We are presenting here extracts from a beautifully produced new book by T. Norman Tait, published by  Friends of the McKechnie Institute, Girvan. The book consists of a collection of photographs taken by Charles Kirk during his annual visits to Ailsa Craig between 1896-1922 depicting the social and natural history of the island. The photographic plates belong to Glasgow Museums and were restored and digitised by T. Norman Tait and is presented here by their kind permission.
 

The S.S. Ailsa viewed from offshore: The steamer is berthed at the Lighthouse slipway and is flying the Red Ensign on the jack staff at the stern of the boat.  The Girvan Family House Flag is clearly seen on the rear mast.  A white cottage at the centre is the tacksman's cottage used by the Girvan family and to the right is the tearoom.  The white building on the left of the cottage contains winding gear used to pull laden bogies up from the slipway while on the skyline is seen a structure commonly known as Ailsa Castle.


Wild goats on the Craig: The goats were a well-known feature on Ailsa and around 1836 the tenant of the Craig " went there for a few days shooting at the wild goats that abound." At the beginning of the 20th century the numbers had increased and counts varied between 20 in 1902 to approaching 80 in 1936.  Over a period of a few years their numbers were reduced by regular shooting and in the 1940s only a few old billies remained. They eventually died out leaving Ailsa Craig devoid of wild goats. The head of an Ailsa Craig wild goat preserved by Roland Ward of London can be seen in the McKechnie Institute, Girvan.


The older gentleman is Alexander Thomson, the principal lighthouse keeper with an unidentified colleague. c1911.


The Light-Keepers sorting fish: Fishing boats from Girvan would call at Ailsa when returning with their catch.  The Ailsa inhabitants go for a regular supply of fresh fish for the table.  The fish appear to be pollock known locally as 'Stenlachs'.  The waters surrounding Ailsa were regularly fished and for many centuries the island was used as a local fishing station during the summer months.  Sir Donald Munro, writing in 1549 states "for in the same ile is verey good killing, ling, and uther whyte fishes."


Cranking the generators: These engines were all hand-cranked to start the shaft turning.  A number of these Lister generators were installed around 1911.  They were changed over daily with one kept as a spare for emergencies.  The power produced was supplied to the lighthouse lamp and electricity was also routed to the living quarters of the lighthouse buildings.  Another engine in the winch-house was used to pull supply bogies up the steep rail track from the jetty.


The North Foghorn showing the compressed air cylinders at the south side of the Horn. c1908


A steam crane moving boulders at the Ailsa Craig granite quarry.


The mineral railway: To facilitate the transport of rocks and boulders to the crushing mill, a flimsy narrow-gauge Railway was constructed.  Large boulders were loaded onto the bogies by a steam crane which had more lifting power than the quarrymen.  Smaller material was loaded by hand.  The bogies were then either pushed by hand or pulled by a pony.  The steep cliffs of Kennedy's Nags rise upwards at the right-hand side of the picture.


Quarrymen's housing 2: The Ailsa Granite Quarry employed a large workforce of about 30 men during the summer months.  The married men were housed in corrugated-iron buildings and the single men in the barrack building seen in the distance.  The granite-built cottage in the centre of the row was used by the quarry-manager.  The gentleman in the foreground wearing a collar and tie is probably Archibald Currie who was quarry-master from 1911-1914.  This building still exists today.


Splitting a boulder: large boulders were split by a hand-technique known as 'plug and feather'. A skilled eye identified a natural weakness in the grain along which a series of holes were hammered to a depth of about 6 inches (15cm).  A large steel chisel, held by wire, was turned and struck by a 28lb (12.7kg) double-handed hammer.  Half-round metal rods or 'feathers' were inserted into the holes and a wedge or 'plug' was driven between the rods.  As the pressure increased the rock eventually split along the line of holes.


Matthew Girvan (right) shares a break from some stone knapping with a colleague at the Blue Hone Quarry.


Rowing the blocks: Matthew Girvan and his colleagues rolled the blocks to the water's edge and then waded into the sea up to waist level carrying the blocks out to an offshore rowing boat.  This was cold and unpleasant work.  The heavy skiff being used to take the stones out to the trader is of a type that became defunct by the 1950s.  Even in such a flat calm, the load looks decidedly scary.  The boats did capsize on a number of occasions and many blocks may be seen lying underwater to this day.


Charles Kirk perched on a cliff at Ailsa Craig focusing a half plate stereo camera. c1900


Charles Kirk descending a cliff.  He did not use ropes and wore only sandals. c1900


A colony of Kittiwakes nesting on the cliffs at Dory’s Yett. The negative is dated 1903.


Gannet landing at its nest: This is a splendid example of Charles Kirk's superb pictures of seabirds in flight around Ailsa Craig.  Gannets usually lay a solitary egg, bluish-green beneath the outer chalky deposit that is usually stained.  The nest is a heap of seaweed with the addition of some local vegetation and any oddments lying about.  Gannets' eggs have been collected on Ailsa centuries, mainly for local consumption.  Fortunately that practice is now illegal.


A camera-shy young Gannet is seen cowering underneath the parent bird.


Puffins resting on rocks: Dr Bernard Zonfrillo of Glasgow University was a prime mover in the formation of a committee to begin a rat-eradication programme.  It was decided to use a specific rat-poison called Warfarin.  The rats were targeted while leaving all other species untouched.  This was successful and in 1991 the island became rat-free for the first time in over a hundred years.  The Puffins returned to breed in 2002 and other ground nesting birds such as the Wheatear have also returned to breed.


A calm day at Stranny Point at the South of the island.


Leaving on the S.S. Ailsa: Visitors came to Ailsa in droves during the summer months.  For many people scaling the summit was considered a priority.  However, many of the ladies, sweltering in their long dresses, made for the refreshment tent run by the Girvan family.  A tea room was built later.  By most accounts it was "spotlessly clean with linen like driven snow, home-baked scones, butter, jam and the hot tea was just perfect." Many items were for sale at the shop including postcards produced by Charles Kirk.


This is only a very small glimpse of the contents of “Kirk on the Craig” and I do recommend you to purchase a copy.
 

 

 

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