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Caithness Field Club Bulletin
1979 - October
THE CAITHNESS FLAGSTONE INDUSTRY
The fact that much of the rock which underlies Caithness possesses the curious property of readily splitting into thin large slices (or flags) has been known for many hundreds of years although it has only been exploited commercially since the early years of last century. Archaeological excavations at Skara Brae have shown that even as far back as 4500 B.C. thin slices of stone were used for building construction and making furniture.
The Flagstone was formed initially as layers of sediment in the bed of a great lake (called Lake Orcadie by geologists) which covered a large area of the north of Scotland some 370 million years ago. Successive periods of laying down of sediment and the long dry spells gave the stone its laminated structure which makes it split so readily into flags. The great weight of overlying layers of rock made the flags dense, hard and durable.
Caithness flagstone was probably used by our early inhabitants for building houses and stone walls and would have been obtained at outcrops where the rock broke through to the surface and required little or no quarrying.
Despite this early use of flag, the first attempt to obtain the stone on a commercial basis was made at Castlehill, on the shore of Dunnet Bay to the north of the village then known as Olrig, when, in the summer of 1793 several cargoes of stone were shipped to Aberdeen. The instigator of this new industry was James Traill who lived from 1758 till 1843 and was for a time Sheriff of the County. He moved from Rattar to Castlehill House in 1824 and set about organising the flagstone quarrying. In the following year regular shipments of flags were begun to ports all over the United Kingdom and as the fame of this most useful material spread cargoes were sent as far afield as South America. Indeed, a famous meat factory in the Argentine was floored with Caithness flags. The high wear resistance was highly prized and made the stone especially useful for pavements and courtyards - for example, the Strand was paved, and the concourse of Euston Station laid, with flags. As the industry prospered other proprietors took up the trade and quarries were opened at Weydale, Janetstown, Achscrabster, Holborn Head and Spittal and in the year 1899, 23,000 tons were produced. This was bettered, however, in 1902 when output rose to 35,000 tons. When operations were at their height over 1000 men were in employment in the industry which ranked second only to the Aberdeen granite output in terms of annual tonnage. The flagstones were cut or "dressed" by sawing them with heavy iron saws using rough sand as an abrasive. These saws were at first powered by water-wheels but were later replaced by steam engines. Bogie tracks were laid down to ease the movement of the stone to the cutting yards, such as the one from Weydale to Thurso East.
Some cutting was done at the quarries e.g. Spittal and Achscrabster and by 1900 there were three large yards at the mouth of the Thurso river.
Wages were poor and the work dangerous: in 1866 there was a strike for more money which resulted in the workers being paid by the square foot. By the 1914-18 War output had fallen to about 5,000 tons per year. After the war, with the increased cost of transport and higher wages, the industry fell into decline. In the 1920s most of the quarries closed down when synthetic stone was introduced. For example, in 1939, the cost of flag in Edinburgh was 12/6d. per sq. yard as against 4/6d. for a concrete paving block of the same size.
In 1949 Spittal quarry was reopened and good quality, almost black, cut and polished flagstone became available once again. This time, however, the cutting and polishing was done by a more sophisticated method employing diamond cutters and burrs. The flags produced were used in some of the new buildings in Thurso and at Dounreay; they also served as coffee table tops, stones for fireplace hearths and mantelpieces, while the reddish/grey stone blocks from Achanarras quarry formed an attractive facing. Thus the revived industry continues on a small scale at Spittal and at Plocan near Calder where small roofing flags are being produced for the reconstruction of historic houses in Kirkwall and Stromness.