Scottish fact of the week: The Granite City

THERE are more than 30 Aberdeens scattered across the world, but there’s only one Granite City (in Scotland, anyway)
Marsichall College in Aberdeen, the second-largest granite building in the world. Picture: Wikimedia/CCMarsichall College in Aberdeen, the second-largest granite building in the world. Picture: Wikimedia/CC
Marsichall College in Aberdeen, the second-largest granite building in the world. Picture: Wikimedia/CC

You may be familiar with Aberdeen’s most famous nickname, the Granite City. Many of the city’s most well-known buildings and residential properties were hewn from rock retrieved from large quarries dotted around the North-east, the most famous of which was Rubislaw Quarry in Aberdeen’s west end. By the end of the 19th century, with the advances in technology that facilitated the transport and carving of the rock, Aberdeen became the granite capital of the world. Its seaside location ensured that granite, a historically difficult commercial material, could be easily exported.

More than 50 per cent of Aberdeen’s buildings are estimated to have come from the Rubislaw Quarry alone, and at the industry’s peak there was so much rock produced that other British cities benefitted from it as well, including Portsmouth and Southampton, whose docks are partially made of granite, and London, where granite contributed to the construction of Waterloo Bridge and part of the Houses of Parliament. Granite from Rubislaw was sent to aid construction for major developments in Swindon and Leeds too.

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Among Aberdeen’s most famous granite-built structures are the Music Hall on Union Street, built by Archibald Simpson and James Matthews; Provost Skene’s House, some of which was built using granite before the igneous rock’s industralisation; and the Art Gallery and Memorial on Schoolhill, designed by A. Marshall Mackenzie over several decades, and completed by the mid-1920s.

Marischall College on Broad Street is the city’s most dramatic and impressive building. Somewhat unsurpisingly, it’s the second biggest granite building in the world after El Escorial, the historic residence of the King of Spain. It is a combination of different materials (stone and granite) and designs: a Gothic revivalist proof proposed by architect A. Marshall Mackenzie was melded with an earlier, more austere design by Archibald Simpson.

The granite industry declined steadily after the mid-20th century as building materials such as glass, steel concrete became available. The US also limited imports of stone, which further contributed to the industry’s rapid shrinking. Rubislaw Quarry’s closure in 1971 was, in many ways, the death knell for granite in the North-east. The quarry now lies neglected and filled with water - an man-made lake that is 142 metres deep.

Despite the demise of the granite industry, visitors to Aberdeen are left in no doubt as to its impact. Residential areas, municipal buildings, statues and monuments all across the city are made with the sturdy, imposing rock, making Aberdeen one of the most architecturally distinctive cities in Europe.

* There are several mid-sized towns in the US either called or referred to as the Granite City. These are Granite City in Illinois, and St Cloud in Minnesota. There is also a Granite City in British Columbia, Canada.


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