Peter Ross: Who would pay £60,000 for a 450 foot hole in the ground?

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Forty years after the last granite was hewn from historic Rubislaw Quarry in Aberdeen, the new owners are thrilled with their quarry

IT IS unusual, I admit, to make a 140 mile train journey north-east from Glasgow through the early morning mirk, past Perth, Dundee, Arbroath and the melancholy exposed sandbanks of Montrose Basin in order to see, up close, an enormous hole in the ground. Yet Rubislaw Quarry, in the affluent west end of Aberdeen, is a place worthy of pilgrimage.

“There’s a famous saying,” declares Hugh Black, co-owner of the quarry with his friend Sandy Whyte, “that half o’ Aiberdeen came out o’ that hole. This is where they got the granite for the Granite City. It’s said that six million tons of granite were quarried here, and they went all over Scotland and beyond – from the stanchions of the Forth Bridge to the New York Opera House. But we are close to this place being completely forgotten about. So we feel we have an obligation to tell the story.”

Black and Whyte, pals in their fifties, are Aberdeen born and bred, local lads made good. Retired from, respectively, the oil and construction business, they both live within walking distance of the quarry in douce homes hewn from that same rock. Growing up, they did their share of trespassing on the Rubislaw land, and Black in particular remembers with a shudder one boy he knew climbing out on a thick plait of metal cable over the huge sickening drop. For entirely nostalgic and sentimental reasons they paid £60,000 to buy the quarry when it went on sale last year. “It means as much as it could mean to an Aberdonian,” says Sandy. “It would be the equivalent of a Dundonian owning the Tay Bridge.”

Still, though, sixty grand. It is worth mentioning that the decision to buy the quarry was taken without the prior knowledge of Mrs Black and Mrs Whyte who might, perhaps, have found other uses for the money. “But what would my wife have done with a fantastic new kitchen?” Sandy argues. “No, she’d far rather have a 450 foot hole.”

Hugh Black met me at Aberdeen Station and drove through the city to the quarry. He is a small, slender man with dark hair and an easy manner. As we passed along Union Street, he pointed to the tall buildings and said with proprietorial pride that most of these would have been made from Rubislaw stone. The ubiquity of grey granite as a building material gives Aberdeen its stern, dour look, albeit one which is transformed on those rare days when the shining sun is reflected by mica crystals in the rock. Granite is thrawn, known for its resistance to weathering, and is therefore also responsible for the weird sense one often has in Aberdeen of being in a city which is at once very old and newly built. Rubislaw granite was also used in the Bell Rock lighthouse, the terrace of the Houses of Parliament, and the Bruce memorial at Bannockburn.

However – and this is both astonishing and astonishingly sad – it is no longer possible to build with Scottish granite. The last time it was blasted for use as a facing stone was at Kemnay Quarry during the construction of the Scottish Parliament building. The great local quarries of the past – Rubislaw, Sclattie and Dancing Cairns – are no more. Hugh is ashamed to admit that the granite for his kitchen worktops came from China.

Rubislaw Quarry, approximately 300 metres long by 175 wide, is clearly visible on any Aberdeen map, and from the air resembles a Godzilla footprint, a crater right next to some of the most valuable properties in Scotland; the boast is that Edinburgh Castle and its rock would fit within its vastness.

Yet it cannot be seen from street level. Few of those behind the wheels of the gleaming Porsches and BMWs speeding along Queen’s Road will be aware that they are passing close to the southern bank of what has been described as the biggest man-made hole in Europe.

Crossing the street, we climb a small stone wall and then a steep earth bank. The quarry is secured round its perimeter by fencing topped by barbed wire and enlivened by stern Danger notices. Sandy Whyte unpadlocks the gate and we pass through the curtain of trees.

The immediate impression is of chancing upon some kind of secret lochan. The quarry, which opened in 1740 and closed in 1971, has been filling with rain since. Steep wooded banks, on which bare beeches clench like witches’ fists, run down to water notable for its eerie stillness. Even the traffic noise here seems muted.

Hunkered on the northern lip are the squat steel, concrete and glass office-blocks of Chevron and ConocoPhillips. To the south, the quarry is overlooked by private flats, home to around 40 people. Other than these residents, and any employees of the energy companies lingering by the windows on a coffee break, the only creatures who ever see Rubislaw quarry are the threnodic seagulls shrieking overhead.

This place is an industrial relic which has become, in less than a lifetime, pastoral. It is, in a way, a memento mori for the energy industry. Chevron and ConocoPhillips might well peer over the edge in dread and awe and imagine themselves, one day, in ruins. The front page of the Press and Journal on 28 April, 1970, reported both the closure of Rubislaw and the discovery of North Sea oil. One era was ending as another began, but all things – even oil – must pass.

Considered relative to the vast span of geological time, the working life of Rubislaw began and ended just recently. Around 425 million years ago, the separate landmasses which would become Scotland and England collided, resulting in thickening and heating up of the crust with parts of it melting. This molten magma began to cool as it pushed its way upwards into the crust and the minerals quartz, feldspar and biotite slowly crystallised out forming that body of massive rock we call granite.

The quarry must have been some place to work. It is said that the pit was always cold, that sunlight never reached the bottom, that you could look down and see birds flying within the chasm. Footage from 1949 shows a raw and dusty abyss, the quarrymen in flat caps and dungarees, swarming like ants at the bottom; one can only guess at the acrid stink of blasting powder and cut granite.

There is still a little evidence that this was once a place of work. Visible here and there, reddish-brown and half-hidden in the undergrowth, are coils of rusting cable, thick as a navvy’s arm, anchored on the bank but disappearing beneath the glassy surface. Down there somewhere is the large bucket which carried workmen in and granite out. “We don’t know what all is down there,” says Sandy. “We’re hoping there’s not too many folk with concrete boots on. That’s the popular myth – that if we drained the quarry we’d solve all these murders.”

Hugh and Sandy have a small green boat, which they have christened – with tongues in cheeks – the Rubislaw Deepwater Explorer, or Ruby for short. Hugh takes me out in it, pushing off between the portal of trees which stand, partially submerged, ten feet or so from the bank. It takes perhaps 15 minutes to row all the way around, hugging the steep walls, thick with whins, their new yellow blossom reflected in the water.

“This is probably the deepest part of the quarry,” says Hugh, pausing in his rowing. “From here it’s about 480 feet vertical all the way down.”

It is hard not to shudder on hearing this. For all its charm, there is, undoubtedly, something rather frightening about Rubislaw Quarry. Proximity to its cold black fishless depths suggests the forbidding atmosphere of public information films of the 1970s – The Spirit Of Dark and Lonely Water – as well as the combined sense of beauty and terror which the Romantics called the Sublime. Lord Byron, who spent his early childhood in Aberdeen at a time when Rubislaw was operational, might well have better appreciated the quarry in its present overgrown state.

How, though, does Hugh Black feel, sitting out in the middle of the water, to think that this historic yet forgotten place is his? “It’s fantastic,” he says. “I find the whole idea of a couple of Aberdeen lads owning a huge part of the heritage of the city brilliant. I didn’t actually believe our offer would be accepted, but I think it was because it was unconditional. We aren’t trying to develop it or make money out of it, we just wanted to own it for what it is. If we never do anything with it, we can always come out here and share a whisky on the boat.”

Aberdeen is driven by pragmatic commerce. The concept of profitable extraction is deep in its bones. The idea, therefore, of two guys investing tens of thousands of pounds on a place from which granite once came but comes no longer has a kind of poetic whimsy that is wholly admirable. In the city of use, Black and Whyte have prized uselessness; they have thrown away the corn and ignored the shout in favour of the husk and echo.

They do have vague plans. A long-term goal is to remind the strutting city that Rubislaw was its cradle. They would like to open the quarry up to the public, perhaps with an information centre telling the story of Aberdeen and granite, and – having drained some of the water to expose the rock face – a walkway which took visitors out over the hungry void.

Even if none of that happens, Whyte and Black will continue to cherish Rubislaw, and to consider themselves custodians of what is, essentially, an absence, but which for them is as rich in enduring meaning as it was once rich in rock that endured. “In a small way,” Sandy says, “we have done something a wee bitty special.”