians he is probably unknown to most Aberdonians, but for a brief period, too brief a period, he was one of the best known men amongst the city’s working class.

He was a member of that band of activists of the 1880s and ’90s who fought hard for the rights of working men and women.   At meetings, demonstrations and marches he, with others, stood against wealth and privilege and argued for the right to unionise as well as believing in the need for labour to have its own distinct political voice in parliament.   In other words he had a notion that the classes defined society and as a consequence favoured foundation of a Labour Party, although not necessarily the one that we now know. Through the later part of the nineteenth century most of the parliamentary and municipal representation of workers found expression through the Liberal Party.   Socialism challenged this.

S. Rennie came originally from Ellon but spent most of his life in Aberdeen. where he served his apprenticeship with Bower & Florence at the Spittal Granite Works, becoming a qualified stonecutter in the 1880s, when the reputation of the city as the place for quality granite work and workers was at its highest.   From the beginning of the 19th century to William’s time the sophistication of the stone trade had come on leaps and bounds.   Basically the trade consisted of the building side and the monumental-decorative industry.   Evidence of the skills of both can be seen in not only the remarkable monuments standing in cemeteries across the world but also the fine cutting displayed on buildings, bridges and other civil engineering structures.   This was the working life of William Simpson.   Like many others he crossed the pond and spent some time in the United States, taking his skills to Concord, New Hampshire to work with many other Scotsmen and stonecutters from across the world.   William was there 1889-1890. when Concord’s granite industry was at its height, with 20 local quarries, 44 stone companies and 45% of the population were foreign born. Apart from the attraction of available work the town had a further attraction for W.S.: Concord was at one time the home of the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, and this fact made work in New Hampshire doubly attractive.   When he returned to Aberdeen he came, back as his fellow stonemason and historian of the Trades Council records, abuzz with stories of his time in the US and replete with Americanisms.

Coming from the highly esteemed granite industry William, within his own class, was in an envious position.   Stone masons had a long history of being willing to defend their craft status against any attempts either to cut wages or undermine their rights.   Like others they suffered the ups and downs of economic cycles, trade slumps and booms.   But given that so much of the work they carried out depended upon knowledge of stone, manual skill and dexterity, in times of business upswing masons were in a relatively strong position.    Unlike trades such as handloom weaving which had been destroyed by mechanisation machinery had not pushed their skills to the margins.

William S Rennie Headstone

William S Rennie
Headstone

It seems that W. S. first entered the political arena in the mid 1880s when he joined Aberdeen Parliamentary Debating Society a forum for all manner of opinions.   This was some forty plus years after the high points of the Chartist movement, years which had seen the creation and expansion of a more secure industrial capitalist society.   In the process, or perhaps more correctly part of the process, elements of the working class had organised themselves into trade unions which had more solid foundations than those of the earlier period.   Working class interests became more distinct and with a gradual expansion of workers’ indirect representation in Parliament socialist ideas began to permeate ever wider circles with a corresponding challenge to and gradual decline of Liberalism’s influence.

William Rennie was in at the formation of Aberdeen Socialist Society, he represented Aberdeen Operatives’ and Stonecutters’ Union on the Trades Council and was a founding member of the local Social Democratic Federation and Aberdeen Independent Labour Party.   This was a period of mass outdoor meetings with Castle Street-Castlegate being particularly favoured for gathering.   He was no shrinking violet and had no hesitation in addressing hundreds of workers, whether it was damning the managers of the gasworks for sacking men with many years service, calling for the introduction of the eight hour day, demanding that all Town Council workers be paid union rates, or seeking help for the unemployed; all these issues and more drove the stonecutter to fight for a fairer more just society.

He was a member of what the conservative Aberdeen Daily Journal called the advanced wing of socialists which, for them, was evident in, among others things, in his call for the nationalisation of land.   No doubt this was confirmed when William Rennie took part in a demonstration in 1891, standing behind an Aberdeen Socialist Society banner which made fun of the Duke of Argyll.   Aberdeen’s socialists did not falter when it came to attacking privilege and wealth and when necessary denounce the class pretensions of local Town Councillors: in 1892 William writing as a representative of the city’s unemployed demanded relief work for those in distress, including men being put to work on building council housing.   This letter was not couched in wheedling tones but in terms of strident rights for the unemployed.   Some Councillors took great exception to this including Provost Stewart who said the letter had a disrespectful tone; Baillie Lyon said it came from a subversive street meeting and was seditious.   Unperturbed W. S. damned the Council decision to pass a list of the city’s unemployed to the Aberdeen Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor.   It was not improving that was needed he said; not charity, but the abolition of the conditions of exploitation which gave rise to poverty.   he recognised that in the midst of poverty there was plenty.   An unemployed man he said was like a man buried up to the neck in sand, and surrounded with food which he could not reach.

William Simpson Rennie worked closely with fellow socialists such as James Leatham.   Not that they agreed on everything, far from it.   Ideas and arguments were the stuff of political discourse; it might be over who should be chosen as a parliamentary candidate in a coming election or, indeed, with the presence of the Anarchists and Revolutionary Socialists whether Parliament was in fact the way forward.   William sided with the parliamentary road and was one of the Aberdonians who in 1891 called for a conference of all Scottish Trades Councils and socialist societies with a view to establishing a national presence to fight for greater representation of the working class.   However, despite significant differences he had with others it seems he did not fall into a narrow sectarianism and was willing to march and associate with a wide spectrum of left wing opinions.

It’s clear that William Simpson must have spent most of his time on union and socialist business.   He had a wife and child (sadly I have no further information on them), how far, if at all, the strains of such a heavy load played on the family I cannot say.   It must surely have been present in one way or another.   What we can say is that there is every likelihood that the volume and pace of political work he undertook, not to mention the physical toil of being a stonecutter, played some part in his sudden death on 3rd August 1894.   For three months prior to his death he had been staying with his wife and child at Kincardine O’ Neil, just west of Aberdeen, working on a contract of stonecutting at the local mansion, a new-build castle in the ever popular Scots Baronial style.   On Friday the 3rd William returned to his lodgings at the end of the working day.   Was taken ill and died shortly after.   Dr Cran of Banchory issued the death certificate, concluding that death was caused by heart disease.   William Simpson Rennie was twenty eight years old.

Kincardine o' Neil castle

Kincardine o’ Neil castle

It is a sad irony that a man who campaigned against privilege should die while employed on the grand folly at Kincardine Castle

The following day his body was taken from the village to the railway station at Torphins to be carried to his home town.   In a mark of respect some fifty of his fellow workers at Kincardine O’ Neil, dressed in working clothing, followed the coffin to the station.

When it came to his burial at St Peter’s Cemetery at 6.30p.m. on the evening of 7th August (allowing workers time to attend) the extent of his influence became apparent.   The cortege of mourners was in the region of 1600 with thousands lining the streets to the graveyard.   And, again giving an indication of how he stood for breaking of many of the conventions of bourgeois society a large number of processionists were ladies.   Women walking to the graveside en-masse, not a common sight in late Victorian Aberdeen.   His coffin was draped with a red flag, bearing the words “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity”.   An indication of the non-sectarian strength of the man and others was that at the graveside orations were given by men from the Anarchist Communist Group, the Trades Council, the SDF, the Aberdeen ILP and the Secularist Society; and at William’s home at Kingsland Place the Reverend Alex. Webster had conducted a short religious service.

At the Trades Council meeting of 15th August W. S. Rennie was described as one of their youngest and best members . . . one of their most eloquent speakers . . . always endeavoured to convince rather than to bully . . . a credit to the council and an honour to the working men of the city.

John H Elrick

John H Elrick

His headstone was erected by fellow workmen to a design by John H Elrick, mason, trade unionist and socialist.   Drawing on his own verse inscribed on the headstone it’s fitting to describe William Simpson Rennie as “A Courageous Friend of Freedom”.

July 8, 2013

A Reputation Set In Stone: Alexander Macdonald

Bronze of Macdonald from his memorial stone at Nellfield

Bronze relief of the head of Macdonald from his gravestone in Nellfield Cemetery

Perthshire stone mason Alexander Macdonald was used to working with marble but when he arrived in Aberdeen in the 1820s he had to learn to handle and cut the local granite, a far harder and less tractable rock.

Medico-Chirurgical officesThe Medico-Chirurgical offices on King Street

The granite industry was already synonymous with Aberdeen for it had been a popular export from the city since the mid 18th century when its cassies or setts were used for paving London streets. Cassies became a staple of the local quarrying industry and continued to be so into the 20th century. In addition bigger stone was supplied for large-scale constructions and civil engineering as in London Bridge and the Bell Rock Lighthouse and in the city itself there were significant landmarks such as its Union Buildings and Medico-Chirurgical offices and, of course, the magnificent span of Union Bridge over the Denburn … all demonstrating the versatility of granite.

Wishart Memorial FourdonThe Wishart Memorial at Fourdon

Macdonald’s interest in the trade’s decorative and monumental aspects is said to have been the result of his visit to the British Museum’s collection of polished Egyptian granite. He set out to emulate the beauty and fine finish achieved by masons from antiquity knowing the very feature which made the local stone so attractive for civil engineering, its hardness and durability, was its drawback for producing elaborate decoration. It could be cut, carved and even polished but not on a scale required to satisfy the rising demand for larger items of graniteware so around 1830 Macdonald set out to find ways of generating profit from the North East’s vast deposits of granite.

19 Sept 12 069A carved gravestone in Aberdeen featuring funerary pall and ivy denoting everlasting memory 

Working conditions during the Industrial Revolution were hard and brutal but Macdonald could only dream of a labour force as large and compliant as that of Ancient Egypt. Still, 19th century Britain had the steam engine and an expanding consumer market and with steam power already employed in other industries including mining and textiles the question he asked was … why not in granite?

Granite sculpture on gravestone at Nellfield Cemetery 2Carved granite memorial in Aberdeen with the broken column denoting the death of the head of the family and an angel holding a wreath of remembrance

Adjacent to Macdonald’s stone yard on King Street were premises belonging to combmaker Stewart & Rowell which operated a steam engine and this fortuitous link led to Macdonald driving his own trade forward. Combmaker John Stewart recalled that he had supplied a belt to Macdonald so the mason could experiment with steam to quicken production and meet the increasing clamour for expensive granite products.

Granite statue of King Edward VIIPopular meeting point on Union Street and Union Terrace at the King Edward Statue – music is usually extra

However many disappointing trials he endured Macdonald eventually triumphed – developing machinery able to cope with the three central challenges of transforming rough granite: of dressing one of the hardest of stones; of enabling the most effective rotation for fast polishing discs; and for applying graduated abrasives (sand from Aberdeen’s beach combined with water) to give a fine smooth finish. By 1840, the new technology was up and working and Macdonald’s business was flourishing to the extent that the marble trader became Aberdeen’s leading granite manufacturer supplying decorative stone to a luxury market.

Detail from gravestone in Nellfield CemeteryDetail of a beautifully worked Celtic knot on a gravestone in Aberdeen

Advertisements from the period reflect his confidence: Pedestals, Vases, slabs, Urns and Garden-Seats to Noblemen, gentlemen and the public generally . . . superior to any object of the class hitherto produced, and to be purchased at extremely reduced prices on account of their being executed by improved machinery. This improved machinery included steam-driven saws which still took weeks to cut through great lumps of granite but this relative speeding up of the process meant polished memorial stones and blocks for monumental plinths could at last yield profit.

Aberdeen granite 22sept2012 098This beautifully carved freestone memorial tablet set into a wall at St Nicholas graveyard in Aberdeen illustrates the intricacies of carving possible with softer stone compared with the difficulties of working hard granite

Macdonald, now in partnership with William Leslie, architect-mason and one-time Lord Provost of Aberdeen, moved from his small yard at King Street to a purpose-designed site in Constitution Street. Just as Alexander had marvelled at the skills of Egyptian masons so his contemporaries were in awe of his innovative machinery equipment and output. A proud Macdonald encouraged visitors into his yard and in 1848 it was given the royal seal of approval with a visit from Prince Albert when it was said the Queen’s Consort evinced great interest in the machinery. Five years later, in the wake of the success of her anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe visited Aberdeen and accompanied by William Leslie toured what she called the marble yards where amidst the bustle of sawing, chipping, polishing she saw superb red granite columns being prepared for dispatch to Riga and a sepulchral monument bound for New York.

22sept2012 031

Looking down Marischal Street towards the harbour

Despite the ground-breaking machinery protected by patents which had made the yard the foremost granite manufacturer in the city Macdonald was still not satisfied. As a trained mason he anticipated the day when the hand carving skills of the stonecutter would be applied to granite monuments commemorating the great and the good of the Victorian world. His faith that granite was every bit as capable of producing sculptures as fine as anything wrought in marble or cast in bronze led to the extraction of a seventeen ton stone from Dancing Cairns quarry for cutting and carving into a statue of the Fifth Duke of Gordon.

Aberdeen Duke of GordonStatue of the Duke of Gordon

Around one hundred men assisted with the grey monolith as it was mounted onto a cart drawn by seven horses and carried in procession through the city’s northerly outskirts to Macdonald’s yard. The year was 1840 and with no local carver thought good enough to undertake the work Alexander Macdonald turned to London sculptor Thomas Campbell for its fine modelling. The work took around two years and stood some ten feet high and would be placed on a pedestal of comparable height. The Aberdeen Journal described its noble simplicity and vigour with the likeness of the late lamented Duke preserved with singular fidelity. It would be a further eighteen months before what was declared to be the first statue that has been executed in granite in modern times was eventually erected on Castle Street. Whether the claim was true or not it was certainly significant for it demonstrated the potential of the local stone. However, Macdonald’s grand ambition went unrealised as marble and bronze continued to be the material of first choice for Victorian sculptors. We need look no further than the public works displayed in the Granite City to see how far dignitaries lacked the nerve to break out of this traditional aesthetic and eschewed its native granite: a marble Victoria in the entrance to the Town House; and bronzes of Burns, Wallace, Albert, General Gordon and more recently Bruce. The bold exception is the figure of Edward VII and the war memorial Lion. It could be said that Alexander Macdonald’s dream of widespread granite statuary was only realised in monuments commemorating the dead of the Great War.

Union Stree Aberdeen 22sept2012 041Looking down Union Street from Castle Street

The Gordon statue which originally gazed the length of the once proud granite frontages of Union Street was moved to Golden Square in 1952 where it still stands casting an eye over motorists frantically searching out parking spaces.

M'Grigor obelisk Duthie Park 2The McGrigor Obelisk in pink granite in Duthie Park

Despite there being no real demand for granite public statuary Macdonald’s business prospered winning awards for quality and beauty of workmanship at numerous international exhibitions and important decorative commissions including the fountains at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and Trafalgar Square; the sarcophagus for the late Prince Albert at Frogmore, the M’Grigor obelisk in Aberdeen’s Duthie Park, which once stood at Marischal College, and the Wishart memorial at Fourdon.

Aberdeen Marischal College 22sept2012 056

Marischal College now Aberdeen City Headquarters –

the second largest granite building in the world *

Alexander Macdonald died in March 1860 from what was described as a bronchial attack. Given his life in the stone trade it is distinctly possible that his illness was a result of the trade’s harmful dust. Macdonald’s son, also Alexander, inherited the business. Not a mason and disabled from his twenties and confined to a wheelchair the younger Macdonald used his wealth to support the arts and promote a stronger aesthetic sense amongst the citizens of Aberdeen. He died in 1884 having bequeathed the city funds for purchasing contemporary works of art. This was a most fitting legacy particularly so with the opening of the Marshall Mackenzie Art Gallery itself a fine building of Kemnay and Corrennie granites and its interior of marvellous polished granite columns.

Aberdeen HMT 22sept2012 013Aberdeen City Library, St Mark’s Church and His Majesty’s Theatre

(Education, salvation, damnation)

On a more modest level local cemeteries are full of examples of Macdonald’s revolutionary techniques: serried ranks of granite slabs, sawn, carved and polished – all testimony to the virtues of the deceased and the ingenuity and business acumen of the man from Perthshire.

First published Leopard Magazine

(*The Escorial Madrid is the largest granite building)

February 13, 2013

Aberdeen: A Bit More Than a Rural Village

 woodside Works

I don’t wish to carp but at the recent showing of the Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil it was said that the Industrial Revolution had pretty well passed Aberdeen by – that apart from a bit of shipbuilding Aberdeen was by and large a feeder-servicer of the rural economy.   This is simply wrong- perhaps an inability to see that the huge agglomerations of industrial capital and labour of the west of Scotland, and say Manchester, were just partial aspects of the bigger picture of the Industrial Revolution which was effectively occurring with degrees of intensity elsewhere in Britain.

The bit of shipbuilding that Aberdeen did centred for a brief period in developing the revolutionary tea clipper.   Yes Aberdeen did not and could not build the yards found on the Clyde nonetheless it had an industry which survived into the later 20th century.   In the era of wooden ship building it did compete but as first iron and then steel became the material of choice it lost advantage to those manufacturers close to iron-steel founders which of course tended to be close to coal supplies.   But of course these later developments are at the far end of the period classically designated as the Industrial Revolution.  

If we take textiles which was the industry often accepted as the archetype of the revolution, Aberdeen was a significant player with thousands of workers employed in cotton, flax and woollen manufacture:Grandholm, Broadford, Bannermill and Hadden’s by the Green being some of the most significant.

Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire granite which can be found the world over was quarried, hewn and polished in Aberdeen. Nowhere else in the UK could compete with the industry in northeast Scotland. It grew through the 19th century employing thousands and as early as the 1830s steam power was introduced to manufacturing here in Aberdeen.   Beyond this we can identify further thousands employed in industrial processes such as chemicals, engineering, comb manufacture (possibly the largest in the world) and paper making.  

If we take industrialisation up to the end of the 19th century, well beyond the classical Revolution, even fishing was being organised on an industrial scale with the introduction of steam trawling which agglomerated capital in a new way and introduced a wage-laboured proletariat to the industry.

We can all acknowledge that Aberdeen was not the west of Scotland.   No huge steel mills, no huge shipyards but within the constraints of resources and geography the city was most definitely industrialised.   In Aberdeen industries were created using new large motive power; there was the growth of an industrial working class with all the conflicts which were to be found elsewhere in Scotland.   The city did service the rural sector, and with its harbour became the export point for farm produce but it was certainly more than a larger version of Turriff.

 

Contribution from Textor