Andrew Ramsay is a rarity, a master stonemason trained in the old traditional way. It is this historic knowledge and skill he is now passes on to the apprentices at St Mary’s Cathedral Workshop.
Andrew served his apprenticeship at Edinburgh Castle from 1981-1989 under the tutelage of Andrew Atkinson, an Irishman who came from a long line of old school stonemasons, all legends in their own right.
Andrew remembers working in the coal yard at the top of the Esplanade, there he learned all the hewing skills and it was always one to one instruction. On his first day (in deep winter), he was shown a large water container, this was the washing bucket, with a film of ice on it which had to be broken before use – a far cry from today’s all singing and dancing facilities for apprentices. He was given a jib thumb cover made from an inner tube cut to shape, and his heavy Mel was made of beech wood.
Andrew learned his skills using tempered chisels. It was necessary to used really sharp chisels to hew stones into shape – they would use two sets simultaneously, as the tools were constantly going backwards and forwards to the blacksmith to be re-tempered.
The Army School of Piping was situated in the Castle, and his foreman practiced the chanter there, but you could be sure over and above the sound of the pipes he would hear if Andrew’s mel paused for too long. One unforgettable day, when work began on the tunnel (which now takes traffic through the rock) a cache of ancient skeletons was found. Andrew has many happy memories of working in that coal yard – where the stonemasons had a wooden hut. He qualified as a Master Stonemason with his City and Guild (in those days) awards, winning the Dux Craft Award with seven distinctions and a credit, and was then approached by Lt General Sir David Young (latterly Governor of Edinburgh Castle) who together with the then Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, The Very Revd Philip Crosfield, had founded St Mary’s Cathedral Workshop to take up the position of Foreman there.
In 1991, Andrew judged at the Scottish National Stone Carving Championships at Edinburgh Telford College where the standard was extremely high.
The Workshop was founded in 1987 with twin aims – the restoration of the Cathedral exterior stonework, and the training of young apprentices selected from unemployed 16 year-old in the Edinburgh area in the specific craft skills, especially of hand carving, required for restoration work. Andrew arrived as Foreman in 1989 and has been responsible for the teaching and mentoring of our apprentices ever since, and importantly, for forging the excellent reputation for quality restoration training St Mary’s has throughout Scotland. He has now been running the Workshop for 27 years with the able assistance of Jordan Kirk, Charge Hand, who in turn was one of Andrew’s former apprentices some years ago.
The craft of stone masonry is an ancient one and our apprentices learn in the traditional way, that passing on and continuity of knowledge by Andrew who in turn gained it from a stonemason with generations of knowledge behind him.
Gradually they learn to work on complicated pieces of carving, and there is a great pride in those stones then being fitted on to the Cathedral. Each summer stonemason firms ring asking Andrew for his new ‘graduates’ – as they know that each and every ex-apprentice from St Mary’s will be thoroughly trained in traditional hand carving and will be honest, confident and reliable.
St Mary’s Cathedral Workshop employs apprentices for four years and enrolls them for three years to study for their Scottish Vocational Qualification in stone masonry at Edinburgh College. In short, we provide sound training in a rapidly disappearing craft to young people with poor employment prospects who might otherwise have no training of any sort, but who now will be certain of a flourishing future. Even in a period of economic downturn within the building trade, our apprentices find good positions.
A purpose-built workshop with the latest dust extraction system, showers, restrooms etc (a complete contrast to Andrew’s wooden hut in the coal yard at Edinburgh Castle) was constructed in 2014 as part of the regeneration of the Cathedral’s north side which included not only the Workshop but also a brand new GP surgery for the local community, funded by NHS Lothian. Restoration works to the Cathedral are drawing to a close but it is essential that the training function of the Workshop should continue for the wider benefit of the city and its stonemasonry contractors and clients. Historic Environment Scotland has therefore helped us to develop a model that will train a greater number of apprentices.
Long Term Impact of our Training
The long-term impact of St Mary’s training is to produce a small but steady stream of qualified masons in the special hand skills of stonework restoration. It is also good to see with each apprentice, how they arrive as 16/17 year olds, still almost children, shy and inarticulate and watch them develop into confident, outgoing and responsible young master masons. There will always be a need for skilled stone masons using their specific skills within the building trade and thus playing their part in the conservation of Edinburgh’s built heritage.
One of the highlights of Andrew’s career took place in 1996; The Minister for the Environment and Built Heritage at the Scottish Office presented a framed parchment to the Provost of the Cathedral which reads: This inaugural award to mark the first anniversary of inscription of the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh as a World Heritage Site was presented to the Very Reverend Graham Forbes . . . The award was made in recognition of the quality of repairs to the stonework of the Cathedral achieved by the apprentices of St Mary’s Cathedral Workshop.)
Other memories for Andrew include climbing the North West spire, all 275 ft of it, to make a template for the replacement for the badly perished capping stone. He made it, but felt incredibly dizzy and vulnerable – so courage and guts are also needed to be a stonemason! A few years ago we had a deaf apprentice and Andrew remembers learning sign language so that the apprentice could be properly taught. On 27 June 1991 HRH The Princess Royal made her first visit to the Workshop. HRH agreed to be our official ‘Visitor’ and has since visited the Workshop many times. Thus apprentices meet her several times during their four year training, and the conversations they have with HRH are good for their confidence too. Andrew always makes a stone gift ranging from a stone replica of the royal dog to carved birds. It is the first question HRH asks when she arrives, “What has Andrew made for me this time?”
Although the training Andrew gained at the Castle and is now passing on to young apprentices remains in essence unchanged, he has seen many developments over the years, the improvement of facilities being one of the most important, the use of dust extractors to avoid silicosis and an overall improvement in health and safety practices, for example limiting the use of angle grinders to prevent white finger due to vibration, mels made of nylon. The shape of carving chisels has not changed but we are now able to sharpen our tungsten chisels ourselves.
The skilled art of traditional stonemasonry will continue to be passed down the generations, just as long as craftsmen like Andrew continue to live and breathe, and can transmit their passion for stone to the young.
St Mary’s New Project Begun 29 August 2016
Edinburgh with its Old and New Towns is a World Heritage Site. The unique character and sense of place of the city is created by the predominance of stone as a building material, complimented and showcased by the variety of architectural styles in which it has been used through the ages. Edinburgh undoubtedly requires a skilled, well-trained work force of stonemasons to maintain it for the future. However the economic downturn has had a marked impact on the structure of the local stonemasonry sector and its capacity to undertake training to maintain its skills base. Many larger companies who regularly trained apprentices have gone out of business and in part been replaced by smaller companies, undertaking smaller work packages that make it more difficult to commit to taking sole responsibility for a four year apprentice. A new method of apprentice training is necessary to improve this situation in Edinburgh.
This model will allow the apprentices to work for a network of contractors across the city to gain experience in the workplace, coordinated and managed by St Mary’s working closely with the City of Edinburgh Council and other organisations, whilst continuing repairs and maintenance to the Cathedral undertaken as part of the training. Contractors would be required, when the apprentices are working for them to pay their wages plus an additional levy of around 25%, to cover our training and administration costs. We are simultaneously increasing our outreach to apprentices, and are working with the Life Changes Trust which provides real and meaningful improvement in the lives of young people with experience of being in care. Thus, in August two young people with this experience started their apprenticeship with us. We hope that this partnership will continue and expand over the years. As our numbers are small, six apprentices, individual apprentices can benefit from one-to-one tuition, mentoring and support. Another of the new apprentices who started recently is a girl and a very welcome addition. We are planning with Skills Development Scotland ‘taster’ days for girls to encourage them into a career in stonemasonry.
This new project will not dilute the quality of our training but rather enhance it. We recruit from Edinburgh and the Lothians mainly by word of mouth.
The Need for the Workshop
There is an urgent need for our training. Apart from Historic Environment Scotland’s training programme, St Mary’s Cathedral Workshop is the only place in Scotland providing traditional tuition, a skill in increasing demand but in short supply. This dearth of stone masonry competence and the vast amount of restoration to be done across Scotland is causing concern and is now a political priority. Our new project giving more places to apprentices has full political support and we have recently had a visit from the Minister of Employability and Training, Jamie Hepburn MSP, to meet our new apprentices with further visits from MSP’s booked in for the new year.
How We Address this Need
Andrew’s training has a fully rounded approach in that he not only teaches traditional hand carving to a high level, but also address communication and social issues. He teaches the apprentices to be confident with people, to be able to talk with ease about their work, and to be able to demonstrate what stone masonry work involves. They learn to do this rapidly at our annual demonstration at the Royal Highland Show when literally thousands of people over the four days ask questions and watch them cutting and carving stone. The most frequently overheard remark from the public is: “Isn’t it good to see young people working on a traditional skill.” Andrew also teaches the apprentices the importance of Health and Safety, and the rudiments of running their own businesses later on in life.