Re-carving our Earliest Works of Art–‘as new’!

David Lindsay and Richad Groom of Stoneworks were commissioned by the Kirkmichael Trust, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, to examine two worn and broken medieval stones in Cullicudden and re-create them – as they were when new more than 600 years ago! Over the next few weeks, on this page, they will describe in their own words this challenging but exciting process, from their first arrival in Cullicudden to record the original stones to the mounting of the newly-carved stones in the refurbished nave at Kirkmichael.


The stone-carvers describe their commission

The carving of reproductions of two medieval stones ‘as-new’, what a great opportunity! So how to go about it?

The first step was to take as much information as we could from the existing stones. Although they are worn and have been reused, there is still a lot of information. Photographs, measurements and taking profiles is where we began. Our information, together with existing data previously gathered by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS), now part of Historic Environment Scotland, was used. Despite the fact that there is a reasonable amount of data, there is still some speculation as to what both stones looked like when they were originally cut.

David Lindsay and Richard Groom keeping warm on a bitter day at Cullicudden, with the hills of Easter Ross behind

Richard and David study Cullicudden H

Profiling the pattern; the stones did not need to be excavated as they had been recently exposed for a photographic survey by Historic Environment Scotland

The next step was to produce a few drawings providing a variety of options. The identification system originally used for these stones by RCAHMS back in the 1980s simply identifies these two wonderful stones as “Cullicudden F” and “Cullicudden H”.

For Cullicudden F there is enough information for a two dimensional plan. The overall dimensions are fairly clear within a few millimetres and alterations made when the stone was reused could readily be ignored. Therefore variations between differing options were not great and mostly confined to detail.

As Cullicudden H is broken at the base there was a greater amount of speculation. A stepped calvary base was agreed on to have parity with Cullicudden F. These are the two agreed final drawings. Details are simplified, greater definition will materialise during the carving process.

Cullicudden F on the left; Cullicudden H on the right

The next step was to decide on a stone type. Originally stone was quarried locally and until around 100 years ago there were hundreds of small local quarries throughout the country, natural stone being transported the short distances to site by horse and cart – a model for sustainable building today? The stone originally used for Cullicudden F and H is a red, fine sandstone. In the parish of Resolis, between Castle Craig and Alness Ferry, the spoil heaps of no less than five sandstone quarries can be found beside the Cromarty Firth. Now, however, there are only a handful of quarries for dimensional stone across the whole country. After comparison of samples with the original, Saint Bees, a red sandstone with a fine grain quarried in Cumbria, was chosen as the best available match. The stone was provided by Tradstocks Natural Stone Suppliers.

A large quarried block known as a random is slabbed to the required thickness on a diamond tipped steel saw, and then the slabs are secondarily sawn to the required dimensions.


We start work on the stones

Now we have two six sided slabs of stone, sat on benches known as “bankers” ready to start the carving process.

The agreed two dimensional images must be transferred to the faces of the stones. The drawings are produced to scale, and we used to multiply all dimensions by the right number, then transfer several reference points onto the stones and join the dots. That’s what we used to do. On this occasion we took a 21st Century approach and used a copy shop to produce the drawings full size before tracing the designs onto the stones.

Cullicudden F now drawn on the slab

We’re now ready to start carving. The first carving job is to start digging holes to the right depth to find the flat background from which all the raised carved elements project. The highest points on the original stones are around 15mm from the background, so we both elected to dig the background down by 20mm as the original stones are very worn and this gives us room to replicate the original details, bearing in mind that it will be easy to shave a bit more off the raised elements if they are too high, far easier than to drop the whole background again!

Carving stone is a subtractive process. Results are only achieved by removing material and we’ve both removed several skipfulls of waste stone over the years. We have also created clouds of stone dust. Sandstones are silica rich and silica dust is harmful to the lungs. Working on fine details means your eyes (and nose) must be close, close to the source of dust.

Cullicudden F starts to emerge from the sandstone

It is very important for everyone working with sandstone (and other building materials that can produce dust) to ensure they take all necessary, relevant health (and safety) precautions, such as protection against dust, for a long career. We’re both now in our 50s. Generally, feeling more beaten up at the end of the day is down to being out of practice (although it is like riding a bike) and the fact that we’re not as agile as we used to be. Understanding of the need for suitable health and safety measures has improved over the years. Now all good stonemasonry production facilities are equipped with dust extraction like the one we’re using, Tradstocks Natural Stone’s Westwood facility. We have both always used at least the recommended personal dust protection masks. We currently use positive pressure, filtered, battery powered air flow masks. The air intake is near your bottom and further away from the dust source, but that can have its own issues!

The combination of increased awareness of the dangers, improved dust control measures and better personal protective equipment means lessened health risks for the next generation of stonemasons and carvers. We’d like to thank Tradstocks Natural Stone ( both for the use of their Westwood facility and for providing the St Bees sandstone block for this project.


The stones begin to take their final form – just as they were in medieval days

David has been using pneumatic air hammers (another potential long term exposure health risk) to remove most of the waste, while I stuck to using a mallet for most of the work, an excuse I can use for taking longer to finish my stone.

Richard at work on Cullicudden F with traditional tools

David at work on Cullicudden H with modern pneumatic tools

Although air hammers are a relatively recent innovation, we’ve both been taking care to replicate surface finishes and approaches to the carving that would have been available when the stones were originally cut. The different backgrounds also provide fairly significant differences to how we have both approached the work.

First the sword then the fleur de lis emerge.

My stone, Cullicudden F, has a round moulded raised border, while David’s, Cullicudden H, has a straight splay moulding with all the elements sitting proud of the background. This provides opportunities for different approaches to how both carvings and elements in them are dealt with, both for us, and for how they would have been carved originally.

Cullicudden H first cut

Cullicudden H with the detail worked up

David cut the splay straight and true with sharp arrisses or edges. The original has long since lost this crispness. The choice today was to leave the edges as they were intended, or at least what we consider to be the original intention. Some of the raised elements have been polished, rubbed with harder stone until smooth, while the background has been left off the chisel. This difference in approach to the surface finishes is expanded a little further in my stone. The sunken background contained by the raised border provides me an opportunity for an additional more coarse surface finish that will allow a stronger contrast between the background and the polished surface of the sword. There are no photographs of this as yet as I’ve only just made this decision. The centuries of weathering to the original stones will have long since eliminated any differences in surface finish, but it was an approach used since, well, since the stone age. We also take care to replicate surfaces by working them with tools not dissimilar to those used originally, that is flat and pointed chisels, we only have to look at the sword to know both were available.

Both stones have fleur-de-lis type motifs. Again there are differences in approach as to how these are worked. I’ve left chisel marks made while carving the shape and the centre leaf is turned up slightly to provide definition against the raised moulding. David has rounded the edges and the chisel marks are those left as a surface finish.

Richard has raised the central leaf of the fleur de lis on Cullicudden F

The fleur de lis on Cullicudden H, as in the original carved centuries ago, extend out past the edge of the stone.

One more working day and all that’s left to do is to tool the background of my stone (as decided while writing this) and to get the stones on pallets and transported for Tuesday and the visit from HRH the Duke of Gloucester. We’re both looking forward to this, not least as it means an end to working these fantastic stones. Smaller stones can be worked from different angles by turning the stone, the size of these two means all changes to an angle of attack have to be made by the carver and our 50+ year old bodies are complaining!

Cullicudden F nearing completion

The carving of Cullicudden H is just ahead of Cullicudden F.

With both stones finished and ready for transportation, moving them allowed a unique photo opportunity. We carefully stood both stones on end, allowing us to take a few paces back and get both of them in the frame in good natural light.

The two of us travelled to Kirkmichael with stones and manual lifting equipment. Interesting challenge: the doorway of the chancel was narrower than the bogey we arrived with! Getting Cullicudden H inside took longer than anticipated, but somehow we got it in! Getting Cullicudden F inside the nave after that was plain sailing.

HRH The Duke of Gloucester asks Richard a question about Cullicudden F in the nave whilst David looks on.

And Cullicudden H rests in the seating arrangement through in the chancel.

David has set an indentation in the centre of the cross on Cullicudden H to show how the original stone would have been marked out, using a strip of material swung round in circles to get symmetrical points. Similar marks can still be seen on some of the original stones. A clever trick of the carving trade!

The indentation in the centre of the ornate cross.

These medieval ornate crosses are all unusual and their style unique to the Black Isle. Although both of us have carved Celtic patterns before they've been contemporary projects not "as new" carvings of existing medieval stones with such rich history. It's been a pleasure carving them! We invited those inspired by our work to come along to see the finished product at Kirkmichael's Public Open Day on 9 September 2017 and to come to our illustrated talk at Fortrose Academy at 7pm that evening!

I can't stop myself from writing something about skills and materials while provided the opportunity.

Skills – to be competent takes practice and to get practice requires lots of work of the right nature. Unfortunately, stone carving and many other skilled occupations are not in sufficient demand for contemporary architecture. Why not? – ask an architect (or the accountant)!

Materials – originally all building materials were sourced locally and arrived on site by horse and cart. There is plenty of local stone that can still be quarried across Scotland, dimensional stone quarries need only be small operations and any environmental impact is not necessarily negative, several ex-quarries are now SSSIs. The stone we used whilst from the UK is not strictly local, but is a good match for local stone and far better than importing from China or elsewhere which is often the case for contemporary building materials.

Designing new buildings with indigenous materials and some contemporary ornamentation would help keep the skills alive and would also help every area to retain its own character, providing its own sense of place. There are plenty of people keen to do this type of work and the skills are still there, even if only few and far between.

Long live the artisan!

From drawing to stunning carved stone.

If you have any questions for David or Richard, contact us by emailing or through Facebook at www.facebook/kirkmichael or simply click our direct email here.

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