Guest Blog from the Granite Past to a Future Historian

Aberdeen's Castle Gait, east terminus of granite-lined Union Street: Town House, medieval Tolbooth and Mercat Cross right and foreground

ABERDEENSHIRE granite is to be celebrated in May 2011 as “Granite Month” That is, IMHO, a relatively short period to show gratitude to a species of igneous rock on which the historic city was founded and built. But a month of ‘celebration’ is better than no celebration at all.

RICHARD CAMERON KELMAN was in his senior years Chairman of the Board of Directors of Craigenlow Quarries, Dunecht, before the Aberdeen-based company was sold in 1979 to Tarmac Holdings. Because of a former excelIent relationship established by Mr Kelman, his board and the late third Viscount Cowdray (Dunecht Estates), Tarmac continues to operate mineral rights courtesy of the present mineral rights holders, Dunecht Estates and the Hon. Charles Anthony Pearson, younger son of the former Viscount.

Richard Kelman wrote this article while the quarry still operated as an extraction business. It was originally published in the Aberdeen Press & Journal.

“In many parts of the rapidly changing Granite City of Aberdeen, where the insidious influences of steel and chrome, concrete and precast substitutes have not yet obligerated our traditional image, it is still possible to admire the beauty of the city’s native granite.

Take a walk round the roads not far from the famous Rubislaw Quarry — say down Rubislaw Den and streets adjacent — and there you may still see beauty in natural stone.

Not the straight-axed faces that make granite (or any other stone) so featureless, but the diamond-cut bull-faced block stone that bespeaks dignity and grace and character, and glistens like its brother mineral, the diamond, when cut to advantage.

Look at Earl’s Court Hotel in Queen’s Road in its grey dignity or the red and grey masterpiece of masonry at No.92.

Look also and admire the sheer magnificence of the salmon-pink granite mansion at 46 Rubislaw Den North.

Rubislaw granite used to build grand Victorian houses in Rubislaw Den North


Such are part of the past of our city, famous for its Marischal College (the second-largest granite building in the world) and for its many other civic structures — the Salvation Army Citadel, the main Post Office, His Majestys Theatre — built of the stone extracted from Rubislaw or Kemnay or Corrennie or Dancing Cairns or any other site where such attractive granites have been worked.

Recently [this essay was written in May 1972. Ed] Aberdeen Corporation’s direct labour force and other contractors have been uplifting almost the last of the granite setts that have been a feature of the city’s streets for so many generations. And it seems that with such a move they have closed a chapter on the history of Aberdeenshire granite, now so rarely used for monumental, ornamental or traditional building purposes.

What of the future?

It was perhaps only natural to expect that some of Aberdeen’s granites, with their high crushing strength, would be highly suitable for roadmaking and so it has turned out. As part of a massive national programme, this area has met the call of the motorway.


The rapid development of roadstone production has been a specialist effort of Craigenlow Quarries Limited, from their site at Dunecht, about ten miles west of the city boundary. From this quarry came the raw materials of which Dunecht House was built by the first Viscount Cowdray, as well as stones for the erection of most of the village of Dunecht and adjacent countryside dwellings.

'The hole', 1955: Rubislaw quarry at the height of its production. Workings had to stop when the hole reached 466ft below surface

When the quarry was opened just after World War II, it was considered that the stone was unsuitable for monumental work and major ornamental projects; this economic niche was already filled by the ‘great hole’ of Rubislaw quarry within the city limits. So Craigenlow production was concentrated on making smaller building material and aggregates of six-inch down to dust.

Today as would be apparent to anyone visiting the working area at Craigenlow, it has become one of the largest granite quarries in Scotland.

Granite operations in 1885

There could be no greater contrast between the methods of opertion of, say, 100 years ago and today.. Some weeks ago I had the peasure of escorting one of Aberdeen’s leading citizens round the quarry. He said to our manager: ‘I used to be involved in the quarrying business myself.’

We were interested. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘out in Burma when I was a prisoner-of-war working on THE ROAD.’

That allusion would be a fair comparison with 100 years ago in quarrying — the days of hammer and chisel. Today the industry is highly mechanised. For instance, last year the quarry consumed 1.25 million units of power, with an output potential of 2000 tons of crushed aggregates or bitumen-macadam a day for road-making and maintenance, general building work, precast stone manufacture and so on.

The quarry has a main face about 100-feet high and a few hundred yards long.

Since restarted in 1945, the ‘hole’ has grown and grown and is now more than 20 acres in extent.

Craigenlow quarry reopened after 1945 to produce roadstone

From the ‘top’, 4.25inch holes are drilled about 100 feet down — 50 to 80 of them each time — about 15 feet back from the edge. Usiing specially hardened bits and powerful mobile compressors, it takes about four months to complete preparations for a blast.

12-24 TONS

When ready, anything from 12 to 24 tons of explosives are loaded – the composition is constantly being changed in the course of experiment – but it is generally a mixture of ammonium nitrate and open-cast gelignite.

In the early days a blast was a big occasion, involving formal invitations to VIPs such as the Lord Provost, town and county officials and colleagues in the building industty, road surveyors and so forth; those who could be included consistent with strict safety measures laid down by the Ministry of Mines and the police.

Records for December 1961 recall . . .
‘Most successful blast: probably around 150,000 tons; superb weather (in December); strong west sun; blast most dramatic; little small stuff reached the “trenches”, but dust cloud very intense, heavy with minute grit particles which covered all the onlookers in the pillboxes and behind the special screens.’


‘Numerous photographers; BBC television and ITV – this time with sound-recording units; blast on television at 6p.m. that night (ITV) and the sound background (countdown and blast) was excellent. All guests attended late luncheon at Broadstraik. George Leslie (manager) gave a technical comment of the morning’s activities and I addressed the company afterwards.’

That was ten years ago and more. . . now the firm take each job (blast) in their stride, but are always relieved when its successful completion is reported.

Rubislaw quarry today: the great hole, now flooded, recently went on the market

In an address to that representative gathering at the Broadstraik Inn that December I said:
‘It is rare that a month goes past withut some comment in the Press babout the granite trade. Recently some critics were laying it on thick about the travesty of ersatz shop fronts on main street. Quite rightly, too. Our native city has a reputation to maintain and any encroachment by modern shop fronts in chromium and the like will merely bring a pseudo and garish appearance to our ancient dignified city.


‘We hear so much nonsense about the Aberdeen granite trade. As a loyal and proud citizen, I resent irresponsible comments that find their way into the Press about our industry which dates back over 500 years.

World's second-largest granite building, Marischal College, designed by Archibald Simpson, 1836-1844

‘Undoubtedly Aberdeen’s reputation as the “Granite City” arose primarily because of its production of granite for monumental, ornamental and decorative purposes. Its quarries produced the raw materials — three-quarters of the city is constructed of the darker grey of Rubislaw. Most of the larger public buildings are constructed of the lighter grey of Kemnay; for example, Marischal College, the Northern Assurance building at the corner of Union Terrace and Union Street, and most of the buildings in Union Terrace, Union Street, the Post Office in Crown Street, and the Citadel and Town House in Castle Gait.

‘Even as early as 1884 the granite masons who had become world-famous for their skill in working their native stone found that the range of colours in local granite was not sufficient to meet the demand.


Marischal College's Mitchell Tower incorporated elements of the old college heraldic ceiling, which will be saved from vandalism or council alteration

The trade began to look farther afield and brought in black and rich reds from Sweden and Labradorite from Norway and thus were able to provide their customers with greater variety. Alas today the overseas market is non-existent.

‘Two World Wars have finished what tariffs and quotas began and cheaply-produced foreign stone from Europe and India is allowed to flood the home market, so that up until recently the monumental and ornamental side of the trade reached an uncertain state.

‘Now the trade has turned to another line which is developing most promisingly — the construction of granite facings for buildings.

‘All these activities do not concern us here today. Much as it is admirable that Aberdeen’s master masons are again holding their own in the skills that have been handed down for over 500 years, the fact must be faced that most of their raw materials are being imported from abroad: Finland, Norway, Sweden and further afield.


‘In a modest way we might claim that at Craigenlow we are trying to maintain a tradition. Each year a famous name in the history of granite in this Northeast corner of Scotland is added to the obituary list. The ruthless sword of economics cuts indiscriminately.

‘Survival becomes dependent on productive efficiency and so far as Craigenlow is concerned, we who carry the company’s administrative burden can, I think, look with confidence to the future business of keeping the flag of the granite industry flying, maintaining the traditions which were created so long ago.’

‘Today — 10 years later — that confidence has proved justified. It is true that few quarries have survived the last 10 years. Even the most famous of them all — Rubislaw — has ceased to operate.

Rubislaw, 'biggest man-made hole in Europe' for sale: now an urban lake with no boats

‘But we feel that skilled management and harmonious teamwork, service at any hour and on any day and excellent public relations, have created their own reputation over the last 25 years.

‘The old anonymity is gone for ever and we find ourselves in the forefront of the extraction industry, even on a national scale.'”
©1972-1986 Richard C Kelman

Provost Skene's House, saved from destruction when Council flattened Aberdeen's medieval Broad Street in 1970s to build concrete offices which they are now demolishing by dynamite

This article was published in the Aberdeen Press and Journal edition of May 23, 1972. It appears prophetic in its prediction of the collapse of the granite industry generally and in Aberdeenshire in particular. Richard Kelman knew that Aberdeen’s grey granite built the terraces of the Houses of Parliament and Waterloo Bridge in London and that its granite setts (‘cassies’) were used to pave much of London’s streets. He witnessed the closure of Rubislaw quarry within the city limits off Aberdeen’s Queen’s Road in 1971. But he could not have foreseen the building of a new bridge over the Dee within the last decade using imported white granite from China.

Misuse of public funding and available resources continues.

Currently the Market Square in Oldmeldrum (twice altered in the last 30 years) is receiving a third facelift, to the chagrin of enraged traders and local residents who were not asked to approve the plan. Again stone being used is not local, but some granite facing is being incorporated–from a Chinese quarry-alongside concrete conglomerate, at a cost to the taxpayer of £370,000. To add to the so-called pedestrian precinct (which upon revision cannot be implemented because Aberdeenshire Council failed to provide adequate alternative routing for traffic) is the installation of a stone sculpture on the Square at a further cost of £23,000. Aberdeenshire Council is presently facing bankcruptcy. Aberdeen City Council is already bankcrupt.
RC Kelman will be turning in his (Craigenlow-granite-topped) grave.

Detail of Marischal College granite: Aberdeen Leopards from the City's coat of arms form a decorative frieze in the former University building

Probably the greatest irony is that bankcrupt Aberdeen City Council recently announced it was to move its operations headquarters into Mr Kelman’s ‘world’s second-largest granite building’, the 19th Century former university tower and quadrangle of Marischal College. [The world’s largest granite buildiing is El Real Monasterio de El Escorial, Madrid]. The move is required because the Council’s former offices–a concrete structure built on the flattened remains of irreplaceable medieval precinct known as Guestrow (of which Provost Skene’s House, 1535, is the only survivor)–is to be ‘removed’.

Guestrow ghosts must be seeking revenge. The concrete structure– locally humourously referred to as the ‘penthouse with the best view in Aberdeen–because it is the only place you cannot see the building’–is itself to be flattened (i.e. blown up). All this dynamite and gelignite would please the old Kelman granite heart.
Ed. (2010)


The Sueno’s Stone Cover-up

Forres's AD9th-century Sueno's Stone before enclosure

In October 1992 the then Scottish Office (now State department of Parliament of Scotland) along with Historic Scotland, the country’s watchdog on listed buildings, ancient monuments and sacred stones, chose to enclose the Pictish slab, ‘Sueno’s Stone’ at Forres, Morayshire in a glass-and-steel construction. This was part of a longer term plan to retain significant Pictish (5th-9thCC) symbol stones in situ in the countryside, rather than remove them all to museums and replace them with replicas–as had been previously done with Strathearn’s Forteviot Cross and Easter Ross’s Hilton of Cadboll stone. In hindsight, similar glass enclosures, like Black Isle’s Shandwick, have proved effective in drawing tourism to lesser-known antiquities, but the greenhouse-like enclosure has had a marked influence in drying out the stones.

The following article was written by Marian Youngblood and published in the January 1993 edition of Leopard Magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

The Sueno’s Stone Cover-up

Sueno's Stone, Forres, enclosed autumn 1992

CHIEFS FROM the Scottish Office carried out a strange ritual of stone worship –almost Pictish in its trappings– on the shores of the Moray Firth in mid-October (1992), closely resembling a ceremony over 1000-years earlier when Kenneth macAlpin used the same stone to win over Pictish chieftains to his side in the new combined kingdom of Picts and Scots.

Kenneth macAlpin (Cinaed, son of Alpin) is said in legend to have slain seven Pictish princes, in order to have his claim through the female line to the Pictish throne recognized, and to make himself lawful king of Picts and Scots in AD843. Ethnologists and cultural anthropologists think that Sueno’s stone at Forres, on the Moray Firth, (erroneously named in the 18th century when it was popular to think of ancient stones as Viking imports) was probably raised by his generals after a decisive battle on the Moray coast, and as a warning to future Pictish would-be claimants to his newly-seized throne.

So, on a cold October day in 1992, when the 20-foot high (6.5m) stone could have celebrated a near-1150th birthday, another Scots chieftain, Sir Hector Munro, MP for Dumfriessshire, and Minister for the Environment at the Scottish Office, made another heroic gesture, cutting the ribbon wound around its massive glass enclosure and declaring Kenneth’s stone open, er, that is, closed.

The ceremony for which Sir Hector and representatives of the State Secretariat for Scotland –including Historic Scotland– travelled to the North Coast, was to declare the eleven-centuries’ old stone well-and-truly protected from 20th Century elements and pollution in a plate glass edifice which cost the nation £115,000.

Designed by Brian Paul and constructed by the Glasgow firm of Gray and Dick, the wind- and weatherproof structure now seals the carved stone in a transparent sheath, making it possible to view its 97 figures of defeated and dejected Picts on their fleeing horses, dominated by victorious Scots. But it is no longer a hands-on monument.

Thought to have been carved shortly after the macAlpin takeover, its Moray sandstone surface has survived the ravages of the intervening centuries by beingb lost to the shifting sands of the coast where it lay buried until rediscovered in 1726. Its present site is probably not too far from the original, but it is possible that it used to face the other way around.

This was Kenneth’s problem:
His mother was a Pictish princess which gave him a genuine claim to the throne of his East coast relatives who reckoned succession through the female line. But the Picts were (and still are) a different race from the Scots of Dal Ríata, with rich and extensive landholdings. They took pride in displaying their pagan symbols alongside their Roman Christianity in blatant declaration of their (superior) knowledge and dominion over their Church which, since Nechtan’s reign (AD703-729) had allied itself with Rome. Rome was considered a powerful ally and Pictish stone church buildings (since 710) held services to educate the populace ‘in the Pictish manner’. This was considered enlightened and more advanced than the provincial Iona (Columban) version of the faith practised by Scots.

Pictish Christianity was, in essence, the first ‘state’ religion, whereas the Scots still believed that their method of communing directly with God was the better way. The two races had tended historically to maintain separate courts, religious practices and alliances (Scots with Irish; Picts with Northumbria); only in battle when they needed to defeat a common enemy (as seen in the Viking threat), did they call upon their brothers for help. It was an uneasy brotherhood and allegiances changed regularly.

The Norsemen had attacked the Picts four years earlier in 839 and Kenneth knew their borders and forces had been weakened. Legend has it that he used this opportunity to march North, ostensibly to help his Pictish kinsmen, but in reality he meant to seize Pictish lands. He planned — by killing seven Pictish princes at a banquet held in his honour– to subjugate the Picts to his authority and to proclaim himself king of the dual throne and having himself crowned King of Picts and Scots.

By the mid 9th century, the Pictish kingdom was split into North and South, with the royal capital in the South at Forteviot/Strathearn, but with the strongest family alliances in the North: in Cat –Caithness, Orkney and Shetland; Fidach –Ross, Inverness, Moray and Banff; and Ce –Aberdeenshire. If Kenneth was to overcome the Picts by force and deceit, he would have to hit their major stronghold (Moray) and make it stick.

Pictish carved stones before Kenneth’s time (Class I, 5th-6thC; Class II cross-slabs and simple cross-stones, 8thC) had all told stories of family lineage, power hierarchy and symbolism and it is likely Kenneth used a similar method to get his message across.

Sueno’s Stone is probably the tallest news report and propaganda announcement ever carved, celebrating the victory of Scots (and their brand of Christianity and freedom) over Picts with their control over state and church. At the same time it was a warning to any future Pictish claimant to keep off. It is significant that the Scots felt deeply about differences between their ‘simple’ Christianity and the Pictish secular control of ‘Lord over Church’. It took another fifty years after Kenneth was dead and gone before the ruling monarch in 889 ‘liberated’ the Church which had been, according to the Scots Chronicle ‘in servitude up to that time after the fashion of the Picts.’

Sueno's east face: panels from top: A, B, C, D

Backed by Kenneth’s Christian power –might is right– the western face of Sueno’s Stone is decorated by a gigantic interlace cross overlighting two bent monastic figures flanking a central supreme being (Kenneth himself?) in a Dali-esque coronation of the king by angelic powers of his (correct) faith.

But on the stone’s east face, the carvings tell a grim tale. Split into four panels, from top to bottom, the story goes somethiing like this:
A: enter a strong band of armed Scots on large horses, overseen by a supreme chief and four henchmen at the top of the stone.
B: central crowned, kilted figure (Kenneth) and supporters watch warriors fighting and, immediately below, within the precinct of a Pictish broch (last stronghold of the Northern Picts, probably nearby Burghead) the decapitation of seven Picts, while the rest of the attackers chase away very small Picts on very small horses.
C: while the rest of the battle winds up, the ultimate deceit is carried out –the slaying of seven princes under an awning, denoting legendary betrayal of the law of hospitality by the killing of one’s hosts. Headless bodies lie under the canvas.
D: the victors, right, banish the defeated Picts, (without shields or horses) to their hinterland. It is this final message that has led historians to believe that the stone used to face the other way around: with a message to other potential pretenders to go back North where they came from, while confidently displaying a giant cross on the other face to confront anyone approaching from the South and East.

If Sueno’s Stone was indeed raised by Kenneth as a graphic declaration to the last of the Picts, it seems to have worked for a remarkable two hundred years.

Only when Macbeth and his Men of Moray (the descendants of vestigial Picts) seized the Scots throne in 1040 did fire rise once again in the proud Northeast breast.

But that is history.
©1992-2011 Marian Youngblood

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