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Unravel The Riddles Of Medieval Masons

8 February 2008

Masons’ marks are among the most enigmatic features of Scotland’s medieval churches, castles and bridges. They were the symbolic signatures which master masons cut into the stone wherever they worked. But little else is known about the identities and life stories of these men who played such an important role in creating the country’s most cherished historic buildings from the Middle Ages to the 18th century.

Historic Scotland is supporting a project aimed at recording masons’ marks in Aberdeenshire, Moray and Angus. Creating a database including all the marks in these areas may make it possible to follow the movements of individual men as they moved from one project to the next.

Moira Greig, Aberdeenshire Council archaeologist, said: “We are calling on local history and heritage societies to help us by searching out and recording masons’ marks at medieval buildings across the area.

“I’m delighted to say that Historic Scotland is helping out by waiving the entry fee at a number of properties for groups taking part in the project.

“We hope this project will help us to discover more about a group of people who gave us so much, but about whom there are few written records.”

The sites include Corgarff, Huntly, Edzell and Kildrummy castles, Spynie Palace and Arbroath Abbey.  The project might also help solve some important archaeological riddles.

Peter Yeoman, Historic Scotland senior archaeologist, said: “Many medieval buildings are difficult to date but masons’ marks can sometimes give valuable clues because the same ones may appear at a number of sites.

“If we know when the building activity took place at one of them, then that can help a great deal with the undated ones.”

However, the evidence has to be treated with care as there may have been more than one phase of building. There is also debate about whether the same mark may sometimes have passed from father to son. The exact function of the marks is not yet fully understood, but was probably a way of showing who had done what so they could be properly paid.

Some groups have already started work and others have said they want to take part. If the project is a success it is hoped that it might be rolled out elsewhere in Scotland. The project has already yielded impressive results after Aberdeenshire Council’s roads department allowed a survey to be carried out during repairs to the Lower Northwater Bridge between Angus and Aberdeenshire north of Montrose.

The A-listed structure, dated 1770-77, was found to have 283 mason’s marks on one span and 362 on another. In this case the council commissioned Murray Archaeology Services to conduct the survey. A breakdown of the marks show that they belong to 16 different masons.

Notes for editors
  • For further information about the project contact Moira Greig on 01224 664726 or communications officer Neil Moir on 01224 664514.
  • The project is believed to be the largest of its kind attempted in Scotland.
  • The idea was inspired by the work of Joachim Zeune who showed the value of using masons’ marks to help date many castles in Scotland.
  • All recording will take place using techniques that will not cause damage to stonework. This includes photography and pencil rubbings.
  • Special recording forms, and advice on best-practice, will be provided to all those taking part.

For further information

Matthew Shelley
Historic Scotland
Marketing and Media
0131 668 8734