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Orkney apprentice to learn traditional stonemasonry skills

26 September 2013

A young woman is to be given the chance to learn centuries old skills, to help conserve one of Orkney’s most impressive landmarks.

Sophie Turner, aged 22 and a graduate in Photography and Film from Napier University in Edinburgh  will take up her chisel and begin a four year apprenticeship in stonemasonry at St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall,  funded by Orkney Islands Council, Historic Scotland and the Construction Industry Training Board.  Sophie is originally from Lincolnshire but her family moved to Orkney when she was 16, where she completed her final two years of school at Kirkwall Grammar School.

Known as the ‘Light in the North’ , work on the construction of the Cathedral began in the twelfth century.  Much of the original stonework was fashioned by medieval master masons who, it is generally believed, were trained at Durham Cathedral.

Sophie is excited to be learning their craft:     

“I’d never thought about stonemasonry as a career before, but I was really inspired by the opportunity – I thought it would give me a chance to train in something really interesting.  And what an amazing setting to work in every day.

I am really looking forward to learning all about the Cathedral – it’s a living snapshot of traditional building methods down the ages.”

St Magnus Cathedral is owned  by Orkney Islands Council.    With such a unique building in their care, the Council wants to ensure that the knowledge and skills needed to maintain the Cathedral are  safeguarded for the future.   

Councillor Janice Annal, Chair of the Council’s Education, Leisure and Housing Committee said:

“The Cathedral is very dear to Orcadian hearts. We are very proud of the building and its history.  The Council is conscious of its responsibility to maintain the building on behalf of the people of Orkney.  We are extremely pleased that with the help of Historic Scotland, we’ve been able to engage an apprentice stonemason, to ensure its safekeeping for the next generation - and by working closely with other organisations, such as the Friends of St Magnus Cathedral we can ensure that the Cathedral is kept in good order.”

Historic Scotland who are funding the first year of the apprenticeship are committed to promoting and nurturing traditional skills.  By April 2014, Historic Scotland will have around 60 construction apprentices in training, making it one of the largest trainers of traditional crafts in the UK.  This commitment helps deliver the pool of tradespeople required to maintain and conserve some of its 345 properties in care, across the country.

David Mitchell, Historic Scotland’s Director of Conservation said:  

“These apprenticeships give young people a unique opportunity – not only to learn the techniques of their forefathers but to enable them to conserve and protect our historic environment.

“The Cathedral is one of the finest ecclesiastical buildings in Scotland, built from alternating bands of red and yellow sandstone.  The weathering effects of Orcadian wind and rain over the course of time have helped create sculptured effects that only add to the Cathedral’s charm.  The skilled work that goes into maintaining it ensures that wherever possible the original stonework is retained.”   

While much of the training will take place on site, there will be time spent in Elgin college at various stages throughout the four year programme funded by the Construction Industry Training Board.   At the end of the apprenticeship, Sophie will receive an industry recognised  qualification which will see her become an experienced craftsperson.   She will learn the skills of the  trade from Colin Watson, the Cathedral stonemason who has been working on the building since 1986:

Colin said:  “I  know the building very well, all of its quirks and idiosyncrasies – and I’m looking forward to taking Sophie under my wing and passing on the skills and knowledge  that I have learnt in the past twenty seven years.   

I’m proud to say that I have helped keep this beautiful building in good shape and it is great to see that a member of the younger generation will follow in my footsteps.”

Jacq Wishart, Orkney Apprenticeships Officer, Construction Industry Training Board said:    

“We are delighted to be supporting an apprentice as enthusiastic and capable as Sophie. We are committed to working with employers to find the best apprentices who will ensure the longevity and continuation of skills, both traditional and specialist, within the industry."

Notes to editors:

  • Historic Scotland is an executive agency of the Scottish Government charged with safeguarding the nation’s historic environment. The agency is fully accountable to Scottish Ministers and through them to the Scottish Parliament.

  • 2013 is the Year of Natural Scotland, inspiring our people and our visitors to celebrate Scotland’s outstanding natural beauty, landscapes and biodiversity as Scotland prepares to welcome the world in 2014 and beyond. Find out more about Scotland’s outstanding natural beauty at

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For further information

Alice Wyllie
Media & PR Officer
Communications and Media
0131 668 8603 or 07920 768 096