Friday, February 28, 2014

The Island That Won A Gold Medal

So here is a question, what links this lady aged 23
This gentleman aged 35
And this island aged 65 000 000 years?

The island is Ailsa Craig, from the Gaelic for the fairy island. It lies 10 miles from the mainland in the outer part of the Firth of Clyde and sits like a wee tumshie bunnet on the horizon. Or a cupcake. Or a tea cosy.  Or a Tunnock's Tea Cake. Or a fresh from the oven blueberry cake.
The lovely photos here are from the web site.

It is an island with moods.

‘The Craig’ sneaks into the background (photobombs?) on millions of photographs of Scottish holiday makers as they get hypothermia spending the summer holidays down the west coast.  Most of the Turnberry Golf Course has a great view of it, the best from the 2nd green I am informed by gentlemen in strange trousers (golfers). Any room in the hotel with an island view costs a fortune.
                                     Daily Mail

It’s the sort of island that makes you smile, covered in sea mist, poking out the sunshine, glistening in the water. It's a happy wee place.

It’s other name is Paddy’s milestone, being half way as the crow flies between Glasgow and Belfast and that was a traditional voyage for Irish immigrants seeking work in Glasgow. Or maybe it's called that because it was a haven for Catholics during the Scottish Reformation in the 16th century. In 1597 a kind gentlemen called Hugh Barclay used the island to provide food and shelter for a Spanish invasion which might have helped re-instate the Catholic faith in Scotland. It didn’t work and Hugh drowned trying to escape the Protestant Rev Andrew Knox. In between times the island got a bit swashbuckley with pirates and parrots and peg legs ready to sail out and steal the booty of boats going up and down the Clyde.
Later the island was used as a prison and then the famous lighthouse was built by the famous Thomas Stevenson. I think he had a famous son. Robert Louis ….


I am lucky enough to have been on the island. Sea bird city. It’s heaven for birds, not so good for human beings. It has a small bay, one windy path up to the top, no where to sit down at the top to admire the view ( or hold on as it is so windy).  There is a small bay with a few buildings (ruined),  two huge foghorns and a strange wee railway track that goes from nowhere to nowhere. Intriguing.


The best way to see the place is to take the boat round it;  40000 breeding pairs of gannets, puffins, kittiwakes,  black guillemots, razorbills, herring gulls, peregrines and a special line in cheeky seals who twiddle their moustaches while bobbing around on the waves.
The back end of the island has incredibly steep cliff like slopes and this was the challenging inspiration for a bunch of drunk blokes to carry up a snooker table and play a few frames in their pants. (Underpants I mean, not American pants)
It is two miles in circumference, about 1100 feet high. The 200 acres is a plug from an extinct volcano left sticking up after the softer rock of the volcano itself was worn away.  The island has a fresh water spring but no other mod cons.  The owner, the 8th Marquis of Ailsa put it up for sale in May 2011  for  £2,500,000 but dropped that price by a million two years later. I believe, and hope, it has been bought by a wildlife trust. The RSPB has a lease on it that runs out in 2050.
The fact that the island went up for sale refuelled the land reform debate. 50% of Scotland is owned by less than 500 individuals ( from illegal gain during the reformation) and has been passed down through the family ever since. I recall having  a chat with a chap at a posh publishing dinner in London. He told me proudly that his family owned a large chunk of the west coast. He then added, even more proudly that he had never visited Scotland (weather was too bad), never mind the bit his family owned. You can insert here any mode of death I might have thought appropriate. 

Indeed the Craig itself has only changed hands once in 600 years but at least the Marquis used to pop over for the  odd BBQ.

 The puffins were nearly driven off the island by the introduction of rats ( they eat the eggs of ground nesting birds)  but widespread use of warfarin has dealt with the rat problem so the puffins are back in droves. There used to be an annual gannet hunt – gannet being considered a delicacy in those days and the uncle of one Robert Burns was involved in the hunting and trading of gannet. Hardly surprising as all this takes place in the Ayrshire coast, Burns country and all that.

So what has all this got to do with the two sporty types above. Well 70% of the curling stones on the face of the planet come from Ailsa Craig. The granite of the island has ‘an unusual crystalline composition’ which gives a uniform hardness. From the 1850’s the island has been quarried for its  riebeckite. Most other stones come from the  Trefor Granite Quarry in Wales.


Blasting is not allowed on the Craig any more but  loose rocks are still used by the Kays of Scotland company. They had their first wee  harvest of loose stones in 11 years in 2013 and got 2000 tonnes. That is enough to fulfil all orders until 2020… after all, they don’t wear out and you can’t break them. The Blue Hone stone from the island has very low water absorption so ice does not erode the stone, and the other type of stone produced is  called Ailsa Craig Common Green, which is of slightly lesser quality.

The stones from this island won the gold medal for Rona Martin and her team in 2002,  and  helped Eve and Dave  and the curling squad to their  medals in Sochi. There is one curling rink in England, one in Wales and three within twenty minutes of my house.
So the link is curling stones!

Caro Ramsay  GB  28/02/2014


  1. What a great post, Caro. It's been 7 degrees F in New York, so a trip to that Scottish summer warmed my heart.

  2. It seems only appropriate that the majority of the world's curling stones come from a place that LOOKS like one giant curling stone! Had never heard of Ailsa Craig before, thanks for the post, Caro! Now my list of things I don't know has been whittled down to just seven...

  3. Once I got passed the Firth of Clyde it was easy sailing. What a place, what story teller, what's a curl? Only kidding, you're a very lovely one.

  4. Lovely post, and it's fun to learn all those new things. The only thing missing is a still. But they probably tried that. :)

  5. Ah HAH. I saw some curling in Sochi. It was very mysterious to me at first. Especially the group of British women who kept singing a little ditty: "We'll be comin', we'll be com in', we'll be comin' down the roooad…" It ended with a "toot-toot!" Please explain.