When stone from Edinburgh’s Salisbury Crags was used to pave the streets of London

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WHILE it may not have enticed Dick Whittington and his faithful cat to consider upping sticks, it was lumps of rock from Salisbury Crags - not ingots of gold - that once paved the streets of London.

Shocking as it may sound, the exposed dolerite cliffs that tower above the popular walking route known as the Radical Road, were routinely hacked and blasted for hundreds of years.

Salisbury Crags showing South Quarry, where stone was quarried more than 200 years ago. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Salisbury Crags showing South Quarry, where stone was quarried more than 200 years ago. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Beginning in the 16th century, rock from the Edinburgh beauty spot was quarried for building materials, including the construction of Holyrood Palace between 1529 and 1536.

Two main pits opened up, South Quarry, on the southwest face of the crags, and Camstone Quarry, on the crags’ northeast backslope.

READ MORE: The forgotten history of Edinburgh’s Radical Road

The man responsible for the two quarries was the Earl of Haddington, whose hereditary position as Keeper of the King’s Park had been granted by King James VI.

Millions of years of history can be examined at a glance at Hutton's Section in the former South Quarry. Picture: CC BY-SA 4.0/Nachosan

Millions of years of history can be examined at a glance at Hutton's Section in the former South Quarry. Picture: CC BY-SA 4.0/Nachosan

Stone from the Salisbury quarries, which would have netted the earl and his ancestors a tidy annual sum, was used to build the Bridewell jail on Calton Hill in 1791, to pave Regent Road and Waterloo Place in 1810 and 1820, and was crucial in the construction of a large number of residential developments throughout Edinburgh’s Southside district.

The scale of quarrying at the site reached a peak in the 18th and 19th centuries, generating a “great deal of public concern”, according to contemporary documents.

In all, it’s estimated that 270,000 tonnes of dolerite was excavated from South Quarry alone, enough to pave and cobble around 30km of the Capital’s roads.

READ MORE: Lost Edinburgh: Craigleith Quarry

Portrait by Henry Raeburn of James Hutton the founder of modern geology. Picture: Contributed

Portrait by Henry Raeburn of James Hutton the founder of modern geology. Picture: Contributed

But it would be the extraction and exportation of stone for paving the streets of London and further afield that would draw the greatest wrath from the people of Edinburgh and result in a quarrying ban at the natural landmark.

Mr Angus Miller, Promotion Co-ordinator at the Edinburgh Geological Society, says people power was pivotal in the quarrying coming to an end.

“At the time when they were extracting, they even used dynamite, and you can still see the core holes where they drilled into the rock,” explains Mr Miller.

“Once it got on to the ships at Leith, stone from the quarries of Edinburgh could be taken to London and all over the world.

“But there was public indignation as the Crags continued to crumble under the powdercharge and pick-axe.”

In what must be one of the world’s first examples of an environmental movement in action, furious locals took their case to the Court of Session in 1819 and eventually on to Westminster’s House of Lords.

“A campaign sprang up when people realised their natural landscape was being quarried,” continues Angus, who also runs Geowalks, guided geology tours around Scotland.

“This led to an act of parliament in 1831 which put a stop to the quarrying operation.”

The ban was something of a disaster for the Earl of Haddington, who was stripped of his hereditary title as park keeper.

Any tears shed by the earl were short-lived, however, when he received £30,000 in compensation for surrendering his estate.

Hutton’s Section

Despite the obvious damage that had been inflicted, quarrying Salisbury Crags reaped one rather unexpected and enduring benefit that had little to do with the paving of roads.

Scientific inspection of the South Quarry in the late 18th century led to one of the most important discoveries in the history of geology.

It was here at this quarried section of Salisbury Crags that the great James Hutton was able to examine the exposed horizontal bands of dolerite rock. His findings convinced the world’s geologists to conclude that the Earth’s age should be measured in millions, and not in thousands, as suggested by religious texts, of years.

At one exposure, now known as Hutton’s Section and widely-regarded as one of the most important geological sites in Edinburgh, Hutton was able to better understand the relationship between the different layers of rock, using the example to support his theory that igneous rocks are formed from magma.

While quarrying at Salisbury Crags is now a thing of the past, the visible scars from several hundred years of hacking, smashing and blasting remain.

Both South Quarry and Camstone Quarry are frequented by geology students, while the former serves as the one location in and around Arthur’s Seat where rock climbing is allowed - provided you obtain a permit of course.

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