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Issue 60 - Setting Stone

Scotland Magazine Issue 60
December 2011


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Setting Stone

Roddy Martine visits St Mary's Cathedral Workshop

Having written a book on the creation of Rosslyn Chapel, the iconic Midlothian church which a few years ago gained world wide celebrity in the book and film of The Da Vinci Code, I have since taken a considerable interest in stone carving. It is one of the privileges of living in Scotland that so many of our monuments and great buildings, both large and small, public and residential, were created and decorated in stone but like humankind itself, the passing of time wreaks havoc even on the strongest surface.

As solid and enduring as the fabric of our ageing monuments might be, the vast amount of restoration work necessary to keep these national treasures standing is starting to cause real concern.

That is why the National Progression Award for the Conservation of Masonry. a short course for qualified masons, was launched two years ago by the Princess Royal.

And it was a recent visit by Her Royal Highness to St Mary’s Cathedral Workshop in Edinburgh which alerted me to the predicament. The Princess Royal has been a staunch supporter of the workshop from the start and her regular trips to encourage the apprentices undoubtedly helps to give the project a higher profile than it might otherwise achieve.

St Mary’s Cathedral Workshop, adjoining the fine Scottish Episcopal church in Edinburgh’s West End, was founded twenty three years ago, principally to undertake restoration work on the cathedral’s extensive exterior stonework, but secondly to train up young apprentices in specific craft skills, notably hand carving.

A course lasts four years. Apprentices study for their SVQ (Scottish Vocational Qualification) in stone masonry at Edinburgh’s Telford College and they graduate as master masons. At any one time there has been an average of eight to twelve young stone carvers in situ. Andrew Ramsay, who has been the foreman at St Mary’s Workshop since 1989, trains his students not only to carry out the restoration work on the the large Victorian cathedral on an ongoing basis, but to deliver a stream of young men and women skilled in the special hand skills required for stonework restoration throughout Scotland.

In an age when so many of the younger generation have been encouraged to reject artisan expertise in favour of mainstream academic qualifications, I can only applaud this.

The workshop, a charity chaired by the distinguished Edinburgh-based lawyer Ivor Guild, CBE, is supported substantially and generously by Historic Scotland, but nonetheless relies every year on donations from other sources for one third of its running costs, a sum in the region of £80,000 annually.

Happily, a number of charitable trusts have to date proved very supportive, but donations from all sources, great and small, are nevertheless gratefully received.

As a result of the St Mary’s stone masons being not only taught to cut stone, but to carve it, their work is in constant demand across Scotland and elsewhere, and, indeed, two of their number, Greg Sillvis and Iain Bennett, working with Nicolas Boyes Stone Conservation of Edinburgh, have made an important contribution towards the recent exterior restoration work on Rosslyn Chapel, which in some ways could be considered a shrine of medieval stone masonry.

You only have to take a moment and look at the tracery on the east window which has been fabricated from Cullaloe stone specially imported from the Kingdom of Fife, to appreciate just what a work of art it has involved.

Although the restoration work is still in progress, Rosslyn Chapel’s state-of-the-art Visitor Centre is now up and running so I would strongly recommend those of you who are passionate about the preservation of Scotland’s heritage, and the role of the stone mason in our history, to go along and have a look for yourselves.

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