Building stones in Edinburgh from the Kinnesswood Formation

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From: McMillan, A.A., Gillanders, R.J. and Fairhurst, J.A. 1999 Building stones of Edinburgh. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Geological Society.

Edinburgh's buildings - location map, inset (Central Edinburgh.
Edinburgh's buildings - location map.


The oldest known quarries worked in Edinburgh exploited sandstones in the Kinnesswood Formation (formerly classified as part of the Upper Old Red Sandstone) of late Devonian to early Carboniferous age. These quarries worked sandstones of a variety of colours ranging from white through buff to light brownish-grey to pink and red.

Burgh Muir (Meadows and Bruntsfield) and Grange quarries

The Bruntsfield and Meadows area was covered in early historical times by the dense oak forest of Drumselch. Here, a large tract of land, the Burgh Muir, was gifted to the City by King David I in the early 12th century. The Burgh Muir, also known as the Common Muir, stretched southwards from the south bank of the Burgh Loch (now the Meadows) to the Jordan Burn. In 1508 concern was felt about the lack of supervision of the use of the Burgh Muir. As a result James IV granted the Town Council power to lease the Burgh Muir subject to the condition that the lessees were to use the Burgh market, set up brew houses and provide beer for the city ale houses. From then on, citizens were encouraged to cut trees and use the wood in building their houses in the Old Town. As the Burgh Muir was cleared, so parts of the area came to be quarried for the soft grey (sic) sandstone which was used for building in Edinburgh and Leith.' In 1554, eleven quarriers were ordered not to work quarries on 'the common muir of the burgh' unless the workings were kept 20 feet (6 m) from paths. They were also ordered to fill in any holes dug, a regulation which the Town Council had great difficulty in enforcing. The Council also had responsibility for setting the price of stone including those for sill and lintel, long and arch work.' Mill stones were also taken from time to time.'

We cannot identify many buildings constructed of stones from the Burgh Muir. However, it is almost certain that the late 15th century tower house of Merchiston Castle (incorporated in Napier University, No.10 Colinton Road) was built mainly from local sandstone. In the Vennel, the tower and adjacent part of the Flodden Wall (32) which connects Lauriston Place with the Grassmarket, were constructed of stones from Burgh Muir, Ravelston and Hailes quarries.' Town Council Records show that stones from the Burgh Muir as well as from the Granton quarries were used in the construction of the Leith Bulwark in 1555.

The regulation of quarrying in the Burgh Muir proved no easy task for the City Fathers, despite the severe penalties which they imposed for unauthorised quarrying. In 1597-98, the penalty for such work (or the illegal selling of mill stones) could be imprisonment in irons for 40 days, scourging, branding on the cheek or banishment:2 At that time the Town Council handed over half of the Links to the Fellowship and Society of Brewers who then took over most of the rest and built walls round it. Throughout the 17th century the Council had continued to try to regulate the use of quarries, putting up boundary markers between the workings, setting the price for stones and vainly ordering the quarriers to fill up the holes. In 1638, the Burgh Muir was one of the many areas which provided stone for Parliament House (21) although it was soon replaced by Ravelston Quarry as a source of supply.' In 1646 the City Treasurer was authorised to pay Robert Gray 400 merks (£266 Scots) for loss sustained by him when his quarry was used as a burial ground during the previous year's outbreak of the plague.

The Town Council continued to make things difficult for themselves by authorising an agreement, dated 25th December 1695, in which they allowed the tenants of the Burgh Loch and Bruntsfield Links areas to quarry `ane aiker' of their choice on any part of the Links. The occasional apparent chaos had its positive side in that, by 1695, the Links were well established as a 'place where the neighbours play golf using unfilled quarry holes and spoil heaps as obstacles instead of bunkers. When they rode the City boundaries in May 1701, the City Fathers noted that several quarries in the Links were not filled in 'and therby not only spoyled the gouff but endanger the passingers contrair to the tenor of the tack of the Links'.

Former Charity Workhouse. Harled tenements on Forest Road. Sandstone from City Quarry (Burgh Muir). Built in 1739-1743.

Most of the references in the Town Council Records are to quarries in the Wester Burgh Muir, but old maps from the 1850s and earlier show many sites to the south of the Burgh Loch, some of which are likely to have been opened in the 17th or 18th centuries.' Quarrying in the Wester Burgh Muir and part of the Links continued well into the 18th century. Traces of one of the excavations, the 'City Quarry', may be seen as a large hollow near the putting green, west of Alvanley Terrace and Warrender Park Terrace. This quarry supplied stone between 1739 and 1743 for the Charity Workhouse (34) (later the headquarters of the 4th and 5th Royal Scots) which was built on the west side of the present Forrest Road.' Today's tenements on the right hand side of Forrest Hill represent the altered remains of the north wing of the Workhouse. In 1741 stone was used from Bruntsfield for the rebuilding of the tenements at the Luckenbooths. Most other traces of quarrying in that area seem to have been removed in a general tidying up exercise which provided work for the unemployed during the depression of 1816-17, although some traces survived until 1884 when the Marchmont tenements were being built. Most of the stone for the frontages of these buildings came from greater distances but the feu charters permitted that some local stone could be used for other parts of their construction.

About 1883, quarries were opened up at the south end of Marchmont Road on the east side to provide rubble for the backs of the tenements.' Quarries at Dick Place had previously been opened to provide stone for the building of houses there in c.1864.

Some of the old quarries posed problems where they obstructed the line of a street or foundations. The Burgh Engineer was required to indicate such areas to prospective developers. Construction of buildings on the west side of Marchmont Road, south of its junction with Warrender Park Road, was held up for ten years after 1890 to allow for settlement of quarry fill. In an attempt to speed up the infilling of these quarries, free tipping was encouraged by advertisements which appeared in the newspapers of the 1880s.

Widespread use of local stone of the Kinnesswood Formation, not only from the Burgh Muir but also Craigmillar can be seen in several other areas on the south side of Edinburgh. Notable examples of buildings constructed of stones from these sources include the tenements on the north side of the Lawnmarket and in Mound Place. Small local quarries supplied much of the pink and red rubble used in the old boundary walls on the south side of the city, particularly in the Grange - Blackford area.

Craigmillar and Hawkhill Wood quarries

At the Craigmillar quarries, the rock is a compact, pebbly quartzose sandstone, typically red to pale brown. At Hawkhill Wood Quarry a very light mauve/pink to fine yellow/buff stone was worked mainly for rubble work and this colour was regarded as the best building stone. The sandstone contains occasional bands of marl, thin calcareous cornstones (former soil horizons) and conglomerates.

As early as the 14th century, quarries at Craigmillar were providing stone for the building of Craigmillar Castle. The castle sits on an outcrop of the same stone. In 1532, stone from Craigmillar quarries was used in the building of the Palace of Holyrood (146). At first, corbels and ashlar were supplied. Later, stones were used for the serving hatch of the kitchen and flagstones to cover water conduits. Fourteen large stones were dug in 1555 for the gate at the Priestfield side of the King's Park. In July 1636, Craigmillar stone was brought into town for the Parliament House (21) and again in 1639 for work on Edinburgh Castle (9) The quarries seem to have been worked fairly continuously as they were used as a source of rubble for the courtyard interior of George Heriot's School (33) (1628-60), Lauriston Place, and again for George Square (43) in the 1760s. The stone was hard to work and often used in the rubble form typically seen in the backs of most of the surviving houses in the west side of George Square (1766-85). On the west side of George Square (43). the buildings up to No.27 (built 1767-75) (see detail of No.20 and No.60 (45) at the north end of the east side are built of coursed squared rubble from Craigmillar of various hues, with dark coloured dolerite snecks from the old quarries in the Salisbury Crags.' The rest of the east side used Craigleith stone. The colour of the Craigmillar stone is variable ranging from grey through yellow to orange to pink. The sandstone was often used in very large blocks which have not weathered badly where laid parallel to the natural bedding surfaces. However, some of the blocks, which were laid on edge, are scaling.

By the time the Second Statistical Account was published in 1845, the quarries had closed. From then on, working seems to have been intermittent until 1892 when the stone's use was restricted mainly to that for kerb stones.' The Quarry List records one quarry working in 1901-02 and then in 1908, by which time six men were employed. In 1906 another quarry was worked at Craigmillar and continued in operation intermittently until 1914 but latterly with only one man. After the First World War, one or two quarries operated from time to time, with 21 men in the Hawkhill Wood Quarry in 1937. The last year in which Craigmillar appeared in the Quarry List was 1956. Several of the quarries can still be seen but others have been infilled.

The stone quarried at Craigmillar was considered relatively impermeable to water which led to its use in the construction of the Edinburgh Reservoirs and in Leith Docks (1894-96).

Hawkhill Wood Quarry provided stone for villas on the south side of Edinburgh in the 1920s, for example at Mayfield Road, Esslemont Road and Ross Road, using face stone from Braehead Quarry at Fauldhouse. A fine example of rubble from Hawkhill Wood can be seen at the Reid Memorial Church (1929-33), West Savile Terrace, where it is used with ashlar from Doddington. Stone from an unspecified quarry at Craigmillar (though probably Hawkhill Wood) was used at Fairmilehead Parish Church (1937-38), Frogston Road West, along with Doddington ashlar.

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