As a stonemason working every day on Edinburgh’s wonderful historic properties, I need no reminder of just how good my forebears were: I see and feel the skill of their work in the centuries old stone they cut and carved, as I lovingly restore it. Nevertheless, it was wonderful to hear recently just how far their fame – and the masons themselves – travelled.
The unveiling of a plaque to the Scottish masons who helped build the White House received widespread news coverage this year. The group – of between 6 and 12, reports vary – travelled to Washington in the 1790s’ at the behest of the US authorities, who had gone to great lengths to contact them through Edinburgh’s Masonic Lodges.
That those responsible for building the White House chose Scots is hardly surprising: they wanted the best, and at the time Scots masons enjoyed a great reputation due to the unprecedented works then taking place to build Edinburgh’s New Town. However, many masons were facing severe financial hardship because the work had slowed dramatically as Britain prepared for war with revolutionary France. It seems, in fact, that at least one party of masons left Britain illegally, embarking discreetly on the West Coast and sailing for Virginia.
Dr William Seale
Dr William Seale, whose book A White House of Stone details the Scots’ involvement and helped get the plaque of recognition installed, said:
“There were about 8 to 12 men and they were at the top of their field. They were working in the New Town which exploded in the late 18th Century.”
They soon arrived and got to work, living in an improvised village that sprung up next to the building site. By all accounts, this became a lively social centre where markets were held and families grew up. Sadly, not all the workers enjoyed such freedom – it is well documented that some of those who built the White House were slaves.
As work progressed, the Scots were able to show off their skills: The White house’s own history website (https://www.whitehousehistory.org/photos/carving-of-the-white-house-1) highlights “the intricate carving of roses and acorns on the North Door surrounding and above the north portal”, which it says ”reflect the skill of Scottish stonemasons who worked on the White House”. The carvings were completed about 1796.
In fact, the north door is just one example of many. Specifically, the presidential manor boasts many examples of the ‘Double Scottish Rose’ which was something of a trademark of the period.
Scots and The White House
The Scots were also instrumental in making the White House white: recognising that the porous Virginia stone was similar to the Craigleith variety they were accustomed to working with at home, they whitewashed it to help protect it from the elements. The idea was that it would mostly wash off and merely protect weaknesses where water could get in and cause damage, but the early presidents must have liked the effect: the house was painted in its trademark colour when it was rebuilt after being burned down by British forces in 1814!
History does not record what happened to the Scots stonemasons once the building work was finished. Did they return home? Or stay on to ply their craft on more buildings in the young United States of America? As master craftsmen, they would likely have remained in demand and perhaps left their mark on many more far-flung places – literally, because they used masons’ marks on each stone they cut to ensure they got paid!