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Aberdeen’s granite men: Hard men, hard work


Granite is the hardest of building materials. In the North East of Scotland it has been used for centuries – for stone circles, burial cairns and later for castles. Even large parts of the great cathedral of St. Machar in Old Aberdeen were built from granite.

The hard nature of the stone meant that, with the tools available in early days,  dressed work was often done in sandstone. These constructions were all built using field gathered stones, quarrying for granite really beginning in 1730 with the opening of a quarry in the Loanhead area of Aberdeen. From that beginning a whole industry grew, an industry divided into quarrying with settmaking also carried out at the quarry; from the 1830s granite yards developed cutting and polishing for headstones and monuments and then polished fronts for building; lastly there were the builders whose methods and techniques developed from the earlier builders including those working in sandstone. Whether you were a quarryman, settmaker, stonecutter, polisher or building mason your work was long, hard and often dangerous.

Quarrymen had perhaps the hardest and most dangerous work. As early as 1768 there is a record of a quarryman at Cove being fatally injured when the train caught fire and ignited the explosive prematurely. In 1796 a  doctor at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary issued quarries with instructions as to how to apply a tourniquet. Things gradually improved during the 19th century. In 1831 a safety fuse was invented for use in Cornish mines and this was adopted in the granite quarries. Later in the century electricity would be used to fire the charge. Regulatory control also improved especially after the passing of the Quarries Act in 1894. However, accidents could still happen as at Kemnay in 1929 two men were swept over a ledge at Kemnay, one of the men was killed, his safety rope having snapped. In 1935 two men were killed at Corrennie Quarry after a ledge gave way following a blast.

Quarrymen needed to be big, strong men. The early tools were made of iron tipped with steel and much heavier than they would be by the end of the 19th century. A description of stone cutting in a granite yard from 1877 would have applied equally to similar work at a quarry or at a building site – ‘mere sharpness of metal will hardly touch granite; it requires weight and force in the blow to break up the particle. Shaping a material which gives a dull iron sound when struck must be one requiring an unlimited stock of patience, and a very strong frame to stand the perpetual jar of the blows on the apparently unyielding surface’. Even into the early 20th century their work required great strength and when some of them took employment at the Inverurie Locomotive works, cutting rivets from boilers, they found this relatively easy and were cautioned by the union representative to slow down because other workers would be expected to work at the same speed.

They had a reputation as hard drinkers, given a wide berth when they visited the taverns in Alford and elsewhere on market day. The effect of this large group of men and their families setting up home in a small rural village like Kemnay was considerable. This is summed up in the story told of the great quarryman John Fyfe, part inventor of the blondin. While giving a lift to a lady returning from market, she, not knowing who he was, railed against Fyfe for bringing all these drunken quarrymen to Kemnay, up till then a decent place. Once he admitted who he was she demands to be let off and asks where he stole the gig from!

The hazards of working in the granite yards were also considerable, if not so likely to be fatal. The noise and dust must have been considerable. One common accident was fires – fiery fragments of the steel tools, entering your eye. This was exasperated by the practice of double berths where the men worked in two rows in the shed. Aberdeen’s great local historian, G.M.Fraser, started life in a granite yard before losing an eye. He subsequently became a journalist before finally becoming City Librarian for nearly 40 years. In the early 20th century safety goggles were introduced but the men wouldn’t wear them – they used gauze not glass and so visibility was poor. They also caused the men to sweat profusely. Little wonder that granite firms were among the major donators to the Aberdeen Ophthalmic Institution.

The great and controversial fear among granite workers in the 20th century was silicosis. Little understood in the 19th century its existence was denied by employers into the 20th century. When it did begin to be studied it was found that quarry workers rarely suffered from it because they worked in the open air. In granite yards the men worked almost in the open, in an open-sided shed. Around 1891 one of the leading granite employers, Charles MacDonald, was the first to build fully enclosed sheds for his men, in retrospect a philanthropic act to protect them from the elements that may actually have harmed the men. Even in the middle of the 20th century granite workers tell of leaving work looking as though they were covered in snow. Sometimes they used the new pneumatic tools to blow the dust off themselves, a practice ostensibly banned but still carried on even though it blew the dust everywhere.  The work itself would have been long and tedious, it could take months for the primitive mechanised saws used in the mid-19th century to saw through a large block of granite.

Even polishers were not immune to industrial injuries apart from dust disease. Polisher Robert Taylor described how he caught his arm in a machine and broke it in four places – in his own words it looked like figure S! He joked that luckily the infirmary was just round the corner from his yard. Robert also described how there was water everywhere since it was used to keep the sawing blades cool. It mixed with the ground down granite to form a virtual mud. For that reason they wore wooden soled clogs with a steel rim and sacks round their legs.

On building sites the various types of masons broke and shaped the stones to size. Unlike bricks granite blocks didn’t arrive on site ready to use. Attempts to shape the stone at the quarries had led to an industrial dispute at the time of the building of Aberdeen Town House in the 1860s. Fred Cargill described his experience as one of the last apprentices to serve his time on the last major granite housing scheme in Aberdeen – Kincorth, built in the years after World War II. Fred described being told on his first day that by night his hand would resemble a pound of raw mince but that he would soon stop that (missing the puncheon or chisel). Fred also described how in slack times masons from the yards came to work on building sites. In Fred’s words -  on site they were handless, though technically all masons and in the same union.

It seems inconceivable to us today that into this harsh, dangerous environment, very young boys were brought to work in the 19th century. In memoirs written down much later, some men described starting work as young as 7 years, and even after the Factory Act, 10 was common. Settmakers in particular employed their sons. They were virtually self-employed and employed their own assistant, often their son, though too young to be classed as an apprentice. In 1953 William Henderson was the oldest employee at Kemnay Quarry. He was 76 and had started in the quarry aged 10.  In the granite yards boys were employed as nippers doing anything they were asked. This often involved, if they were strong enough, pushing wheelbarrows round the men collecting their tools and ferrying them to the blacksmith for sharpening. Similar work was done at quarries. Another job that boys might be given was feeding the abrasive into the saws which involved running between barely guarded machinery. There are instances of grown men catching their clothes in the machinery so the danger to boys would have been even greater.

The granite men of old would surely envy today’s working conditions where machines do most of the work. By the time Robert Taylor retired in the 1980s he could go to work in his suit since by that time he said he was simply pushing buttons. Robertson Granite’s new yard, opened just outside Aberdeen in 2017, is a world away from those we see in old black and white photographs.

By Jim Fiddes

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