Visitors to the Barony St. John buildings will frequently gaze out to the sea and ask what the small island is in the distance.
The island is called Ailsa Craig (which comes from the Gaelic, Aillse Creag meaning “fairy rock”) but is known by many as “Paddy’s Milestone” presumably because Ireland is only 179 miles away from it (9.9 miles from the Scottish mainland) and immigrants from Ireland would travel from Belfast to Ardrossan on their way to Glasgow and Edinburgh and see this as the “milestone” marking their near arrival in Scotland.
The island was also a haven for Catholics during the Scottish Reformation in the 16th century and as a prison during the 18th–19th century but today the island, at only 4 km (2.5 miles) in circumference and 338 m (1,109 ft) tall, is uninhabited and is a bird sanctuary for gannets and puffins.
As this photo by Johnny Durnan, (CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13677194) highlights, it is thought that the island was actually the top of a volcano which erupted sending this plug end flying out and landing here in the sea.
This volcanic activity gave the island rock a rare type of micro-granite known as Ailsite which is used in the making of curling stones and, as of 2004, 60–70% of all curling stones in use were made from granite from the island and the island is one of only two sources for all curling stones in the world (the other being the Trefor Granite Quarry in Wales).
Ailsa Craig produced two types of granite for curling, Blue Hone and Ailsa Craig Common Green.
Blue Hone has very low water absorption, which prevents the action of repeatedly freezing water from eroding the stone. Ailsa Craig Common Green is a lesser quality granite than Blue Hone.
Kays of Scotland has been making curling stones since 1851 and has the exclusive rights to the Ailsa Craig granite, granted by the island’s owner, the Marquess of Ailsa.
I came across this beautiful wood carving from 1841 (just 3 years before the Barony St. John was built).
It is by Roger Griffith (Memorials of Clutha. E A Phipps. 1841., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7025771) and as you can see, has the island shaped a little differently from what it looks like today. An artists impression or erosion over the years? Who knows.
The only surviving buildings on the island are the lighthouse on its east coast facing the Scottish mainland, a ruined towerhouse castle built in the 16th Century by the Hamilton Clan to protect the area from King Phillip II of Spain and the old quarry manager’s house that is now used by the RSPB (Royal Society of the Protection of Birds).
The castle has two vaulted storeys , shown in this photo by Ron Ireland (CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2647299) and an oven is located in the cellar with evidence of a spiral stairway that once ran to the top of the tower. Three cinquefoils arranged in a ‘V’ shape are carved on the tower, a mark of the Hamilton Clan. There are also indications that an adjoining building may have ran from the castle to the north.
In the Summer time, you can hire a boat to take you from Largs to Ailsa Craig and you can even visit the towerhouse castle – so watch out for some more photos later in the year as I may just pay the island a visit. 😀