The Scottish capital has been shaped by stone

Edinburgh is famous for its stone buildings, and rightly so. In the Old and New Towns, it boasts one of the finest ranges of stone buildings anywhere in the world.

The city’s very durability owes a debt of thanks to the local stone available. But it is not just the stone used for construction that has shaped Edinburgh. The very landscape on which it sits, and arguably its status as Scottish capital, have been shaped by stone.

The igneous plugs – remnants of old volcanoes which form Arthur’s Seat and Castle Rock – are not just stunning visual treats for tourists: they provided strongpoints that attracted early settlers. Castle Rock in particular shaped the city by protecting a ‘tail’ of softer stone behind it as glaciers passed through in the last ice age. This ridge it now the Old Town.

During Scotland’s war-torn Middle Ages, Castle Rock provided the site of an impregnable fortress, although eventually most of the old buildings were destroyed by artillery in the Lang Siege of the 16th century. From the buildings that do survive, it seems that the early masons made use of some of the hard volcanic stone and other glacial debris that must have been lying around on the site of the castle, making for an unusual mix.

Sandstone has been the preferred building stone of Edinburgh masons

Self-confessed ’geo-nerd‘ Anne Jefferson, visiting Edinburgh as a tourist, remarks:

“Within the castle itself, the glacial legacy is on display in the building stones, which show a remarkable diversity of lithologies, both those found locally and those farther afield in Scotland. It is likely that castle builders would have made use of the rocks left on the landscape when the glaciers retreated, but the ice caps would have given them plenty of variety.”

Since then, and most notably in the construction of the architectural gem that is the New Town beginning in 1760, sandstone has been the preferred building stone of Edinburgh masons. Local sources of Carboniferous sandstone from quarries at Craigmillar, Craigleith, Ravelston and Hailes provided builders, masons and architects with the excellent raw material that was used over several centuries. During the latter part of the 19th century, as local supplies dwindled and transport systems developed, sandstone was brought from quarries further afield, including the Lothians, Fife and the North of England.

Sandstone was considerably easier to quarry and dress

Although not as durable as volcanic basalt and Dolerite, sandstone was considerably easier to quarry and dress. This was important as building techniques progressed from the rubble walls of the Middle Ages. In some cases, the natural bedding of the sandstone allowed slabs to be easily cut from the bedrock. Hailes Quarry, for example, was noted for the production of laminated sandstone which was used extensively in Edinburgh for stairs, landings and paving stones. 

However, volcanic stone was occasionally used as well. At George Square there is a stunning building which uses a combination of local dolerite and pink Craigmillar sandstone.

Of course, many historic Edinburgh buildings are actually built from the rubble of older constructions. Greyfriars Kirk, for example, uses second-hand stone from the old Convent of Sciennes that once stood in that area – and Old Greyfriars itself has been rebuilt at least once following a fire in the 19th century.

The famous statue of Greyfriars Bobby, on the other hand, sits on a plinth of polished Cumbrian Shap Granite, with prominent pink feldspar crystals. This trend for imported stone started to include larger buildings as the city became wealthier and Britain’s industrial transport network advanced. Although sandstone remained the most popular building stone, Portland Stone from the south of England can occasionally be found: look at the extension of the Royal Society of Edinburgh at 26 George Street, which dates from the 1930s.

A happy return to Edinburgh’s traditional colours

More recently still there has been a happy return to Edinburgh’s traditional colours. The National Museum of Scotland extension is a great example, the stunning circular tower design being clad in mottled yellow and orange Permian sandstone. A sign of the times, though, is that the rock had to be sourced from Clashach Quarry in Moray!

Happily for us at RS Masons, we are usually able to reuse local stone during re-building and restoration work. We are proud to be continuing the long tradition of stone masonry in Edinburgh, a city which is still shaped by stone – even if only aesthetically.