Wednesday, September 25, 2013


by Bob Cowan

These curling stones, which date from the late nineteenth century, are a pair of 'Crawfordjohns'. In an article for the Scottish Curler in March 2008 (modified for the Curling History Blog, and put online here), David Smith elaborated 'Some facts about old stones'. In the days before indoor rinks supplied matched stones, if you wanted to go curling, you had to own your own pair. In that article David listed the names of companies which manufactured curling stones, some retailers, and the variety of types of stone from which curling stones were made. Not all curling stones came from Ailsa Craig!

A lot is known about the quarrying operations on Ailsa Craig, whose stone is still used in the manufacture of stones by Kays of Scotland at their factory in Mauchline. Just recently more stone was harvested from the island, see here. Less is known about other sources of named stones back, say, in 1900 when curling stone manufacture was at its height with seven companies advertising their wares. I have always liked 'Crawfordjohns' - their distinctive black crystalline appearance making them easy to identify.

This is a closeup photograph of the surface of a polished 'Crawfordjohn' stone. The stone is distinctive, and really cannot be confused with any other curling stone types of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It comes from Craighead, in Crawfordjohn Parish. This distinctive stone is an Olivine Monzogabbro, commonly known as 'Essexite', the name coming from the location of a similar rock in Essex County, Massachusetts, USA. I have never studied geology, and this article from the Imperial College Rock Library took me to places I've not been before! However, the cross polarized image of the stone is beautiful to view, and I know now that there is a branch of science called 'petrogenesis', which deals with the origin of igneous rocks.

Craighead quarry is a very obvious scar on the north slope of Craighead Hill, on the small road that leads from the B7078 near Abington, signposted to Crawfordjohn village.

Recently I visited the Crawfordjohn Heritage Venture and I discovered that only a little was known about Craighead quarry and its association with curling stones. Where were the distinctive curling stones made, and by whom? This post attempts to answer these questions, and provides other information such as when such stones were first offered for sale, and how they performed in comparison to those obtained from Ailsa Craig.

The British Newspaper Archive is a wonderful research resource! Here are three advertisements which show 'Crawfordjohn' stones for sale over the years.

Advertisements of Crawfordjohn stones for sale begin to appear in the 1850s. Here is an ad from the Dundee, Perth, and Cupar Advertiser in 1858.

I am sure that most curlers who now curl in Scotland's capital city have no idea that Edinburgh once had a 'Curling Stone Depot'. This seems to have been a diversification venture by James Clark, Wine Merchant. Crawfordjohn stones are first to be listed in this advert above, from the Edinburgh Evening News in 1874.

In 1897, a monumental sculptor in Dundee was advertising 'Crawfordjohns' in the Evening Telegraph, 'Guaranteed Two Seasons'!

The main curling stone makers advertised in the Annual of the Royal Caledonian Club. Some of these adverts listed the various sources from which curling stones were obtained. Others did not. In the Annual for 1892-93, D R Gordon, Curling Stone Manufacturer, of Bathgate, advertised both 'Crawfordjohns' and Ailsa Craigs. In the same year, David Beveridge, Curling Stone Manufacturer, of Perth, advertised the sale of 'Crawfordjohn' stones alongside "Red Hone Ailsa, Common Ailsa, Burnock Water, Muthill, etc. etc." 'Crawfordjohns' were highlighted: 'A Special Lot', highly polished, and guaranteed for Two Seasons.'

Note that both Fairweather and Beveridge made mention of a two year guarantee for 'Crawfordjohns'. Did this imply that there was some doubt about the quality of the stone and that there was need of such a guarantee? Or that the stone was of such high quality that it could be guaranteed, whereas stones from other places could not be?  

As late as December 1912, George Stephen and Son of Dundee was advertising 'Crawfordjohn' stones for sale in the Dundee Courier.

Adverts by Thomas Thorburn of Beith describe the company as the 'Largest, Cheapest, and Best' manufacturer of stones. David B Smith, in his book, Curling: An Illustrated History says that Thorburn's factory in Ayrshire was within easy reach of all the favoured sources of the raw material, such as Ailsa Craig, Crawfordjohn and Burnock Water. Thorburn's adverts don't mention 'Crawfordjohns' specifically, but this is not to say that such stones were not made by that company.

The oldest (named) curling stone manufacturer is Andrew Cowan of Barbieston. Cowan's business book, which extends from 1865 to 1889, has survived, and although it notes the purchase of blocks of Ailsa Craig, Burnock Water and Carsphairn, there is no mention or 'Crawfordjohn' or Craighead.

The 'blocks' of stone referred to above represent the earliest stage in the manufacture of curling stones. These roughly hewn cylindrical blocks were shaped in the quarry and sent on to the curling stone manufacturer. There's a photo of this being carried out on Ailsa Craig here. These blocks are often referred to as 'cheeses'. The blocks are then shaped and polished.

I have not (yet) come across a Craighead 'cheese'. More research needs to be done to ascertain where the final stages in the manufacture of 'Crawfordjohn' stones was carried out.

'Crawfordjohn' curling stones are so-called because the stone was found at Craighead, which is in Crawfordjohn Parish. Stones were finished from Craighead blocks as far afield as Bathgate and Perth (as mentioned above), and perhaps at other places. There is no evidence that this process occurred near Craighead quarry itself, nor in Crawfordjohn village.

David Smith has in his collection this early, single-soled stone, which is clearly a 'Crawfordjohn' stone. It dates from the first half of the nineteenth century. This is not necessarily to say that this early stone was made from rock quarried at Craighead. It may have been made from a boulder found on the surface around Craighead, or even in the nearby Duneaton Water. Boulders, rather than quarried rock, made for the best curling stones, see below. In A History of the Old Parishes of the Upper Clyde, compiled by William A Fleming, the author suggests that Craighead is so named because of 'a remarkable craig or rock which overhung the Duneaton Water there but has now been undermined, quarried, or carried away.'

A few years ago, I climbed up Craighead Hill and took this photo of a vein of Essexite just appearing at the surface. I wondered then just who it was that first realised that the stone poking through the grass on the slopes of Craighead Hill would be worth quarrying for curling stones? Of course, if curling stones were already being made from boulders found locally, it is perhaps not surprising that someone might have been looking from where these boulders had come, and from where more such stone might be obtained by quarrying.

It is possible to put a name to that 'someone'! Census records in 1841 show that Thomas Milligan (35) with his wife Ann (35), son William (6) and twins Andrew and Robert (2) were living near Craighead. Thomas was an 'agricultural labourer'. Ten years later Thomas and his family, now including Elizabeth (9), Agnes (7) and Jessy (3) were living at Craighead Cottage. Thomas described himself as a 'stone quarrier', and William, now 16, was similarly identified. William died ten years later, just before the next census, aged just 26. In 1861, Thomas was a 'quarryman - stone'.

Craighead Cottage can be found on old OS 6 inch maps. The image above is a composite - the cottage and the main quarry are on different maps. These maps were surveyed in 1858 and 1859, and can be found online at the National Library of Scotland's maps website here. In the late 1850s the quarry on the hill (to the south east of the cottage, and shown in the photos above and below) was very small. In later maps, it can be seen clearly that this quarry has increased in size, and two other quarries on the hillside can now be identified. But what was taken from the quarry marked just north of the cottage on the map above is uncertain. Just a trace of that quarry can be seen on the ground today.

The trees on the right of this photo indicate where Craighead Cottage once stood. It seems to have been demolished in the 1960s.

Thomas Milligan died in 1862. His widow, Ann, remained at Craighead Cottage. The Dumfries and Galloway Standard of January 3, 1866, recorded the marriage of son Robert Milligan (curling-stone maker, Craighead) to Mary Shankie, at West Port, Lanark, on December 29, 1865, and the pair were living with Ann at Craighead in 1871.

Robert's brother Andrew also found a wife, Grace, from Tongue, in Sutherland. They were living in 1871 at Bridgend, just north of Craighead Cottage, on the main Carlisle to Glasgow road where it bridged the Duneaton Water. Andrew is described as a 'labourer'.

The Post Office Directory in 1878 has an entry for Andrew and Robert Milligan, curling stone manufacturers, Craighead Quarry, near Abington.

It would seem that sometime in the 1870s the two brothers and their families made a 'house swap'.

In 1881, Andrew, aged 42, was now living at Craighead Cottage with Grace and their five children. The census records describe him as a 'curling stone maker'. His mother Ann (77) was also still living at Craighead and was described as a 'curling stone maker's widow'. Robert and Mary were now at Bridgend. Robert is a 'general labourer'.

Andrew and Robert Milligan carried on the quarrying of rock at Craighead to make curling stones for the next twenty years or so. Andrew is listed as a 'curling stone maker' at Craighead Cottage in the census records of 1891 and 1901. He died in 1902. Robert outlived his brother and is listed in the census records at Bridgend in 1901 and 1911 as a 'curling stone maker'. He died in 1918.

Thomas Milligan is buried in the graveyard of Crawfordjohn Parish Church, now the home to the Crawfordjohn Heritage Venture. The headstone says, "Erected in memory of Thomas Milligan, Craighead Cottage, who died 5th Feby, 1862, aged 53. Ann Campbell his wife who died 5th May 1887 aged 83 years. Elisabeth their daughter who died 10th August 1855 aged 14 years. William their son died 10th Decr 1860 aged 26 years. Barbara Marchbanks wife of William who died 20th Oct 1861 aged 24 years."

Andrew and Robert Milligan are buried nearby. Andrew's headstone says, "Erected by Andrew Milligan, Craighead Cottage, in memory of his daughter Elisabeth who died 11 Feb 1880 aged 8 yr, son Archibald Edward Robertson, died 16 Jan 1895 aged 21 yr, the above Andrew Milligan died 12 March 1902 aged 63. Also Grace Roberson his widow died at Netherlee, 25 Jan 1919, aged 74."

Robert's headstone is inscribed, "Erected by Robert Milligan in memory of Mary Shankley, his wife, who died at Duneaton Bridge, 1st May, 1913, aged 73 years. The above Robert Milligan, died 4th May, 1918, aged 78 years. Jane their daughter died at Innerleithen 27th Oct 1928 aged 59 years. Ann their daughter wife of John Davis died Sheffield 14th Aug 1934. Also Mary daughter of the above Robert and Mary Milligan died at Buxton 9th Aug 1964 aged 91 years interred Chinley Chapel, Derbyshire 12th August 1964."

The Milligan family then is synonymous with the quarrying of the stone from which so many 'Crawfordjohn' curling stones were made.

It should be emphasized that even though various members of the family were described as 'curling stone makers' this does not imply that they produced completed curling stones. It is more likely that they supplied just the crude blocks which were finished by others, elsewhere in the country.

There is one other name that is associated with the making of curling stones. John Stevenson is mentioned in the curling exhibit at the Crawfordjohn Heritage Venture. In the census records for 1891 John Stevenson is aged 26, and listed as 'stonebreaker '. In 1901, he is 35, unmarried, and is now working as a 'road metal contractor'. William Fleming, in his book about Crawfordjohn Parish (mentioned above), notes that John Stevenson worked the whinstone quarry at Crofthead producing whinstone chips for the road. Fleming writes, "He made fine curling stones using only a chisel and mallet, the finished product being highly polished." Crofthead is to the south west of Crawfordjohn village, and some distance from Craighead. Whether Stevenson made stones from Craighead rock, rather than the local whinstone, is not known.

So, how well did 'Crawfordjohn' stones perform on the ice?

James Taylor in Curling: An Ancient Scottish Game (2nd edition, 1887) quotes from James Brown's History of the Sanquar Curling Society which contains information on which curling stones had been used at different times by that club. This refers to the stones as 'Craigheads' from near the village of Crawfordjohn, rather than as 'Crawfordjohns' which was the name adopted later. "Craigheads are likewise good stones. Their peculiar excellence is the property they have of being very keen on soft ice and in water. A great drawback to their general adoption is their great brittleness. Some do stand well, and any curler is fortunate who has a pair of that sort; but as a rule they are easily broken."

The Reverend John Kerr includes a chapter on 'The science of curling' in his book, History of Curling; and fifty years of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club, published in 1890. Examples of different types of stone were submitted to Professor Forster-Heddle, an eminent geologist, for his assessment of how good curling stones could be made from the material. In 'adjudicating relative total merits', Forster-Heddle rated the stone in this table:

It is interesting that the Forster-Heddle makes the point that curling stones made from boulders (rounded by ice, or weathered on the surface) are better than those made from quarried stone.

Kerr, incidentally, had earlier written about his own preference in curling stones in his chapter 'Curling' in The Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes: Skating, Figure-skating, Curling etc, 1892. Kerr writes, "Personally, we prefer Burnock Water to any other, and accordingly have always played with that variety of stone. We have also the testimony of many brethren of the rink in its favour. A great many Scottish curlers, however, unhesitatingly give first place to the Crawfordjohn variety. As a true stone, it is certainly worthy of highest praise. If it can be secured as a boulder or kernel, and got into shape, it is perhaps of all stones the best, and its beauty is undeniable. But blocked in the quarry as it generally is, it is more liable to break than Burnock, and the stone-makers have so many 'failures' in grinding this particular kind of stone that it does not 'pay' them to work it."

Bertram Smith, in The 'Shilling' Curler published around 1912, describes the merits of various stone types. He says, "The Crawfordjohn. This stone is rapidly becoming scarce. It is like the Burnock Water, but of a mottled 'plum-pudding' appearance and not quite so heavy. It has been found, especially in severe frost, somewhat liable to crack. But it is nevertheless a beautiful and sympathetic stone."

There's further evidence that 'Crawfordjohns' ran well when conditions were poor. Even though new stones were no longer being made, 'Crawfordjohn' stones remained in use on outside ice through the twentieth century (and indeed still may be seen today when the opportunity to play on natural ice arises). The Grand Match in 1929 was played under difficult conditions. The ice was soft, sleet had fallen overnight, some rinks were inches deep in water, and others rinks had to be marked a second time towards the end of the game, so soft had the ice surface become! It was reported in the Dundee Courier of Wednesday, January 30, 1929, "During a pause in the game some old curlers discussed the relative merits of Crawfordjohns, Ailsa Craigs Red and Grey Hones, and other technical points, and some said that those using Crawfordjohns were having the best of the luck as these were best on dull ice. The Ailsa Craig, it appears, has few rivals on keen ice."

Others commented on the scarcity of the stone in the early years of the twentieth century. In the Pictorial Guide to Upper Clydesdale, published in 1907, George Haddow writes, "For several years these stones have not been much in evidence in the market. There has always been a steady demand for them but it is asserted that the manufacturers had difficulty in making them to sell at a remunerative price because of the large percentage of waste. It is quite admitted by competent judges that the real Craighead stone is not inferior to the popular Ailsa, and it is to be hoped that the new lessees of the quarry are doing all in their power to secure on a lasting basis the prestige of Crawfordjohns."

In 1910, Craighead quarry was let to Messrs Anderson and Sons for £13 per annum. There is no evidence to suggest that stone from the quarry was supplied to make curling stones beyond this time, although it was certainly used as road metal and even for house walls. Craighead ceased to be a working quarry sometime in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and has been abandoned for many years.

What remains to be seen today?

The main quarry is really much larger than it looks from the roadside. Such is the size of the 'hole', it is quite apparent that the rock removed from the quarry was used for purposes other than just for curling stones!

Here and there is still evidence of the 'Crawfordjohn' stone.

However, further up on the hillside is a smaller quarry with a large heap of spoil all with the classic appearance of the 'Crawfordjohn' curling stone. On seeing these small blocks I did wonder if they could be used to make 'wee curling stones' ie small curling stone replicas, as paperweights or trophies.

I was not the first to think of this idea! Here is a 'wee stone' from the David B Smith collection, made from Craighead rock. (That's a £2 coin to give size.) The handle is engraved:

"Mrs A C Young's Prize
2nd Feb 1912
Won by
A B Hepburn"

My thanks go to the volunteers at the Crawfordjohn Heritage Centre for much help in my research for this post, and to my co-blogger David Smith for his encouragement and for allowing me to photograph items from his collection. The photographs of Craighead Quarry are my own. Please contact me if you have any further information on the topic.

Original version of this post was updated on September 30, 2013.