A History of the Craigleith Hill District

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Page last updated: 27/10/2010

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Craigleith Quarry Stone - 'The Stony Heart of Edinburgh'

On September 7 1991, before the retail park began building, George Rosie wrote an article on Craigleith Quarry entitled 'The Stony Heart of Edinburgh' for 'The Scotsman':

'Soon it might be just another suburban supermarket, but once Craigleith Quarry provided the raw materials for some of Europe's finest buildings - a stone so durable that it might even be impervious to acid rain. George Rosie looks at the history of the one hole in the ground Edinburgh can be proud of.'
Famous Connections

Everything comes from somewhere, and Edinburgh is no exception. If the city has a matrix, it must be the old Craigleith Quarry at Blackhall, about a mile from the west end of Princes Street. That is the rocky womb from which the best of Edinburgh sprang. From its huge cavity emerged some of the choicest buildings in Europe, including- among many others - the General Register House, the City Chambers, the Old College, the Dean Bridge, the Royal Scottish Academy, the City Observatory and the Royal High School (now the Crown Office).

'I'd say the great majority of the new town built between 1770 and 1830 was built from Craigleith stone' , says James Clark of the New Town Conservation Committee. 'Craigleith is by far the best of the Scottish building stones. Perth and Dundee have sandstones too, but they are nothing like as durable. And the sandstones used to build Glasgow never matched the quality of Craigleith. It's quite remarkable material. In fact Craigleith is to Edinburgh what the island of Portland is to London; the source of its best, most beautiful and most characteristic building stone.'

Just as Portland limestone was the first choice of Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren, so Craigleith sandstone was the favoured material of Scots master builders like Robert Adam, William Burn and Robert Reid. But while Portland stone had to be shipped in ketches round to London (a journey that sometimes took two weeks), Craigleith Quarry was a short cart trundle from Edinburgh. Neo-classical Edinburgh is largely what Craigleith sandstone made it.

Historical Significance

So there is some poignancy in the news that the supermarket group Sainsbury's want to build 84,000square feet of 'retail space' plus petrol station and parking for 670 cars on the site of Craigleith Quarry. But Sainsbury's, unlike most of Edinburgh does seem to be aware of the significance of the site. 'We do appreciate its historical importance to the city', says a company spokesman. 'That's why we have incorporated so much natural stonework into our design.' Sainsbury's says its also 'considering' setting up some kind of display to trace how important the quarry was to Edinburgh.

Which may not be much but it is better than nothing. In a land obsessed with its (often bogus) 'heritage', Craigleith Quarry has been neglected and abused. The city it spawned has long since turned its back. For decades, the old quarry was a dumping ground for the city's rubbish. The great hole in the ground - which was once more than 200 feet deep and used to swarm with quarrymen - is filled in. It now consists of 12 acres of derelict, weed covered land surrounded by a barbed wire fence. A notice hints at previous abuse; 'poisonous, toxic flammable or dangerous waste must not be tipped.'

But the old stone quarry still has many admirers. One of them is Andrew McMillan, a geologist with the British Geological Survey and editor of Buildings Stones of Edinburgh (one of the more informative books written about the city). 'There's no doubt that Craigleith stone was special' , McMillan says. 'It was regarded as one of the best stones to work with. It was just so hard, massive and durable. As late as 1938, quarry workers were complaining that their saws could not cut it.'

The Source of the Stone

'It's a superb building stone'. Andrew McMillan explains that what made Craigleith sandstone the building stone par excellence was the way it was formed 350 million years ago. Like most geologists, McMillan has a startling historical perspective. The sand that made up the stone, he contends, was deposited by a huge, fast running river that swept down from somewhere in the North-east. It's an explanation that offers a stunning insight into the ancient history of the lump of lands us now call Scotland. 'Fife and the Lothians were delta country in those days' McMillan says. 'We're talking about a river delta that must have been something like the Nile or the Mississippi is today. And that the river must have been pretty powerful, because it seems to have deposited sand at an enormous rate.'

And some fierce eddy in the current, some particularly wicked swirl, dumped sand faster at what is now Craigleith than anywhere else in lowland Scotland.

And not only sand. The trunks of huge auraucarias trees came charging down on the current, some with primitive gastropods clinging to them. These lumps of timber were swiftly buried by the sand (before oxygen could rot them), fossilised over millions of years, and then uncovered by Craigleith quarriers in the 19th Century. One such fossil tree discovered at Craigleith in 1830, is now sitting outside the Natural History Museum in Kensington. Other bits and pieces of fossil trees from Craigleith are, it seems, scattered in gardens all over Edinburgh.

To its aficionados there is a sensuous quality about Craigleith sandstone that is real but hard to describe. It is smooth, cream-coloured, fine textured, iron - hard and glitters with mica and silica. It can be polished to an almost glass-like finish or rusticated into V-joints that never seem to lose their edges. It has a 'crushing strength' that outranks any other Scottish sandstone. And while stonemasons curse the massiveness that makes it hard to work, they also wax lyrical about Craigleith stone's ability to shed everything the weather can throw at it. Modern chemists said that the chemically inert silica, which bonds the grains of sand, will probably prove resistant to modern pollutants like acid rain.

Digging Deep

This priceless gift to Edinburgh from the Carboniferous era was soon spotted by the city's medieval masons. Early quarrying records are not good, but Craigleith was being plundered by 1615, and almost certainly long before.

In 1661 Craigleith stone was used for 'great lintels' in the Castle and one big block was quarried 'for working the Kingis armes on'. Stone from Craigleith went into Holyrood house, the Tron Kirk, George Heriot's Hospital and probably the Flodden Wall.

But Craigleith Quarry really came into its own with the explosive growth of Edinburgh in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Craigleith stone was so dense that it could be carved out of the ground in huge 'freestone' lumps. The six pillars at the entrance of the Old College - each 22ft high and more than 3ft in diameter - are made from single pieces of Craigleith stone. An even bigger monolith was gouged out of Craigleith in 1823; a single stone 136ft long and 20ft wide weighing more than 1,500 tons.

Most of it went to form the architrave on the National Monument (aka Scotland's Disgrace) on the Calton Hill. When the workings were in full swing, Craigleith Quarry must have been an awesome sight. Contemporary engravings show the huge rock-bound hole swarming with men, machines and horses.

In 1835 no fewer than 60 horse-drawn carts were making four journeys a day into Edinburgh. A horse-drawn pump did its best to reduce the amount of water in the deep quarry holes. A horse-drawn railway system lifted stone from the quarry bottom to the top. That acute chronicler of the Edinburgh scene, Professor Robert Mason, describes Craigleith in the 1850s as '…..a vast hole, the depth of which from its precipitous edges made you dizzy and from whose innards ….you heard the clank of hammers on iron, and saw horses and carts moving, and here and there, men blasting the sandstone' (although sledge hammers and wedges seem to have been favoured over blasting powder).

The Human Cost

There was of course, a human cost. Accidents in the quarry were notorious and in 1852 an Edinburgh doctor noted that 'an old Craigleith man was done at 30 died at 35'. The killer was stone dust and the doctor recommended the quarriers to grow beards and moustaches to act as crude filters. (The men themselves believed that the danger came not from the dust but from the sulphur in the rock).

Far and Away The Best

'Quite a lot of Craigleith stone was shipped out of Scotland,' says Andrew McMillan. 'Some of it went to the US and Europe. A lot went to London. There is Craigleith stone in the Bank of England building, the British Museum and Buckingham Palace. It seems a long way to transport great lumps of sandstone, but people were prepared to pay good money for high-grade building material. And Craigleith was among the best.'

Certainly the great Robert Adam seemed to think so. When he set out to build the General Register House (one of the key public buildings of the early New Town), it is known that he 'procured specimens from all the quarries in the neighbourhood and after ascertaining their comparative merits, fixed on Craigleith stone'. It was a good choice, as the condition of the building testifies.

And when William Playfair tried to find cheaper stone from Fife for the building now known as the Royal Scottish Academy he was forced to give up because '…in Craigleith Quarry and no other, they met with a stratum of excellent stone of suitable colour'. That 'stratum of stone' produced one of the most elegant buildings in Edinburgh (although the extra cost of it -854- was docked from Playfair's fee).

Playfair's Royal Scottish Academy is typical of the neo-classical masterpieces run up from Craigleith stone. Out of the noise, heat and killing dust of the deep quarry came the stone which built the City Chambers (1761), St Andrew's and St George's Church (1784), the Old College (1791). The General Register House (1796) and the City Observatory House (1792). Most of the houses on Calton Hill were carved out of Craigleith; the Nelson Memorial (1807), the City Observatory (1812), the columns at Waterloo Place (1815) and the Royal High School now the Crown office (1829).

The massive stonework of St Steven's church (1828) is out of Craigleith. So is the Edinburgh Academy (1824), West Registrar House (1814), the Dean Bridge (1831), the National Gallery of Modern Art (1825), the Royal Scottish Academy (1826), Leith Town Hall (1827), Randolf Cliff (1849) and most of Charlotte Square. Another product of Craigleith is the pedestal upon which the statue of Charles II stands in Parliament Square.

Nothing Lasts forever

But the quarry wore out as the 19th Century wore on. By the end of the 1800s, the best of the rock had disappeared. And more and more went to make rubble, road-stone, concrete aggregate. The last great Edinburgh project to exploit Craigleith sandstone was Leith Docks extension of the 1870s. During the First World war, the quarry was used by Lothian Chemical Company to make (and test) high quality TNT. By the war's end, the operation at Craigleith was producing some of the best explosive in Britain.

Craigleith then fell into the hands of the Gas Board (British Gas still owns the land) who pumped the water from the flooded quarry holes to the gasworks at Granton. In the 1960s and 1970s it was remorsefully filled in until almost nothing remains. The only trace of Craigleith's former grandeur is an outcrop of sandstone behind the bungalows in what is now Craigleith Hill. And judging from the drawings produced by Sainsbury's (Edinburgh) architects, even that is about to be concealed by the new stores.