Dalbeattie Town - Granite Quarries

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Granite Quarries of the Urr Valley :

Geology and Traditions :

During the last Ice Age, the Urr Valley was widened and over-deepened by glacial action, leaving a valley-bottom beneath sea-level and a series of 'hanging valleys' with rapids or cascades from the upland plateau to the valley floor. This left large granite exposures of excellent quality as truncated spurs either side of the Urr near Dalbeattie, and upon its eastern side as far down as Castle Point south of Kippford. Field stone was used from an early date to construct buildings, but it was not until the end of the 1700s that granite was quarried for more than farming needs.

The hard character of the local stone made it very difficult to work; in consequence, building the local drystane dykes (drystone walls) has needed both strength and a sense of balance. Visitors are often astonished by apparently insecure walls which are very well built and often several hundreds of years old. Local sheep tend to avoid the walls because of their insecure appearance, but it has been necessary to add a strand or two of wire to reinforce the message to cattle. The drystane dykers of the area were a vanishing breed, but now flourish thanks to new training schemes and an appreciation of the economic and visual benefits of well-constructed walls. Local dykers have travelled as far as Hawaii to demonstrate their skills.

The Earliest Quarries :

During about 1780, the very fine-grained granite at Glenstocken was first exploited for making millstones. This was to go on until the early 1900s, on occasion producing as many as 20 sets of millstones per year.

Andrew Newall of Dalbeattie is traditionally believed to have started his quarry business on a small scale in 1800, starting a tradition that has lasted a good two centuries, although Newall's itself no longer exists. Large-scale commercial exploitation had to wait until 1805, when the Maxwell family allowed the collection of some surface stone by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. By 1810, the Newall family expanded into the opening of the first of several large quarries at Craignair Hill on the far side of the Urr at Buittle. Those workings have continued in use until this day, under various owners.

Exploitation of granite to the north east and south of the town itself soon followed. These other quarries are possibly more intriguing than is Craignair itself, as their fortunes reflect those of key families in the town. Those in Dalbeattie Wood itself are very old, re-worked time and again, the tailings creating a very unstable subsoil for any but deep-rooted trees. Further down the Urr, developments of quarries followed closely on building booms in Scottish and English cities, given a boost by demands for road-metalling (setts and graded crushed granite) and the need for railway ballast. Dalbeattie granite also went into many lighthouses, because of its excellent resistance to salt-damage, but the sett and ballast trades were ultimately the most significant.

Dalbeattie Granite around the world :

Granite exported from Dalbeattie went into the Mersey Docks in Liverpool, the Thames Embankment in London, various British lighthouses, even as far as the lighthouse at the southern tip of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Its most famous use was probably the Eddystone Lighthouse, whose solid bulk protected many generations of lighthouse keepers before the days of automation. Humbler, but essential, the setts (cobbles) of many Liverpool, London and Manchester streets, came from Dalbeattie. The granite had the property of not being polished by the iron of horses' hooves, as its surface tended to shatter into rough particles rather than form a powder. The introduction of motor cars brought an end to the cobbles, but they formed an excellent key for tarred or asphalted granite chip road-metalling. Granite kerbstones of the time still remain in use, although concrete increasingly replaces them.

Many public buildings were constructed of Dalbeattie granite. The Town Hall is itself constructed of the local product. So, too, are many of the older houses in Craignair, Maxwell, Mill, Burn, High, Alpine and Union Streets, Barrhill, Haugh, Station and Southwick Roads. The finest house of Dalbeattie granite is probably the former owner's house at 'Broomlands', built in the 1880s as recession relief, but recently magnificently restored as a guest house.

Granite Polishing :

Dalbeattie has the distinction of being the first place in the world where granite was commercially polished. The first experiments were made by Newall's in 1831, with the first memorial in 1841 and with Maidenholm Forge as the first works. The Great Exhibition of 1851 had a piece of polished and incised granite on display, starting a fashion that lead to a boom in granite polishing. As the section on the Mills shows, Shearer's were quick to follow this trend; their works at Mill Isle were soon paralleled by those of Newall's, who kept their Maidenholm Forge business active until 1916. At the end, Newall's took over the whole works, which shut down in the 1940s.

Dalbeattie granite is now almost entirely used as road-metal, except for some pieces which Douglas Swan and Sons of the High Street, Dalbeattie, make as tombstones on request.

The 1831 trial piece is now in Dalbeattie Museum, together with Newalls' quarry records and pattern-books. There is a small display with the tools used by quarriers.

Quarry by Quarry :

This list, going from north to south, lists the quarries and their history as given in records currently available. More information is being collected and will be entered as it becomes available :-

(1) Craignair Hill :

The only quarry still in production, this was also probably the first commercial quarry near Dalbeattie. After trial works (probably just involving removal of surface stone) by the Liverpool Dock Trustees in 1805, commercial quarrying was started in 1810 by the Newall family; they were ultimately to control quarrying over the entire hill, but there were several adjacent quarry-faces active during the 1800s :-

Liverpool Dock Trustees (later, Mersey Docks and Harbour Board) were at Craignair employing 200 men between 1820 and 1831. Thereafter they removed their working to the Creetown Quarry,(Kirkmabreck) which had better access to a deep-water channel.

Curteis and Shearer (Shearer's) took over the vacant quarries from the 1830s to 1878, employing 170 men.

Operations at Craignair, - notably rough-dressing of extracted stone, the making of road-setts and the removal of blasting-debris, - created a massive tip of quarry debris (tailings) beside the Urr. Part of this still survives, forming a shelving bank almost twenty feet high. By 1860, it was recognised that this in itself had commercial value, so was initially re-quarried and riddled for chips of various grades. Chips could be used as road-metal or railway ballast, gravel going for building aggregate.

Newall's were quick to install a large 40-ton per day granite crusher in the 1860s, uprating it to a 250-ton per day crusher in 1898.

Stuart's Granolithic Paving Co. recognised the potential of the remaining tailings and between the 1880s and 1900s operated a 90-tons per day crusher there. They were joined by a Mr. Sowerby who operated a 40-tons per day crusher at about the same time.

In 1898, the Newalls, Sowerby, Goodman and Morris & Son, employed 'a large number of men' who were well-paid. There were also independent sett-makers, who bought stone and sold back their completed setts.

The Ropeway :

The advent of the railway made it feasible to build a ropeway from the quarry 870 yards (800 metres) across the Urr and intervening fields to the railway. 200 tons per day of granite was transported, 6 hundredweight (672 lbs = 305 Kilos) at a time, in a chain of buckets. Six large gantry towers were constructed for the ropeway, which at each end had loading and unloading housings on granite foundations. The foundations at the quarry end still stand beside the road up past the quarry towards Castle Douglas, but those on the railway embankment are likely to disappear when the area is cleared for housing. The wagons being loaded stood under chutes, upon a special weighbridge. Local residents said that the squeaking of the ropeway was a constant sound in the town, up to the 1950s.

(2) Cowpark and Rounal Quarries :

Frazer & Young opened the quarries in Rounal Wood to the north of Dalbeattie in the 1870s, largely as a test of the local stone. By 1880 they had moved across the hill to working faces at Cowpark, which was worked until 1950. From 1894, the Frazer & Young 80-tons per day crusher was in operation beside the railway yard; it was hated by generations of the townswomen, who were glad when it halted in 1950. The dust from the crusher was blown over the town (and drying washing) in northerly winds. The base of this crusher survives on the corner of the New Station Road junction with Haugh Road.

In 1901 the two big Dalbeattie quarries were producing 50,000 tons of crushed granite per year. This grew to 70,000 tons by 1907.

(3) Aucheninnes Wood :

This area of Dalbeattie Forest had many small, ancient workings, but the 1880s saw a growth of large public and small private workings. Tradition has it that the granite sold for sett-making was far too little to account for the production shipped out. Local men used to 'win' extra from abandoned commercial faces and their own private workings, some of which were barely the size of a room.

D.H. and J. Newall were possibly the first to quarry stone to the east of the town. They began in 1810 at Craigmath where three very distinct faces survive, and at Barrhill , but soon moved on to New Abbey and to Craignair.

Curteis & Shearer were next to exploit Craigmath and Woodside from 1850 to 1880, but also moved on after a time to work other exposures further south of the town. Both quarries may have contributed stone to Christ Church, Dalbeattie, where Shearer's English workers could worship as Episcopalians. Their story is recounted in the History of Christ Church, Dalbeattie and is an unusual aspect of the town.

Frazer & Young worked the small quarries of Spycraig and Howlet in the northern part of Aucheninnes woods. Spycraig is part of smuggling history, for lookouts stationed there watched for 'Gaugers', the Revenue men who tried to halt smuggling from Sandyhills inland along what is now the Moss Road past Barend.

It is not known who worked the quarries at Muir on the east of Aucheninnes Wood, but the Newalls used the adjacent Maidenholm Forge for granite polishing.

(4) Old Lands, Steadstone and Greenhill Quarries :

Shearer and Curteis operated all three quarries between 1865 and 1883. Stone from them was taken to London for use in the Thames Embankment. The site had considerable natural advantages, - the deepwater channel of the Urr was available close to the quarries. The first two are full of abandoned quarrying equipment, chiefly as the tramways and the foundations of crushing plant. A weighbridge base survives near the crushed granite loading gantry and there are sett blanks in the Steadstone Quarry.

Greystone quarry may have been the small quarry sited between Old Lands and Steadstone. The name Craigrow is also mentioned in this area.

Greenhill quarry may actually have been the largest of the three quarries; a large horseshoe excavation, - now full of birch trees, - lies just northeast of the remains of Greenhills farm. An overgrown track leads towards Old Lands, though damaged by forestry operations. More information is still being collected on this quarry.

(5) Kippford : Barnbarroch and Caledonian Quarries :

Parker was operating the small Barnbarroch quarry in 1886, but it folded in the quarrying recession between 1885 and 1900. The stone was taken down a track and across the Dalbeattie road to a now-vanished track leading to a pier near Craigie Knowes farm.

Caledonian operated the quarry of that name at intervals between the 1860s and the 1970s. In 1904, they employed 41 workers. The loading pier was constructed in the 1880s and remains a landmark in Kippford. Stone was brought down an inclined plane on waggons, the emptied one being brought back up to the quarry by a rope pulled by the descending full waggons. The waggons ran on a narrow-gauge railway that crossed the road and was removed in the late 1980s. Thereafter, the pier was converted into a yachting marina. Stone was taken out by lorry in the final ten years of the quarry's existence.

(6) Glenstocken, near Rockcliffe :

This quarry was started about 1780, but the names of the quarriers are not yet known. The granite in this area is of a very fine grain size, as it was at the edge of the granite batholith on cooling. The stone was won from faces on the cliffs of Barcloy Hill, and from tidal reefs that could only be worked at low tide. Between 15 and 20 sets of millstones were sold each year for 3 a set up to 1903, but they have left little sign other than a handful of half-finished 'blanks'.

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Dalbeattie
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Site commenced 29th December 1997,
last updated 10th November 1999.