As a curator of industrial history, I often work with big pieces of engineering or detailed, technical material. But with Aberdeen’s granite industry, I care for some real gems – items of real beauty and great skill created by the city’s craftsmen.
This striking granite sign is cut in polished red granite and inlaid with gilt. We can safely assume it was made at the Excelsior Granite Works because it so clearly advertises not only the company’s premises but the quality of their work.
It dates to at least the 1930s – the donor’s mother worked at the yard then and was certain the inscription was hand cut.
At the industry’s peak at the turn of the 1900s, King Street must have been like a shopping mall for gravestones.
Robert Gibb started his Aberdeen business following a short period in America where he was one of the many granite men who crossed the Atlantic for well-paid work.
The Excelsior Granite Works were established in 1875, with the yard at 472 King Street and a separate “show yard” at No. 310. At the industry’s peak at the turn of the 1900s, King Street must have been like a shopping mall for gravestones.
You could stroll along and pick out one you liked. Memorials were big business and while many yards displayed their wares at the kerbside, it wasn’t just a local concern.
The Excelsior Granite Works exported goods to Australia, New Zealand, North and South America.
Tucked away in the yard was where the magic happened and this hard stone was cut, chipped, turned and polished into ornaments to adorn city streets, buildings and cemeteries.
Granite was cut to size in the sawing shed. In a slow, tedious process young “saw boys” climbed within the sawing frame to pour abrasive into the deepening groove.
This was dangerous work. Injuries were common and deaths did occur. Another danger associated with the industry was lung disease.
A cold and basic solution in the fight against it was working in open sheds, as we see in these photographs of Gibb’s yard. Here masons would carve out finer detail.
This sign was likely polished using a vertical polisher. Like sawing, this used a wet abrasive solution under a spinning head, followed by a tin oxide to get a real shine.
In Aberdeen, we are fortunate to be surrounded by fine examples of what these granite men made.
A small display about their story is at the Central Library Information Centre until May 28, along with a selection of tools, images and this sign.
- Join us at Aberdeen Maritime Museum to explore the Silver City’s stories through our collections of art, social and maritime history.
These informal dementia-friendly session for adults will take place on Mondays at 2pm–3.30pm from May 27 to July 1. Free – donations welcome. No need to book, just come along. Find out more at www.aagm.co.uk or pick up a leaflet at one our venues.
Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums:
- Aberdeen Art Gallery (reopening autumn 2019)
- Aberdeen Maritime Museum (open 7 days, admission free)
- The Tolbooth Museum (open 7 days, admission free)
- Aberdeen Treasure Hub Museum Centre
For visiting information go to www.aagm.co.uk
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