The Island of Monks, Rats, Puffins and Curling Stones
By Ken Zurski
Thanks to a small island just off of mainland Scotland in an area known as the Firth of Clyde, a sport which date backs to the early 19th century continues to prosper. They don’t play the sport there, nor does anyone live there. It’s currently uninhabited by humans. But its resource, Blue Hone Granite is used for making the stones that by sliding and curving on a sheet of ice gives the sport its’ unique name: Curling, as in the curl of a spinning stone.
The 60-million year-old island named Ailsa Craig which in Gallic means “Fairy Rock,” is the plug of an extinct volcano. It’s also known by other less fanciful names like “Cliff of the English.” Monks, castles, chapels, a prison and lighthouses are all part of its lore. In the early 15th century the Ailsa Craig Castle was owned by the monks of Crossraguel Abbey. But lately, it’s known for two things: birds and curling stones.
The island is exclusively a bird sanctuary. Puffins and gannets use Ailsa Craig as a breeding ground. This is fairly recent development and only after an infestation of rats first introduced to the island during shipwrecks, were eradicated in the early 1990’s. Once the rats were gone, the birds came back.
Since 1851, however, the company Kay’s of Scotland, named after its founder Andrew Kay, who established the first curling stone manufacturing business over a hundred years ago, has been harvesting the granite boulders from the island to use in curling stones. Only two places on earth is said to have the Blue Hone or Common Green granite which has a low absorption rate and keeps water from freezing and eroding the stone: Ailsa Craig and the Trefor Granite Quarry in Wales.
Even today, 60-70 percent of all curling stones comes from granite extracted from Alisa Craig. The company says the last harvest of granite from the Island took place in 2013 when 2,000 tons were extracted, sufficient to fill orders until at least 2020.
Recent efforts have been made to reduce the dependency of the centuries old island as the only supplier of the curling stones, but a plastic substitute and a denser granite found in Canada are relatively new developments and not yet widely accepted or used in the sport.
Not yet, at least.
All this is good news for a sport which has seen a popularity surge in the past decade, especially in North America.
After all, before the discovery of granite on Ailsa Craig, stones used for curling were made of whinestone, often basalt, which was cut into a circular shape called “The Cheese” and weighed 70 pounds or more.
The current stone weight is just under 50 pounds.