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The Doric Columns

MacDonald's Granite Works

GRANITE STONE - A very hard and long lasting stone which is difficult to inscribe.  A good granite supplier is probably now able to offer a range of 20 to 30 colours although there are several hundred variations. The stone became fashionable for cemeteries after Alexander MacDonald of Aberdeen invented a process to cut and polish the granite stone and it became even more popular in the 20th century after the introduction of steam generated pneumatic cutters were introduced [c1890] and as machine cutting and polishing developed, it rivalled marble as a 'quality' finish. The stone can achieve a high polish and sometimes the graining can be very similar to marble but marble remains less shiny [even when polished and reflects light differently to give a 'waxed' appearance]. Cemetery craftsmen favoured the white, creamy Cornish or the dark slate grey from Aberdeen or Peterhead pink, often using a pink in contrasts on upright column supports. It is difficult to carve and the current use of computer controlled machines are now used undermines the skills of Victorian craftsmen often working outside in exposed and cramped conditions. To aid the modern craftsman grit blasting is used, carefully shielding the adjoining areas of the stone.

Alexander MacDonald was born in 1794 at Foss, near Loch Tummel, Perthshire, the son of a crofter. After receiving some elementary education at the local parish school he joined his father in working on their farm. His father’s income was not sufficient to pay young Alexander a wage so he encouraged him to take up an apprenticeship as a stonemason. Alexander completed his apprenticeship in 1820 and set off to Aberdeen to start up on his own. He rented a little workshop at 83 Queen Street, producing granite hearths, mantelpieces, paving stones, and funerary monuments in marble and other types of stone.  Alexander worked hard and in 1822 moved to larger premises in West North Street, where he now employed a journeyman and an apprentice. In 1829 he read that an exhibition of ancient sculptures recently brought back from Egypt had opened in the British MuseumGiovanni Belzoni, a fairground entertainer turned traveller, explorer, and rogue had returned to London with relics pilfered from the tombs of ancient Egypt, and had sold them to the Trustees of the British Museum,  where they were displayed to the public.  As the young MacDonald viewed these exhibits he noted that the granite had a polished surface, an art that the ancient Egyptians had discovered thousands of years before. He was so impressed by these works he was determined to experiment with polished granite when he returned to Aberdeen. Initially he confined himself to plain works, small headstones of simple design and bust pedestals.   His implements were crude and the hand polishing process was slow and laborious. However, with the aid of a wheel turned by two men, he succeeded in producing rounded forms. It must be remembered that at that time, the work of cutting, carving and turning stone was all performed by manual labour. As a contemporary remarked: The whole granite trade in those days consisted of 3 journeymen masons, 2 or 3 apprentices and a dog’.

But luck was on Alexander’s side…. in the form of steam. Next to the MacDonald works was the famous comb making business of John Stewart, who had just installed a steam engine, at that time a novel form of power. Alexander arranged with his friend to obtain power from this source and thereby made the 1st attempt at polishing granite by machinery. The experiment proved a great success and MacDonald found that he could produce polished granite, an art forgotten since the days of the Ptolemys.

Constitution Street Memorial

Mr. Alexander Macdonald, in 1832, was the 1st to begin the granite polishing trade, and the works of the same firm, the only ones of the kind till about 1850, are still the largest in the kingdom.  Founded in the 18th-century, the Industry made Aberdeen a leader in granite technology and carving and at one time its stone trade was the envy of the world, while the widespread use of granite earned Aberdeen its 'Granite City' nickname.  National and international competition became so fierce that granite merchants were beginning to consider having to close their yards.  A fascinating insight into the working of granite, from excavation at Rubislaw Quarry to the skills of local masons, polishers and the trade in memorial stones.  This most unyielding of material succumbed to the new blasting, tooling and lifting technology.

1832 Alexander Macdonald and polishing  granite - in the early 1820s he described himself as marble and stonecutter it was not until about 1836 that his business has the "steam manufactory" on Constitution Street it would have been there that he established the polishing business although it seems likely that the initial experiments were undertaken near his King Street works  - M. Dey

In 1832 the 1st polished tombstone of Aberdeen granite to be erected in an English cemetery was installed at Kensal Green. It caused a sensation in the London monumental trade and for some years all polished granite ordered came from MacDonalds. In the early days granite was shipped down the East Coast and up the Thames to Lambeth pier, where it was dispatched by cart pulled by Shire horses to monumental masons’ yards and to the newly founded Cemeteries in London.  The next big step Alexander MacDonald was to make was to enter into partnership with the Master Mason and architect William Leslie in 1834. For the next 20 years Leslie designed many of the impressive monuments that were to come from the Constitution Street works, one such being the Fountains in Trafalgar Square.


The Trafalgar Square Fountains
The fountains are from the designs of Mr. Barry, and were executed of Aberdeen or Peterhead granite, by Messrs. Macdonald and Leslie, of Aberdeen. The granite is peculiar for the redness of its colour, as well as from it hardness and durability, and is capable of receiving a very high polish. These qualities are owing to the almost total absence of mica in the composition of the granite – quartz and feltspar being its chief constituents, and the latter, in proportions which rival the rich flesh-coloured granites of Egypt.

The design is simple, but chaste and elegant. A massive curved octagonal base, upon which are four dolphins’ heads and fins, supports a magnificent flat vase, from the centre of which rises a pedestal supporting a smaller, but similar vase, and in its centre is places the granite mouth for the jet. From this mouth the water is thrown up in a close stream to the desired height, when it spreads out and descends into the upper vase, from thence to the lower one, and so falls into the basin; at the same time, a flat stream issues from the mouths of each of the dolphins. The quantity thrown up by the two fountains will be 500 gallons per minute; but, when requisite, 800 or 1000 gallons can be thrown up with equal ease, in the same space of time.

The basins as the bottom add greatly to the beauty of the fountains; and it has been arranged that they shall at all times be kept brim full of transparent water.  The effect of the entire square is magnificent; but it is not such an one as woos the pedestrian to repose, or the idler to lounge. In summer, “the sun smites by day, and the cold by night;” and in winter, the biting winds make it equally intolerable.  On the Continent, were a Place Grand is constantly a Place Vert, these fearful inconveniences would have been remedied by groves of trees; and we may add, that not only would the public have been benefited, but the effect of the architecture itself would have been assisted by such an arrangement in the vast promenade of Trafalgar-square.

The contract for “spouting water” is ten hours a day om the average – that is, in the summer the fountains are to play 13 hours per day, and in the winter 7 hours. The height to which the water is to be thrown will vary, according to the weather, from 25 feet to 40 feet from the ground.  The mode of procuring the water, its quantity, distribution, &c., as well as the engines and all the other apparatus connected with this undertaking, are the work of Messrs. Easton and Amos, of The Grove, Southwark, on whom the whole management reflects the highest credit. We understand that the entire cost of sinking the wells, &c., the engines, pipes, and all attendant machinery and expenses, is somewhat under £10,000, exclusive of the granite fountains; and for this, the permanent means of supplying the whole of the Government offices from Charing Cross to the new Houses of Parliament, inclusive, is insured, as well as the necessary consumption for the watering of the streets.  The saving which Government will effect by this mode forms no inconsiderable item in its advantages, for the present contract for furnishing the requisite quantity of water being £500 per annum, and the sum hitherto paid to the water companies double that amount.

All the Leslie-designed  works were marked MacDonald & Leslie. William Leslie left MacDonalds in 1853.   He went on to design many great railway works in Scotland and eventually in 1869 became Lord Provost of Aberdeen. He died in 1879 and is buried in Oldmachar Churchyard, Aberdeen.  Alexander MacDonald ran his firm alone from 1853 until his death on 23 March 1860. During this period MacDonalds were producing polished works of many forms using Cairngall, Peterhead, and Aberdeen granites, and exporting them all over the world.

On his grave in Nellfield Cemetery, Aberdeen, his son Alexander erected a mural monument in Aberdeen granite embellished by a bronze medallion. After his father’s death the firm was carried on under trustees by his son and Robert Fergusson, In 1863 Alexander the younger assumed direct control of the business with Sidney Field as his partner. Robert Fergusson also acquired an interest in the firm at this time and for the next 20 years the business carried on under the name Alexander MacDonald, Field & Co. This period was the pinnacle of MacDonalds output.

The workshops at 121 Constitution Street, Aberdeen covered 4 acres! Sidney Field was an Artist as well as an Architect. He designed many of the embellishments that were used on large public buildings that give the firm its reputation. Field was also responsible for designing many of the firm’s cemetery monuments. He produced some innovative designs that were still available from the MacDonald catalogue in the 1930s.  MacDonald died of Bronchitis (now referred to as COPD) at his Townhouse in Aberdeen, on 23 March, 1860 - the granite dust finally got to him.

His most important achievement, however, was his sculpting of the granite statue of George, 5th Duke of Gordon, Aberdeen, which he carved from a model by the London sculptor Thomas Campbell, in 1842-8.

This was erected in the Castlegate and relocated to Golden Square in 1952.  The standing figure of the 5th and last Duke of Gordon is presented in military dress; a large cloak worn over his left shoulder and wrapped toga-like around his body. His right arm is held diagonally across the body so that his hand rests with his left hand on the hilt of a large sheathed sabre. His left food rests on a piece of military ordnance (possibly a mortar).

MacDonald's faith that granite was every bit as capable of producing sculptures as fine as anything wrought in marble or cast in bronze led to the extraction of a 17-ton stone from Dancing Cairns quarry for cutting and carving into a statue of the 5th Duke of Gordon.  Around 100 men assisted with the grey monolith as it was mounted onto a cart drawn by 7 horses and carried in procession through the City’s northerly outskirts to Macdonald’s Yard.  The year was 1840 and with no local carver thought good enough to undertake the assignment, Alexander Macdonald turned to London sculptor Thomas Campbell for its fine modelling.  The work took around 2 years and stood some 10 feet high and would be placed on a pedestal of comparable height.  The Aberdeen Journal described its noble simplicity and vigour with the likeness of the late lamented Duke preserved with singular fidelity.  It would be a further 18 months before what was declared to be the 1st statue executed in granite in modern times was eventually erected on Castle Street.  It demonstrated the full potential of the local stone.  Macdonald’s grand ambition went unrealised, however, as marble and bronze continued to be the material of 1st choice for Victorian sculptors.

Another of MacDonald's public monuments in Aberdeen is the 70ft (21m) obelisk in pink Peterhead granite to Sir James McGrigor, first erected in the quadrangle of Marischal College, and later moved to Duthie Park (c. 1851, relocated, c. 1890).

Alexander Jnr died on 27 December 1884 and was buried in St Machar’s Cathedral burial ground, Aberdeen. During the 20 years he ran the company, which now employed over 100 people, he had amassed a large fortune. He bequeathed his huge art collection, which included works by Millais, Leighton, Watts, and Alma-Tadema, to the Aberdeen Art Gallery, one of the largest collections ever donated to it.

After the death of MacDonald Jr, Robert Fergusson joined Sidney Field as a partner and the firm became a limited company with the name Alexander MacDonald & Co Ltd. Fergusson was Managing Director until he retired in 1893. The MacDonald Company was acquired by Henry Hutcheon in 1912 and traded as Henry Hutcheon Ltd until it closed in 1941Hutcheon’s father had served his apprenticeship along with  Robert Fergusson under Alexander MacDonald Snr. Many MacDonald monuments were purchased by companies who only erected them on site. MacDonalds had offices at 369–375 Euston Road from the 1860s, hence all the London area orders and designs would have been initiated from there. As no records or catalogues survive the only way to confirm that a monument was made by MacDonalds or a successor to the firm is to look for a signature at the base. They are not always easy to spot!

One of the most famous MacDonald monuments is the huge double Cairngall Sarcophagus at the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore, which contains the remains of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The block for the sarcophagus is the largest block of flawless wrought granite in existence, and the 4th block quarried: the first 3 attempts ended in failure when flaws were discovered underneath the stones after they had been detached. The block of granite originally weighed 30 tons. 12 Clydesdale horses were needed to pull it from the quarry to the MacDonald works.  Manager Robert Fergusson stated that after the rough granite was shaped, hollowed out, and polished it gave a total weight of 9 tons. The lid alone weighs 5 tons and the whole sarcophagus rests on polished granite blocks. The 4 massive bronze angels attached to each corner were designed by Marochetti and cast by Barbeedienne in Paris.

Alexander MacDonald received Letters Patent as “Her Majesty’s Workers in Granite” in 1867 after completing the sarcophagus.

MacDonalds produced their finest commissions in the period 1860–1900. They received medals at the Great Exhibition in 1851 and at other International exhibitions: 3 in Paris, 1867; Philadelphia, 1876; Paris, 1878; and Melbourne,  1880.  Interestingly, much of the evolution of the firm can be traced at Norwood.

Without  doubt the finest of the surviving Norwood memorials is that to the cotton mill owner James Kershaw MP, attributed to Alfred Waterhouse, and listed Grade II together with the adjacent tomb to Charles James Elworthy, also by Waterhouse. It is likely there are further MacDonald monuments at Norwood Cemetery.


The memorial, built of granite from the Peterhead quarry, takes the form of a classic obelisk resting on steps and a landing 19 foot wide. It rises to a height of 40 feet and on the pedestal are carved sunken panels with the dedication:

To the Glory of Almighty God 
And In Honour of The men of this town 
Who gave their Lives 
For Freedom in the Great War 1914-18

The quotation from The Pilgrims Progress, mentioned above is also included. On the 4 faces of the bottom of the shaft are similar panels on which are inscribed the names of the dead. The monument was designed by the Aberdeen firm of Messrs Charles McDonald Ltd. and built at a cost of about £2,500.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013