The Edinburgh Geologist
Issue no 8

Sandstone quarrying in Angus —
some thoughts on an old craft

by Alexander Mackie

Visits to numerous old sandstone quarries in Angus suggested that a historical survey of what was once a thriving industry would be interesting. Those which were known as 'pavement' quarries, owing to the suitability of much of the excavated material for use as paving stone, are the oldest and most extensive of their kind in Scotland, and there is no doubt that sandstone quarrying within the county reached considerable proportions, especially in the first half of the 19th century.

Practically all the quarries are situated within the Dundee Formation in the Arbuthnott Group of the Lower Old Red Sandstone (Figure 1) which in eastern Angus is composed mainly of cross-bedded sandstones with intercalations of shale and flagstones (Armstrong & Paterson, 1970). Many interesting fossils including entire specimens of eurypterids Pterygotus anglicus, Pagea sturrocki, and Tarsopterella scotius, were found by the quarrymen when stone was being won. The men were encouraged to look for such specimens by gentlemen collectors like James Powrie of Reswallie and Sir Charles Lyell of Kinnordy. It may be true, however, that the fossil remains of smaller animals were less highly prized by the quarrymen. Fortunately it is still possible to collect these and fragments of larger plants and animals from the spoil of some of the quarries, and good specimens of agnathan and acanthodian fish, and plants have been found in recent years.

Sandstone from the Angus quarries was put to a variety of uses. Fissile sandstones (flagstones  known as 'pavement') were used mainly for paving and for flooring of buildings. More massive, thickly bedded sandstones were hewn for general building purposes as well as more specialised needs such as columns, balusters, lintels, coping stones and gravestones. Coarse-grained sandstones were used for millstones, and slates (tilestones) for roofing houses. The coarse sandstones occurred in brown and grey bands of varying thicknesses: finer grained varieties were white, blue or green.

Records show that quarrying in Angus has been pursued from the 16th century. Wellbank or Legsland quarry about 7 miles northeast of Dundee, must have been in operation at least 400 years ago as the Rev. Samuel Miller (1842) quotes from the Session Record: '3rd June 1574, Donald Robartsone in Laigislande fand [found] ye Lard of Umoquhy cation [bail], yt gif [if] ye witnesses convicks hym, he sall pay ane thousand sklaittis [slates]'.

Despite the loss of many quarry records it is known that much stone was shipped from Angus not only to other Scottish ports but also to England, the Continent, North and South America, Australia and the Colonies. As early as 1678 Robert Edward, Minister of Murroes, about five miles NE of Dundee wrote that there were many quarries in Angus, producing high quality stone , some of which was shipped to Fife and the Lothians, Holland, and to North America, and he adds, 'No part of Scotland can boast of better, few so good'. Other authors write of the early history of the industry. For example, John Ochterlony (ca 1682) states, 'The country aboundeth in quarries of freestone, excellent for hewing and cutting, especially one at the Castle of Glammes, far exceeding all others in the shyre, of a blewish colour, excellent milne-stones; great abundance of sklait and lymestone in divers places; ane excellent lead myne in Glenesk, belonging to the Laird of Edzell'.

About 200 years later, George Hay (1876) indicates that the Carmyllie quarries, six miles from Arbroath, had been worked for centuries, and are the oldest in Scotland.

Quarrying in the late 18th century and 19th century

'The Statistical Account of Scotland' and 'The New Statistical Account of Scotland' give a good account of the quarrying industry in Angus towards the end of the 18th century, and the first half of the 19th century respectively. According to the Rev. Thomas Wright (1795), 'the neighbourhood abounds in excellent materials, especially the hills of Turin and Pitscandlie, which contains inexhaustible stores of stones of various kinds, and of every dimension fit for use; and where there are quarries now working, astonishing to look at, and affording ample subject for contemplation and amusement to the naturalist and virtuoso'.

Several quarries in the Parish of Aberlemno, between Forfar and Brechin, were worked for paving stones and slates and the Rev. Andrew Mitchell (1792) states that towards the end of the 18th century slates were sent to London and to other places. It appears that the quarries were worked as far back as 1755 at least, since the Rev. James Crombie (1842) points out that between 1755 and 1842, the population fluctuated slightly, depending on the number of quarrymen required.

Forfar was fortunate in having several quarries on Balmashanner Hill, just one mile south of the town. Some of the stones were used in the building of the houses in Forfar, and the sandstone flags were used for pavements. The Rev. W. Clugston (1843) points out that immense quantities of 'pavement' from the Balmashanner quarries were conveyed to Arbroath and Dundee, and to different parts of the United Kingdom.

The 19th century brought improvements in the quarrying industry with a concomitant increase in trade. Planing, cutting, and dressing machines were introduced. In 1883 James Hunter of Leysmill, near Arbroath, son of a reed and shuttle maker, was experimenting with stone-planing machines, and in 1834 had patented his first invention. Some years afterwards, he invented a circular saw of cast iron for stone cutting, but it had a number of faults. These were replaced by the stone cutting and dressing machines, invented by his son, George. The machines were made in Arbroath. According to Bremner (1869), 'The machines are of great strength , and consist of a series of chilled iron tools, placed in revolving discs, by means of which great slabs of stone are cut through or split up'. George died comparatively poor, but other men reaped the benefits of his efforts.

A detailed description of James Hunter's stone-planing machine is given in 'Prize Essays and Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland' (1837). The Committee of the Society met at Leysmill in June, 1835, examined the machine and its capabilities, and praised its construction and performance very highly. Three rough pavement stones of unequal thickness and covering a total area of 47 square feet were reduced to the required size and polished by the machine in 30 minutes at a cost of 1/7d. Mr Donald Mackay, master mason  and builder in Arbroath, said that working in the ordinary way by hand, this would take a good mason 51/2 days at a cost of 15/9d. Harder stones from the quarries were successfully dressed. There is no doubt that the Hunters' inventions greatly improved the sandstone and slate industries, not only locally, but also throughout Britain.

The Carmyllie Quarries

Perhaps the most famous and extensive of the Angus quarries were those situated in the Parish of Carmyllie, and it has been possible to obtain more information about them than about any of the others. During the 18th century the land of the parish was divided into small farms and pendicles. The latter were small pieces of land attached to larger areas. Each farmer was allowed to quarry on his own farm on condition that he paid the landlord a certain proportion of the value of the sandstone and slates quarried. The farmers worked the quarries after seed time and stopped just before the harvest, this being a common custom in the early years of the 19th century.

Stone from Carmyllie was advertised as far back as 1809 and 1810. By then production had increased to a considerable output of paving stones, and thick sandstone slabs were shipped from Arbroath not only to Leith, but also to London and other English towns. There was also a great demand for heavy rough roofing slates and these were transported to Dundee, and neighbouring towns, and were also shipped to Leith.

As the quarries became deeper, great difficulty was experienced in removing ground water, and for this operation windmills with moveable wooden frames were employed. Hugh Miller (1841) describes his impressions on approaching the workings:

… the quarries, as may be supposed are very extensive, stretching along a moory hillside for considerably more than a mile, and furnishing employment to from sixty to a hundred workmen. The eye is first caught, in approaching them, as we surmount a long flat ridge, which shuts them out from the view of the distant sea, by what seems a line of miniature windmills, the sails flaring with red lead, and revolving with the slightest breeze at more than double the rate of ordinary mills.

According to Miller they threw up a considerable body of water. Windmills were also employed in other quarries, but if there was no wind, work had to cease.

By about 1830, the problem of drainage at Carmyllie became so critical that a culvert was constructed at a cost of £3,000. This ran through a large part of the parish, part of it being tunnelled through the sandstone at a depth of 40 feet. The tunnel was 180 yards long, 3 feet wide, and 31/2 feet high and its construction proved to be difficult, since the sandstone was hard.

By the late 1830s there was a considerable demand for workers, the only mechanical device available being a small crane, which could lift a ton: otherwise it was all hand labour, but according to the Rev. W. Robertson (1836), the workers were 'industrious, moral, and religious'. J. Carmichael (1837) gives an interesting description of the work being done at the Camyllie quarries at that time. He states that some of the flags removed were 60 feet long, and raised by crowbars and mattocks. Large plates of sandstone were sent to London, France and America. He describes the material as 'greenish-brown and very hard', and before they were sold all the stones were squared to uniform dimensions. Sixty men were employed, some at 10/- to 12/- per week, and others at £4 to £6 per 1,000 feet of pavement. Carmichael quotes typical prices obtained for the stone delivered at Arbroath, e.g.:

Common pavement, 11/2” to 4” thick, £15 per 1,000 feet;

Stair steps, 4' to 6' long, 7” to 8” thick and 14” to 15” broad, 1/2d per foot;

Roof slates, £4:10s per 1,000 slates of 15” to 10” by 9” to 12” each.

The best common pavement and slates could be split into plates, 1” to 14” thick and 1” to 11/4” thick respectively. Thirty or more carts were employed in conveying the pavement stones from the quarries to Arbroath for shipment at a rate of 4/- to 6/- per 100 square feet. The annual sales for pavement stones and slates in the 1850s averaged £4,000 to £5,000. In 1854 a mineral railway was opened for the purpose of transporting the stone from quarries to the coast at Elliot, near Arbroath, a distance of five miles.

Bremner (1869) states that by then about 300 men were employed and gives a list of machinery used: 'eight planing machines, several cutting machines, eight saws for jointing pavement, one machine for making steps, coping and tabling; two polishing machines, six steam engines, and from twelve to fourteen steam and other cranes'. Any weight or size of stone was quarried, some weighing 20 tons and measuring 200 square feet. Output was estimated at 150 tons per day.

Orders poured in from all parts of the country and consequently the harbour trade boomed. Occasionally large masses of stone were raised, some of the blocks measuring 30 to 40 feet long, 10 to 20 feet broad, and several feet thick. According to J. M. McBain (1887), by the late 1880s the windmills had been displaced by eight engines. Ten of Hunter's planing machines were in use at Carmyllie, and thirty in other parts of Angus, besides the cutting and moulding machines.

The quarries continued to expand and at their peak period, about 1890, the total number of men employed reached 700, and the industry was in a very flourishing state and directed by a capable management. According to a local paper, 'the Telegraph and Post', many men were attracted to the quarries from neighbouring towns and villages, as well as from the Parish of Carmyllie. As the paper states, 'in the summer time the place resembled a hive of busy bees'. There was naturally a shortage of housing and even farm bothies were used to accommodate the men. The population of the parish reached a maximum in 1871, viz., 1,309. By 1901 numbers had fallen to 1,063. Some fifty years later the demand for stone had practically ceased. The quarries were finally closed in 1951, although for some years prior to this date more than 30 men were employed.

The 'pavement' rock of Carmyllie known for its high quality throughout the world, was fine-grained and bluish-green. Large quantities of machine-dressed stone ready for use as paving were exported to many European countries, Australia and North and South America. The stone which was easily worked has also been put to a variety of other uses including billiard tables, mangle stones, and cisterns for paper-makers, chemical works and bleach-fields. A light coloured sandstone, with dark cloudy spots and veins, was occasionally found. When this was polished and varnished , a beautiful product was obtained, which had all the appearance of dark marble, and was used for window jambs, and lobby tables.

The most famous building floored with Carmyllie (Slate Quarry) stone is Cologne Cathedral. Stone from the Brechin quarries was also used in the Cathedral's construction. Although the corner stone was laid in 1248. the building was not completed until 1880. After 1447, the work on the edifice was discontinued for 400 years, and it was not until 1842, following resumption of building that Carmyllie stone for the floor was shipped from Ar­broath.

In Scotland. many towns have been paved with Carmyllie flagstones. Sandstone from Carmyllie has also been used for several notable buildings including the Head Office of the Bank of Scotland, Edinburgh; New College, Edinburgh; the piers and abutments over 40.000 tons) of the Forth Railway Bridge: University of Glasgow: some of the principal buildings in Aberdeen; Perth Railway Station.

Some other quarries in Angus

According to the Rev. James Lyon (1836) one of the Glamis quarries, near the village, had been known, long before that year, for its millstones, some of which were exported. The stone had excellent fire resistant properties. and was much in demand in Dundee and elsewhere for oven soles. Lyon states that the thin grey flagstones were worked many years before, and the demand exceeded that required for Dundee and the neighbouring country. It is suggested that the old town of Edinburgh and other towns in the Lothians may have used stone from some of these quarries.

Good sandstone was obtained from Leoch Quarry. situated 5 miles NW of Dundee. Harry (1952) describes this sandstone quarry in detail, which was last worked in 1952 for building pur­poses, when thirty men were employed. It had been worked since 1832. when the Newtyle Railway which passed through the quarry area was constructed. Massive sandstone was encoun­tered, and the railway company used it for pad stones (stone templates) for the permanent way. The sandstone was bluish-grey and fine-grained, and occurred in beds 3 to 8 feet thick. It does not weather readily and has been used in many buildings. including the Usher Hall, Edinburgh; the Glasgow Art Galleries; Gleneagles Hotel, Perthshire, and Mandal Town Hall, Norway. Sandstone was also won at Middleton Quarry, situated on the west side of the Arbroath—Friockheim Road (A93 3), 3/8 mile SE of Friockheim. which supplied stone for the piers of the Old Tay Railway Bridge. The quarry face is of massive cross-bedded sandstone, about 40 to 50 feet high.

There are many other old quarries in Angus including those worked for whinstone (andesitic and basaltic lavas and intrusive dolerites). Although these quarries never attained the importance of the sandstone industry during the 18th and 19th centuries, they are currently the only active hard rock workings in the dis­trict, the stone being used principally as crushed rock for roads.

All the sandstone quarries are now silent, but the remains speak of past great activity, and show in no uncertain manner that two world wars have wrought phenomenal changes in our social habits and tastes. Structures using the natural stone blend-ed in with the surrounding scenery and were very pleasing to look upon. The replacement of sandstone by brick and concrete in the construction of modern buildings dealt a great blow to quarrying in Angus. Figure 2 illustrates the decline of the indus-try in terms of employment during the early decades of the twentieth century.

When a few retired quarrymen were interviewed, they spoke of their work in such a way as to show that they were not only interested, but had been dedicated workers. It is indeed a sad experience to survey the weathered remains of a great industry and a noble craft.

The author wishes to thank Dr C.D. Waterston of the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh, for suggesting this research, and for his continued help and encouragement. His presence in the field was always a great stimulant for further effort.


Armstrong, M. and Paterson, I. B., 1970, The Lower Old Red Sandstone of the Strathmore Region, pp. 23, Rep. Inst. Geol. Sci., No. 70/12.

Bremner, D., 1869, The Industries of Scotland, Edinburgh, A. and C. Black, p.416.

Carmichael, J., 1837, 'An Account of the Principal Marble, Slate, Sandstone, and Greenstone Quarries in Scotland', Prize Essays and Transactions of the Highland and Agricul­tural Society of Scotland, New Series, v.5, p.409.

Clugston, W., 1843, The New Statistical Account of Scotland, Edinburgh and London, W. Blackwood & Sons, 1845, v.11, p.691.

Crombie, J., 1842, ibid., p.626.

Edward, R., 1678, (English translation, 1793), A Description of the County of Angus, Dundee, T. Colville, 1793.

Harry, W. T., 1952, 'The Geology of the Dundee District from its Quarries', The Quarry Managers' Journal, p.489.

Hay, G., 1876, History of Arbroath, Arbroath, T. Buncle, p.410. Lyon, J., 1836, The New Statistical Account of Scotland, Edinburgh and London, W. Blackwood & Sons, 1845, v.11, p.337.

McBain, J. M., 1887, Arbroath Past and Present, Arbroath, Brodie & Salmond, p.135.

Miller, H., 1841, The Old Red Sandstone, Edinburgh, W. P. Nimmo, Hay & Mitchell, p.162.

Miller, S., 1842, The New Statistical Account of Scotland, Edinburgh and London, W. Blackwood & Sons, 1845, v.11, p.439.

Mitchell, A., 1792, The Statistical Account of Scotland, Edinburgh, W. Creech, 1795, v.4, p.47.

Ochterlony, J., ca. 1682, An Account of the Shire of Forfar, reprinted for the Forfar and District Historical Society, Forfar, O. McPherson, Ltd., 1969.

Prize Essays and Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, New Series, 1837, v.5, p.160.

Robertson, W., 1836, The New Statistical Account of Scotland, Edinburgh and London, W. Blackwood & Sons, 1845, v.11, p.350

Wright, T., 1795, The Statistical Account of Scotland, Edinburgh, W. Creech, 1795, v.14, p.594.



Figure 1. Geological sketch map showing the location of the proincipal towns, villages and quarries mentioned in the text (Geology after Armstrong and Paterson, 1970)

Figure 2. Total number of men employed in Angus quarries from 1895 to 1928

The figure shows how the number of men employed has varied between the year 1895, when official figures first became available and 1928. No figures were given for the years 1915, 1917, 1919, 1921, 1923, 1924, 1926, 1927, 1929 and 1930. Since the graph includes employment in whinstone as well as sandstone quarries the increase after 1918 may be due to increased demands for road metal.

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