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ENVIRONMENT & TRAVEL March 2006
 
 
 
Curling stones on the rocks at Ailsa Craig.
by Christophe COIGNARD & Julie THARAUD

Scotland claims to have invented curling. From the 19th century onwards, Ailsa Craig island has been the one and only place where the precious granite stones are cut.

Curling is a strange sport invented in late medieval Scotland where it was practiced on iced lakes. The oldest curling stone to have been found in archaeological digs is 495 years old. Nowadays curling is very popular in Canada, Scotland and Switzerland. It became an Olympic sport in the 1998 Nagano Winter Games. A Northern and distant cousin of the French pétanque, curling involves throwing a granite stone on an icy surface in order to reach the centre of a target called "the house". Two teams of four people play against one another. It requires balance, strength, quickness, rigor, the tactics of a chess player and above all very special stones.
The 64 stones used in Turin's Olympic Games came from the same place : Ailsa Craig island, a little rock, 8 miles off the Ayrshire coast. It is over there, in the old granite quarries that curling's Holy Grail can be found. The green Olympic stone is carved in accordance with the World Curling Federation (WCF) criteria: the stone must have a circular form with a circumference of almost 11,50 inches but it must weigh less than 44 Ibs.

From the end of the 19th century until the middle of the 1960s, stone tailors lived on the island for the mildest part of the year and shipped the granite to the specialized factories on the coast where it was shaped. For a long time Scottish granite had a rival in Wales: the Welsh Trevor. But in the middle of the 1980s, the WCF eventually run some tests and the superior quality of Scottish granite was asserted as its ability to sustain shocks proved unrivalled. The stones have been made by the same family business, Kays of Scotland, for four generations. Today, Andrew Kay's descendants perpetuate their grandparents' know-how; Kays of Scotland employs eight people and produces between 700 to 800 curling stones per year. The market is limited but the Scottish company enjoys a monopolistic position and buying an Olympic curling stone is not cheap. They sell for 450 euros each! One of the reasons explaining this steep price is the fact that the Ailsa Craig blue hone granite supply has nearly been exhausted. The company has permission to return to the island on a periodic basis.
Nowadays, Ailsa Craig is home to colonies of rats and wild birds such as puffins and gannets.


Sources: « Puffins return to Scottish Island Famous For Curling Stones, » National Geographic News 27 October 2004; « Ailsa Craig Becomes Nature Reserve, » The Guardian 20 March 2004; « Slaughter Of Rats Revives Island's Puffin Population, » The Guardian 19 September 2002; « A (Very) Short History Of Curling, » The Observer 24 February 2002.

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