Sandstones in Edinburgh's buildings – where to see them

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Local sources[edit]

For situation and durability of its building materials, few cities have equal advantages to Edinburgh, and there is, perhaps, no town of which the general and distant effects are more picturesque and striking

Thomas Shepherd, 1829.

Documentary evidence for the use of particular sandstones is variable. Even where it is known that a specific sandstone was utilised in a building it is not always possible to confirm that it was the only one used or ascertain to which phase of building the documentary evidence relates. In buildings constructed of more than one sandstone it can be difficult to distinguish between them, especially if the building is in an uncleaned state or has not been carefully cleaned. The quarry sources for most of the buildings are documented or have been obtained from architects or restorers currently using the stones in Edinburgh.

The early sandstone quarries were often temporary features situated around the houses and lands within or immediately outside the town walls. Permission to open quarries was usually granted on condition that they were filled in later. It is not always possible to locate precisely workings despite mention of them in some of the earliest Town Council Records. The first houses were built on the ridge to the east of the Castle and were seldom more than two storeys high. They were constructed of timber obtained from the nearby forest and thatched with straw. The fire risks were so great that, in 1425, the third Parliament of James I introduced laws designed to reduce the number of conflagrations. Henceforth most building was to be in stone.

From the mid 18th century, with the building of the New Town of Edinburgh beyond the constraints of the old town walls, the old quarries could not produce the block sizes, quality and quantities of stone demanded by architects and developers for the larger and more prestigious buildings. As a result, quarries developed on the west side of the city, most notably at Craigleith, Ravelston, Redhall and Hailes.

The principal local building sandstones in Edinburgh were obtained from the Carboniferous formations. Sandstones within the Kinnesswood Formation were formerly worked at Craigmillar, the Grange district and in the Meadows and Bruntsfield areas (the Burgh Muir). Ballagan Formation sandstones were obtained from the Camstone quarries, east of Salisbury Crags in Holyrood Park, and at Dumbiedykes, Society and many other quarries in the Old Town. The Salisbury Crags Sill (dolerite intruded into strata of the Ballagan Formation) was also quarried. Much of west and north Edinburgh is underlain by strata of the Gullane Formation.' Three main stratigraphical units, namely the Craigleith, Ravelston and Hailes sandstones, have been worked extensively in parts of the New Town and the western outskirts of the city.' Smaller quantities of building sandstones from the Limestone Coal Formation and Upper Limestone Formation were quarried at Joppa and Niddrie.

Sources from around Scotland and England[edit]

“With railways interspersing the country, he (the architect) is not tied down to any particular stone or material, but may adopt that which he finds best suited for his purpose”

James Gowans, 1881

During the 19th century the increasing demand for good quality building stone coupled with declining local resources, encouraged the use of stone from other parts of Britain.