Teaching them the hard facts

13th May 2011 at 01:00
With Aberdeen's first Granite Festival underway, a new initiative is sparking children's interest in the city's craggy heritage.

The granite is glittering in the morning sunshine - perfect conditions for a tour of Aberdeen's architectural heritage. The pupils of Heatheryburn Primary are also in sparkling form, giving their guide the third degree on every facet of the granite industry.

This is the first school to undertake this tour and workshop, organised for pupils as part of the city's first Granite Festival, marking the restoration and redevelopment of the iconic Marischal College.

The former Aberdeen University building is the second-largest granite building in the world (after the El Escorial monastery near Madrid) and has been cleaned and redeveloped as the new corporate headquarters for the city council. The month-long May festival is also an opportunity to celebrate the history of granite in the city and the industry that created its landscape over 200 years.

The children get their own version of a city-centre walking tour that will feature as part of the festival, highlighting key granite buildings. They begin at Aberdeen Art Gallery, learning how granite is formed and admiring the interior granite columns and facade with the expert help of Jenny Brown, the curator of industrial history at Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums.

The P6s are evidently excited to have escaped their classroom and their teacher Hugh Rose is keeping a close eye.

"We're going to be looking at granite buildings in Aberdeen and making an animation based on the Granite City," he says, as the children scrutinise the gallery's granite pillars under Ms Brown's supervision.

"They'll be including what they see in their drawings and in the models they make of Aberdeen."

"Why is it bumpy and why is some of it smooth?" one of the children asks Ms Brown, as they look up at the art gallery from the road outside.

"It's artistic, it's to look good and it's just a different way of working with the stone," she explains.

They walk across into St Nicholas Churchyard to investigate the granite gravestones. It's difficult to be spooked in here today with so much sunshine and cherry blossom.

Storyteller Grace Banks from the Reading Bus literacy project will help the children prepare their animations.

"This morning is to give them creative ideas towards a story, which has to be based around the actual quarrying and how the stone is extracted," she says.

"We're going to look at it from the very human perspective of the foreman and the quarry worker who were often quite young lads and the hard life they had socially, the long hours they worked and the dangers they faced. It's just trying to spark the kids to begin to look at the stone in a very different way from how they've looked at it before."

Next stop is Provost Skene's House - where there is a group "Wow!" when they discover the building is over 500 years old. The soaring spires of the newly cleaned Marischal College come into view - finishing touches still being made before its re-opening in the autumn.

"They must be very brave to go all the way up there," says one of the boys.

Ms Brown wants to get the pupils thinking about the fact that granite was something Aberdeen exported all over the world - the tombstones and the sculptures and the monuments were quite famous worldwide.

"We start in the workshops by getting the children to think about what granite is and what its properties are, and then we take them out and look at the city itself," she says.

When the children arrive at Aberdeen Maritime Museum, they have an opportunity for hands-on history, handling tools that were used in the industry, hearing about the hazards involved and dressing up in contemporary protective equipment.

Ten-year-old Bupe Sliungwe is impressed: "I thought it was really nice to see some of the granite buildings."

Rebecca Davidson, 11, says: "This was a really nice trip. I knew it was called the Granite City, but I didn't know why."

For teaching resources, search for granite at www.aberdeenquest.com

For further information and requests for visits to schools, contact granitefestival@aberdeencity.gov.uk

From the streets of London to Sydney Harbour Bridge

When the City of London began paving its streets with Aberdeen granite in the 1740s, the industry took off.

Written records show Aberdeen first employed a "cassie maker" to create shaped stones for paving in the 1500s. But it was in the mid-18th century that growing numbers of quarries started to open up in and around the city and more buildings were made from granite in Aberdeen itself.

There was another boost for the industry in the 19th century when polished commemorative monuments and gravestones became fashionable.

"As soon as Victoria goes into mourning that becomes big business - people want to be commemorated in what we would perhaps consider a very ostentatious way," industrial history curator Jenny Brown explains. "But it becomes a symbol of your wealth and prosperity and success to have a large tomb."

Granite became an international industry and Aberdeen men went to Australia to work on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Some established their own businesses in America after travelling to work there. "Our workmen were so respected for their skills and their craftsmanship that they were able to travel as well," Ms Brown continues.

She is keen to develop this festival and celebrate granite's international reputation. "Now we have got going with the festival, it's about growing things year on year. I'd love to draw on these international links and have a big exhibition here, celebrating the fact that Aberdeen was really the birthplace of an industry which is still going."

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