From the birth of the game at least four centuries ago, until the modern curling stone came into being, ardent curlers took to the ice with some most unusual rocks.
And although most of us think the modern granite is ‘perfect’, variations on it show that development is still underway.
The professional artist-curlers of today depend for the near-perfection of their play on today’s curling stone – a tough, resilient granite, identical to its brother in color, shape, and weight, highly polished, perfectly balanced for exact delivery, with a finely tapered running cup roughened to a hair’s degree for true curl and exact positioning.
This geometrical masterpiece of tooled geology has been perfected over centuries of play. Your great-great-grandfather ws capable, perhaps, of a game as rare as Richardson’s… but consider the rocks he hurled – 60 or 70 pound Goliaths to be tamed by a David and no less.
There was, for instance, ‘The Jubilee Stone’ which weighed in at 117 pounds! It was but one of many giant rocks taken from the Ericht Channel and other rivers in Scotland. These boulders, shaped by water action, carried a great deal in weight, size, and shape. One writer described them thus: “They were wretched enough… some were three-cornered… others like ducks, others flat as a frying pan. Their handles were equally clumsy and unelegant…”
But these channel-stones, however awkward and cumbersome, were streamlined compared with those that preceeded them. The channel-stone at least had a handle!
The most primitive stones, used in an early game that resembled quoit pitching on ice rather more than curling, were known as loofies. They were flat in shape, about the size of a man’s hand. It is likely that the game played with these stones developed out of distance-throwing contests.
The first real ‘curling’ stone was the kuting stone with grip hollows on either side. The kuting stone didn’t actually curl; like the loofy, it was thrown and slid along the ice to its mark. As it could be held only by the thumb and fingers, not with the whole hand, it is as well that these kuting stones were fairly lightweight, ranging from 5 to 25 pounds.
So far is known, the oldest curling stone in the world i sone bearing the date 1511. Is is of the kuting type. Its shape is nearly oblong, with top and bottom rounded and the sides straight, measuring 9″ x 7-1/2″ x 4-5/8″ and weighing 26 pounds. The kuting stone – sometimes called quoiting or even coiting – really got the roarin’ game going and served its players for over a century and a half.
Next to emerge were the channel-stones – appropriately shaped riverbed boulders, which were at first used with the addition of finger and thumb holes, then were rough-hewn and equipped with iron handles. from these channel-stones evolved the third major ‘breed’ of rock – a rounded circular stone – forerunner of today’s symmedtrical, high-polished granite.
It was only when handles were added to the stones that any degree of accuracy could be given to delivery. The kuting stone, which faded in popularity sometime in the mid-1600’s, had been impossible to deliver properly. The player gripped the underside of the stone, swung it from behind and gave it a short throw, ending in a thrust forward. No hint of blanaced swing/slide here! The transition from kuting to channel-stone was at first more of a matter of size and weight than of shape. Stones grew larger and heavier as the value of the bigger rocks became apparent. The addition of handles also made it necessary to use a bigger stone to give more depth as purchase for the handle’s iron upright.
These channel-stones, many of which survive in museums and curling clubs, are probably the most facinating of all curling stones. Each one moved in a way peculiar to it alone; each ha a name according to its shape or the owner’s calling. Curling was very much a challenge during this period! One of these odd-shaped rocks – a triangular terror known as “The Cocktail Hat” – unless hit dead on, would not move from its spot on the ice, but would rotate ‘in great perfection.’
The rocks in the illustrations are some of the rocks that were discovered when ponds and lochs were drained or that have been handed down from father to son for generations. Considering the shapes of these stones, there might well have been great conjecture (and small wagers??) as to what would happen when, say, Jock’s triangular rock went ‘a thundering’ down towards Tam’s square one. At what angle would they strike? In what directions would they fly?
In the Scottish county of Lanark, an advanced type of stone with a hollowed bottom appears to have been used as far back as 1784. Another strange type of stone was tried – one sole of which ran on three feet, or points, and the other on a circle of about one inch. Some experimental stones in the region had steel bottoms; others, made of cast-iron had steel or brass bottoms.
The first really circular stone appeared about 1750, although vari-shaped stones were still in play some 25 years later. An early example of a carefully rounded curling stone, shown in the illustrations, resembled a mason’s mallet of the period.
Variations of the circular type looked more like partly squashed balloons and were often decorated, or marked with the owner’s family crest.
“The Cheese” was one of a rink of stones cut in either the late 1700’s or early 1800’s from a large block of Lanarkshire whinstone (quarryman’s term for any dark-colored rock, often basalt). “The Cheese” weighs 70 pounds and was last used ina match sometime around 1840. After matches it was occasionally used as a test of strength and was also used as a counterweight for oatmeal and cheese!
The popularity of curling waxed and waned but little over the years. When it waned, it was often because the stones were lost. When more pressing work called, the curlers would leave their stones on the ice, where they often stayed until spring thaw provided them with a watery grave. If the men were especially busy, they might not have time to find a suitable channnel-stone or chunk of rock, then shape it and outfit it with a handle before the season came around again.
In spite of minor setbacks, the Scots became more and more proficient at shaping the stones. They experimented with sizes, shapes, weights, and handles to find the best combination for a rock that would stand up to extremely rough treatment and that could be guided to the house as accurately as possible.
More than one hundred years ago, Andrew Kay established the first curling stone manufacturing business. Andrew Kay and Company is still manufacturing today (1965).
As technology improved and workers gained skill through experience, curling rocks became more precisely made. Balance was improved, more satisfactory handles were used, refinements appeared, weights became standardized. Now the ladies bagan to enter the picture, and other countries also sat up and took notice. Scottish emigrants, of whom there were many in the 19th century, carried the knowledge of their beloved game with them to their new countries.
In Canada, early garrison officers improvised stones by filling the metal-rimmed hubs of gun carriages with molten metal and inserting iron handles. So popular were these ‘irons’ that local settlers urged their blacksmiths to make imitations. Thereafter, the irons were preferred above the granites by many Quebec curlers and by curlers in other parts of the country too. Not until the early 1950’s, in fact, was their use completely abandoned for general play – victims of the need for ‘standardized’ equipment in a game of international participation.
Other early Canadian curlers fashioned ‘stones’ from hardwood, weighted with lead.
The Scottish Monopoly
Today, the curling stone that counts is the granite rock. Until recently, virtually all the granite for these stones came from Scotland, more particularly, from a wave-lashed island thrusting out of the Firth of Clyde 10 miles west of the Ayrshire mainland. Ailsa Craig and Wales are the principal sources of the world’s curling granit, which must be tough, dense, abrasion-resistant, resilient, non-absorbant, and uniform in color. The Scottish Curling Stone Company said “The unique quality of Ailsite is that its water absorption is negligible. Were it not so, water-to-ice-to-water expansion and contraction would soon cause small granite particles to break off and pit the rock.”
The granite stones from Ailsa Craig, produced by the Scottish Curling Stone Company, are generally designated as Ailsa Blue or Red Hone. Those manufactured by Andrew Kay and Company in Ayrshire, from Welsh granite, are known as Red or Blue Trevors.
Quarrying the stone requires a great technical skill and exemplary patience. To get one ton of usable stone may take as much as 100 tons felled. Unlike most granites, this granite does not split along a determined grain, but breaks in all directions, sometimes yielding not a single usable curling stone block.
Even when the blocks are ready for transformation to curling stones, there is considerable wastage. A core of about the diameter of a curling stone is cut with diamonds from the block, and if the surface reveals fine hairline cracks, the core must be rejected – such a stone would split or chip in play.
The core is rough-turned, then brought to its approximate finished weight. Next, the stone is brought to exact shape and the polish and striking banks are meticulously finished. The handles – usually aluminum and plastic – are carefully designed to complete the balance. The end product is a true-running stone that is extremely resistant to wear.
Because of the time-consuming, often difficult, and highly specialized methods used in their production, these fine curling stones are expensive. The manufacturers, recognizing that the cost is prohibitive for some clubs and arenas, have made various attempts to produce less expensive stones with the running qualities of the Ailsas and Trevors. The newest of these is the Scottish Curling Stone Company’s “Ailsert”. It has a disc of Ailsite forming the running cup of the stone on one side to give a running surface identical to that of the more expensive rocks. The basic stone however is made of a lower, but still durable, grade of granite.
Recently, two companies made brief and ultimately disappointing forays into the world of plastic for curling stone manufacture. The first plastic stones were lighter and livlier than the granites – in fact, they continued to move after striking other stones. The early stones also chipped when exposed to the rigors of the game. Although both these problems were solved, curlers were still dubious and the plastic stones were moved from the market. Tradition is so strong in curling, that plastic will probably not usurp even a part of the granite curling stone’s place in the near future.
A chance discovery of a fine-grained black granite outcropping at River Valley, 20 miles north of Sturgeon Falls in northeastern Ontario, led to the most recent bid for part of the booming curling stone business. A small company called River Valley Manufacturing Limited was formed when government analysis of the find confirmed the excellence of the granite.
The black granite – darker than the Scottish stone – tested 29 on a device known as the Page Impact Machine, which is used to test industrial building stone. The figure is well above the 21 minimum standard for good tough granite (average Canadian granite registers only 12 to 16) and equal, perhaps superior, to the best granite found elsewhere in the world. Abrasion tests gave a reading of 87.55, higher even than the granite used in Scottish stones.
To help capitalize on the potential of this remarkable granite, River Valley hired a master Itallian stonecutter. Pietro Ellero had never seen a curling stone, but he borrowed one from the local club and painstakingly handcut a pair of them. They were fine, but they wouldn’t curl! Minute comparison of the River Valley stones with regulation stones revealed that the lip of the running cup on the Scottish stone was slightly rough, whereas that of the Canadian stone was highly polished. Now they knew how to make a curling stone that would curl. The next step was to plan mass production methods and refine their techniques to make production economically feasible and place the stones within a competitive price range. Almost all of the machinery and equipment had to be designed and rigged by the company because it simply wasn’t available elsewhere.
The new stones were different in some respects from those to which curlers have long been accustomed, and for this reason, acceptance of them may take a little time. The stones are of regulation weight, but because the granite is denser, they are more compact. To offset the difference in height which results (diameter and running surface remain the same), there is more space between the handle and the stone.
The early River Valley stones chipped and presented other problems in use – not because of the granite, River Valley believes – but because selection and manufacturing techniques were still being developed. Probably the only true test is one of use over an extended period of time and those clubs that have already bought the new Canadian stones will be watched with keen interest in the next few years.
The entry of another stone manufacturer is a healthy sign of the game’s increasing popularity, as thousands of new curlers appear in dozens of new clubs every year. Providing the stones are good, there is plenty of demand.
The supplies of good curling stone granite in Scotland and Canada are plentiful enough for years to come, so it’s not likely we’ll ever have to revert to channel-stones. Though wouldn’t it be a colorful Scotch Cup if we did?
Note: The foregoing article is from a 1965 issue of the Canadian curling magazine, “The Curler”. The curling stone illustrations are from a very good book, “Curling Past and Present”, written by Creelman and Weyman, published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd, Toronto.