The ‘ownership’ of Ailsa Craig and the opening of the Wilson quarry, 1907

Dr. Matthew L. McDowell, University of Edinburgh

In the coming weeks, Sport in History will be releasing a special issue on the geographies of sport and leisure, which contains an article written by me on the history and uses of Ailsa Craig. This was written before Trump International’s purchase of the iconic Turnberry golf course, which the islet overlooks. In this piece, I place these recent events both at Turnberry, and in Ailsa Craig’s protracted sale, in a broader historical context: specifically, the 1907 opening of William Wilson’s granite quarries on the island.

Insouciantly – rather than unwittingly – Donald Trump has made quite a name for himself in relation to the Scottish ‘Land Question’. Aside from the controversy surrounding his newly-built golf courses in Aberdeenshire, his relationship with his neighbours there, and his staunch opposition to offshore wind-farm projects near his course, Trump International has also recently purchased Turnberry on the Ayrshire coast. Famous for holding the Open Championship on several occasions – most recently in 2009 – the course showcases one of global golf’s most famous images: that of the stunning Ailsa Craig, an island just over ten miles off the Ayrshire coast. Golf is not Ailsa Craig’s only contribution to the world of Scottish sport: its more literal contribution is as the source material for the world’s curling stones. (You might have even seen it on a 2006 episode of BBC’s Coast. Or, more recently, an episode of BBC’s The One Showcue the trad music.)

The island, however, also meets at the confluence at another strand within the world of leisure: that of bird-watching, as the island has long been a nesting place for rare seabirds. But, amongst the gannets and kittiwakes that come to the island, puffins – famous inhabitants of the island – were missing from the 1930s to the early 1990s, due to the efforts of egg-eating brown rats who made their way onto the island, quite probably from a coal boat in 1899 (at least, according to former quarrymen and lighthouse keepers). [1] Not only is Ailsa Craig, then, not ‘unspoilt’ by humanity, but it is also real estate. The eighth Marquess of Ailsa has been attempting to offload ‘his’ island since May 2011. Initially, its sale price was £2.75m; now, it currently sits at £1.5m, with its probable sale to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – long caretakers of the island’s bird population – complicated by a failed scheme to build a five-star hotel from over a decade ago, which resulted in the automated lighthouse and still-standing quarrymen’s cabins being owned separately by a businessman, and being sold at a vastly inflated rate.

Ailsa Craig’s ‘ownership’ has always been contested space. Previous Earls of Cassillis and Marquesses of Ailsa used the island largely as a food store; and, when passengers aboard the popular Clyde steamships began shooting towards the island in the 1840s and 1850s – usually so they could watch the birds scatter – the second Marquess of Ailsa placed a gamekeeper, in the person of Mungo Guthrie, on the island to protect his stock. The rare birds – and their eggs – were considered the Marquess’s property, along with native rabbits, and the third Marquess had additionally placed raccoons and badgers on the island. (The badgers quickly died off, and talk of introducing chamois, while mooted, never got off the ground.) Guthrie and future gamekeepers/quarrymen – who were later typically members of the Girvan family – were allowed to sell dynamited ‘cheeses’ (which would later be ground into curling stones) in order to meet their rent obligations; and, while gamekeepers were allowed to kill and eat the stock on the island, they were still obligated to protect the island from outsiders, and to allow the Marquess and his friends to hunt on the island whenever they pleased.

Dynamiting for curling stones was a small-scale, if dangerous, enterprise. A far greater operation was brought to the island in 1907, in the person of the Ailsa Craig Granite Company of Kilsyth quarrymaster William Wilson, who obtained contracts for providing raw materials for road building for locations throughout Scotland, England, and Ireland. This was ultimately a hugely unprofitable enterprise, and labourers would end up working in primitive conditions on the island, whose lighthouse would not have a telegraph installed until 1935. But, even if this particular operation did not meet with the sustained resistance that Trump’s Aberdeenshire courses have faced, they nevertheless provoked public anger over the scale of the quarries – initially thought to equal over a thousand men – and the possibility of environmental damage to the island, its appearance, and its bird population. J. Hamilton Mitchell, in one letter to the Scotsman, stated:

Ailsa Rock, standing in silent majesty and in all the beauty of its solitude, is not only one of the most remarkable features of the Firth of Clyde, but an object of interest to all who know it. Its picturesque outline is a pleasant break in the monotony of the large expanse of ocean, and even the partial destruction of its dizzy precipices and weather-beaten-cliffs, with their myriads of sea-fowl, would render it for ever an eyesore to all lovers of the wild grandeur and beauty of nature. [2]

Aside from other angry letters by people with pseudonyms such as ‘Kitty Wake’ and ‘Tammie Norrie’ (the Scots word for ‘puffin’), another letter by ‘Interested’ stands out. Ailsa Craig here was not just a national treasure, but a kind of secular cathedral, which questioned the Marquess of Ailsa (also called the Earl of Cassillis) and his decision to allow mass quarrying on the island, given his interest in preserving other great architectural works:

I observe from yesterday’s papers that the Earl of Cassillis presided at a meeting of the St. Andrew’s Society on Tuesday last, at which the question of the restoration of the Holyrood Chapel was discussed. At this meeting it was agreed that a letter be written to the Lord Provost of Edinburgh requesting him to call a public meeting in the interests of the beneficiaries under this trust, who appear to be the Knights of the Thistle, in the first place, and, secondly, the people of Scotland. Is it not rather inconsistent that his Lordship should associate himself so prominently with the restoration of this historical building, while at the same time his father, the Marquis of Ailsa, is about to hand over the world-famed island in the Clyde to the tender mercies of the quarrymen. I hope it is a sign that, after all, such will not be its fate. [3]

Ironically, however, much as there is a section of support in Scottish society for Trump’s Aberdeenshire and Turnberry manoeuvres (one person I spoke to recently was elated at the possibility of a new bypass road towards Turnberry that went around Maybole’s notoriously-congested centre), the Wilson quarry had at least one big cheerleader: the Ayr Advertiser. In their 14 February 1907 edition, for instance, the Advertiser castigated the ‘city papers’, who ignored the possibility of more work for local men based in and around Girvan, where the economy was then considered weak:

The announcement that Lord Ailsa has leased the right to quarry granite on Ailsa Craig to a Glasgow firm, has drawn forth indignant protests in the city papers. The writers of the letters are moved by high sentiment at the prospect of the removal of a most interesting ocean landmark. But the danger they perceive is surely a remote one. It has been estimated that the quantity of granite in the Craig is about 600 million tons, and on the large supposition of 1000 tons per working day being quarried and removed, at the end of 100 years the contour of the rock would not be sensibly altered, and a 1000 years hence steamers from Ayr would probably be still going on excursions round the Craig, which would then preserve most of its features of interest, and possibly some new ones. Long before that time the demand for granite may have ceased, in consequence of the discovery of other substances better suited to the purposes for which it is at present used, or by earthquakes or volcanic action in the present Ailsa Craig may disappear and other islands be thrown up. Meanwhile, so long as quarrying went on, a large amount of employment would be provided, both on the rock itself, and in conveyance of the material to places where it would be wanted. These are common-sense considerations which should not be left out of view when sentiment is being so powerfully appealed to. [4]

The Advertiser had nothing but praise for Wilson, and seemed thrilled even at the obligatory act of having erected cabins for the workmen:

A start has now been made on Ailsa Craig by Messrs Wilson, of Kilsyth, who yesterday made a thorough exploration of the island. Being pressed with inquiries regarding material they have started two set makers in the meantime to produce samples. They have already booked a pressing order for 1500 tons of sets to be delivered at the earliest possible date. It will thus be seen that the venture is an assured success. Messrs Wilson, with commendable consideration for the interests of Girvan, have placed an order for the first block of workmen’s dwellings to be erected on the island with a local tradesman, notwithstanding the fact that his offer was considerably higher than some others. It is to be hoped that the people of Girvan will appreciate this act of consideration on the part of Messrs Wilson, and give every facility in their power for the development of what promises to be a very important industry. The placing of the first contract with a Grivan tradesman is very acceptable just now, considering the dullness of trade. [5]

This was problematic, of course, since conditions were dangerous: none of this mentions reckless dynamiting, or being hours away from the Scottish mainland by boat, or having to contend with brown rats playing around in workmen’s cabins. In the coming years, Wilson’s quarrying operation would have problems with all three.

The practicalities of living and working on a place like Ailsa Craig are not ones that are immediately thought of when overseas tourists (like this author!) gawk at the amazing sight of Ailsa Craig in the distance: not just from Turnberry, but from Troon, Saltcoats, Millport, and the rest of the Firth of Clyde’s coast. One tends to make up their own imagined history of the island whist they view it from afar, or on the television. The Dubai World investment company’s Leisurecorp, the previous owners of Turnberry and its famous ‘Ailsa course’, believed the facility to be an ‘under-utilised asset’ compared to St. Andrews, Gleneagles, and Carnoustie. Stephen McGinty, in his October 2008 Scotsman piece on Leisurecorp’s recent purchase of Turnberry, noted that: ‘[The view of Ailsa Craig] is a view that the new Arab owners of Turnberry wish to see better broadcast around the world’. Now that Donald Trump has bought this particular view, he has also purchased an appropriate backstory to go along with his cynical and rather irony-free appropriation of Scottish land, imagery, and culture. The warning to him, then, should be that one might be able to own land and assets, but still have no control over its various meanings.



[1] National Records of Scotland (NRS), Batch 32304H-HRS, Wild Birds Protection, Secretary of State for Scotland, No. 3182/418, Letter from the Board of Agriculture for Scotland to Ernest R. Graham, Northern Lighthouse Board, Edinburgh, 10 June 1924.

[2] Scotsman, 12 February 1907.

[3] Scotsman, 8 March 1907.

[4] Ayr Advertiser, 14 February 1907.

[5] Ayr Advertiser, 28 February 1907.


Tags: , , , , , ,

4 responses to “The ‘ownership’ of Ailsa Craig and the opening of the Wilson quarry, 1907”

  1. Dave Riley says :

    A really interesting post- I look forward to the full article in Sport in History!

  2. Alice says :

    Sounds very interesting. Is this isue out yet?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: