The deadly price of building Edinburgh's New Town

By Andrew Picken
BBC Scotland News

Image source, Capital Collections
Image caption,
Stonemasons working on the Scott Monument take a break in Princes Street Gardens. Edinburgh Castle is in the background

Hulking blocks of carved sandstone dominate much of Edinburgh's world-famous New Town but few people who admire the city's beautiful buildings know the human cost of their construction.

According to new research, years of breathing in the dust from ornate carvings led to an "epidemic" of lung disease among the stonemasons who built the New Town.

Records show many of the stonemasons who worked on iconic Edinburgh structures such as the Scott Monument or Old Royal High School on Calton Hill were dead within a few years of completing the projects.

Experts say much of the problem was because the work was carried out in unventilated sheds to avoid the worst of the weather.

The research also reveals 19th Century stonemasons favoured growing beards and moustaches to try to filter the dust, instead of using the rudimentary respiratory equipment available at the time.

Image source, Hill and Adamson
Image caption,
Stonemasons carving a griffin destined for the Scott Monument

Prof Ken Donaldson, a senior research fellow at the city's Surgeons' Hall Museum, was one of four academics who wrote the paper: Edinburgh's hidden story of stonemasons' silicosis.

Silicosis is a long-term lung disease caused by inhaling large amounts of crystalline silica dust, which is usually from working with stone and rock.

It causes areas of hardened and scarred lung tissue.

Prof Donaldson said: "There is a weight of evidence from contemporary sources which makes a persuasive case that this is a forgotten occupational health disaster.

"I think the one that really shocked me was the Scott Monument, there were huge of blocks of sandstone that needed shaped and it was mostly getting done in sheds to keep out the wind and rain.

"People just don't know about the unintended consequences of building this beautiful city."

'Tip of the iceberg'

Prof Donaldson said there was no way of recording occupational illness at that time so it was a "real effort" to try to get a sense of what was going on.

He said: "These figures are really the tip of the iceberg. I think hundreds of stonemasons will have died from silicosis while building the New Town."

Image source, Capital Collections
Image caption,
'Edinburgh from Craigleith Quarry' as painted by John Bell (1793–1861)

New beginnings, New Town

In 1766, with the city's historic Old Town at bursting point, young Edinburgh architect James Craig won a competition to design what was to become the New Town.

Boasting wide boulevards, squares and grand new public buildings, it was the antithesis of the cramped Old Town and it took more than 80 years to complete.

It remains a world-renowned example of city planning and is now designated a Unesco world heritage site, due to some of the "finest public and commercial monuments of the New-classical revival in Europe".

The stone for this grandiose new suburb came from a quarry less than two miles away, at Craigleith, and critically it was a high quartz sandstone - one of the most dangerous for stonemasons to work with.

The research paper has figures which show that between 1872 and 1911, 46.1% of Edinburgh's stonemasons died from tuberculosis - significantly higher than the 13.4% rate for all men over the age of 20 in the city.

It argues that the implication is that the tuberculosis in the stonemasons recorded was "silico-tuberculosis" or silicosis.

In October 1852 the Edinburgh News newspaper carried an investigation into masons and their working conditions, describing the problems they encountered from breathing stone dust.

Image source, Capital Collections/National Galleries of Scotland
Image caption,
The Scott Monument under construction in 1843

The article also carries death rates for masons working on a string of key projects across the New Town.

The building of the Scott Monument on Princes Street has the highest rate, with its intensive stone-carvings most likely to blame.

'Evil in repute'

The Edinburgh News states 23 men who worked on the project were dead as a result of silicosis four years after its completion while the 1854 edition of Tomlinson's Cyclopaedia of Useful Arts states that 18 out of the 70 stonemasons who worked on the monument died from tuberculosis.

Author Charles Tomlinson wrote: "The sandstone of which the Scottish capital is built has long been evil in repute for producing diseases in the lungs of the masons who work it."

Elsewhere, evidence shows that half of the 30 stonemasons who built a branch of the Edinburgh and Glasgow Bank on George Street in 1831 had succumbed to silicosis 12 years after the scheme had finished.

The Old Royal High School on Calton Hill had about 120 stonemasons working on it and the research shows that only 10 of them were alive 24 years after its 1829 completion, all dead as a result of silicosis.

Researchers found that the biggest cause of "stonemasons lung" was the use of unventilated sheds to cut and shape the stone needed for buildings.

The Edinburgh News article describes how standing at one end of a 40ft mason's shed, the men at the far end "were all but invisible", with the sheds described as "nothing better than a place of human sacrifice".

Beards vs breathing apparatus

The few pictures of the masons at work building Edinburgh's New Town available show a sea of mandatory cloth caps but not much in the way of safety wear.

According to the research paper, many it seems were content with growing a beard and moustache to try to filter the dust which, perhaps not surprisingly, had little impact.

But the research team found that an alternative was available at the time.

Image source, Getty Images

A Reverend Mr Nisbet of the Canongate, Edinburgh, had designed what looks like a modern respirator with ties to secure around the mouth and nose, and a cloth filter to trap fine dust.

However, it seems take-up among masons was virtually non-existent.

The threat remains

In 1824, WP Alison, a professor of medicine in Edinburgh, reviewed tuberculosis cases in the Scottish capital.

He said: "I have reason to believe that there is hardly an instance of a mason regularly employed in hewing stones in Edinburgh living free from phthisical [wasting] symptoms to the age of 50."

Almost 200 years on, the problem still remains.

A study for an occupational medicine publication found that between 2007 and 2013, six stonemasons between the ages of 24 and 39 were found to have developed silicosis while working in Edinburgh.

It found three had severe debilitating versions of the disease, one was awaiting a lung transplant, and all had lost their jobs.

Image source, georgeclerk

The study states that none had had effective protection from dust and all had used powered chisels, angle grinders and saws, causing heavy exposure, with the report stating that "none had been aware of the risks involved in their work".

Anthony Seaton, a retired professor of environmental medicine at the University of Aberdeen, and one of the co-authors of the silicosis paper, said: "The human cost of building the New Town is significant and we need to recognise this.

"People still die from silicosis but there should really be no excuse today.

"Stonemasons need to be aware of the risks, know they need to be regularly checked and wear the appropriate respiratory equipment when working.

"But it is difficult for many, it is their livelihood, and we know that because of the extensive use of sandstone, Scotland is one of the worst places for silicosis."

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reported that, across the UK, there are about 25 estimated new cases each year with typically between 10 and 20 annual deaths from the condition over the past 10 years.

The HSE's reporting system for silicosis is a voluntary one so it is likely the number of modern day stonemasons with the deadly disease is much higher than reported.