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Stonemason skills at St Mary's
Stonemason at work at St Mary's Cathedral
St Mary's Cathedral provides practical experience for apprentice stonemasons

Looking at Edinburgh's St Mary's Cathedral today it is hard to imagine that it was built in just six years.

Completed in 1879, there were hundreds of stonemasons and blacksmiths involved in its construction.

The tradition of stonemasonry continues through the workshop at the Cathedral.

Apprentices learn the skills of the stonemason's art at the workshop and gain valuable training by carrying out repairs to St Mary's Cathedral.


David Willis was appointed Cathedral architect in 1984. He believes that the workshop was originally set-up as a training mechanism.

Philip Crossfield, Provost of the Cathedral, sees the workshop's benefits as two-fold. Young people are trained as stonemasons and any necessary repair work on the Cathedral provides practical experience for them.

Master tradesmen
The workshop was set up 23 years ago
Apprenticeships last four years
Seven trainees learn theory and practical work

Each year, there are more applications for the apprenticeships than there are available places. Apprentices undertake a four-year apprenticeship with practical learning taking place in the workshop and theory being taught at Telford College, Edinburgh.

Novices begin by learning basic stonemasonry before moving on to carving skills and finally graduating with an SVQ Level 4 in stonemasonry.


St Mary's Cathedral
The twin spires are named after sisters who donated funds to the Cathedral

Work began on the Cathedral in 1874, taking six years to complete at a cost of £120,000.

The spire at 275 ft and 2 inches is the highest spire in Scotland, higher even than the Scott Monument.

The twin spires are known as Barbara and Mary, after the Walker sisters who bequeathed part of their estate to the Cathedral.

As with most things in life, age takes its toll, and new stonework is evident around the Cathedral.

Highly sought after

Andrew Ramsay is foreman stonemason at the Workshop.

He's been there 22 years after serving his apprenticeship at Edinburgh Castle and remembers when the workshop was set up with two trainees who worked from the boiler house area of the Cathedral.

Intricate carving work on the Cathedral is very good for the learning process. It's unusual for apprentices to have this experience which makes them highly sought after
Andrew Ramsay, foreman stonemason

Things have changed significantly since then.

Currently, there are seven trainees who attend Telford College and a one-year bursary student from Historic Scotland.

The boiler area has been superseded by a purpose-built workshop.

Bowler hats and silks

Conservation is important. St Mary's Cathedral is located in the Edinburgh World Heritage Site and working in a traditional way means that cement can't be used.

In its place are limes and even the tools which are used have not changed much although wooden mallets have been replaced with nylon. As Andrew says: "Conservation is important in these old buildings."

Sandstone comes from Cumbria as the original quarries at Craigleith, Plean and Hailes are now closed.

In 1874 stonemasons wore bowler hats and silks to work. Hard hats and high-visibility jackets are the obligatory attire these days.

'Snapped up'

St Mary's Cathedral Workshop
The workshop is located in the grounds of St Mary's Cathedral

Sarah Grotrian is the Appeals Secretary for St Mary's Cathedral Workshop and believes that the workshop is very much part of the Cathedral.

For Sarah, the personal development of the trainees is as important a part of the skills they acquire: "The skill of hand-carving is becoming rarer and rarer. Our boys are snapped up."

Jordan Kirk is a charge-hand at the workshop. He started as an apprentice straight from school and now passes on his knowledge to the trainees. The day begins at 0800 in the workshop with masons Andrew and Jordan carrying out essential repairs with the apprentices.

Acquiring the basics of the trade takes patience and perseverance. Learning how to take a rubble block and make it a flat surface can take six months to master. Applying a hand-drawn template to a stone and learning how to use the tools are part of the trade too.

Female apprentice

HRH The Princess Royal visits the workshop every 18 months or so with her last visit taking place in June 2010. On this occasion, the apprentices recreated a photo of the master stonemasons taken when the Cathedral was completed.

For the first time, a female apprentice is learning the fine art of stonemasonry. Leigh Bradley has just started as an apprentice at the workshop and says she has been accepted in the male dominated work area with no problem.

She plans to take over the family business in monumental letter engraving.

With renewed interest in conserving and preserving our heritage surely the workshop at St Mary's is a permanent fixture in the leafy surrounds of the Cathedral.

In pictures: Stonemasons at work
30 Jun 10 |  People & Places


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