Scottish Masons' Mysterious Signatures In Stone To Be Recorded

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 08 February 2008
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photo of a geometric etching on stone

© Aberdeenshire Archaeology Service

Mysterious symbols carved into Scotland’s medieval churches, castles and bridges are to be studied and recorded in a new scheme supported by Historic Scotland.

Masons’ marks are enigmatic signatures cut into stone wherever they worked, and hold clues as to dates of construction as well as the craftsmen who worked on the structure. However, little is known about the identities and life stories of these men who played such an important role in creating the country’s most cherished buildings from the Middle Ages to the 18th century. The exact function of the marks is not even known.

These signatures of the master masons are now to be recorded for the regions of Aberdeenshire, Moray and Angus in a project that will produce a database including all the marks in the area, providing the possibility of following the movements of individuals from one project to the next.

“We are calling on local history and heritage societies to help us by searching for and recording our masons’ marks at medieval buildings across the area,” said Moira Greig, Aberdeenshire Council archaeologist. “We hope this project will help us to discover more about a group of people who we know a lot about, but about whom there are few written records.”

Historic Scotland are helping out by waiving the entry fee at a number of properties for groups taking part in the project – sites include Corgarff, Huntly, Edzell and Kildrummy castles, Spynie Palace and Arbroath Abbey.

Archaeological riddles might also be solved by the research.

photo of a stone block with a geometric carving

© Aberdeenshire Archaeology Service

“Many medieval buildings are difficult to date,” said Peter Yeoman, historic Scotland senior archaeologist, “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.”

Evidence does need to be interpreted with care however, given that there may be more than one phase of building for each site, and it’s also possible that masons’ marks might have been passed from father to son.

The marks, whose function is not fully understood, could well have been used as a way of showing who did what work-wise so they could be paid.

If the project is a success, it is hoped it will be rolled out elsewhere in Scotland.

A successful survey has already been carried out at Lower Northwater Bridge between Angus and Aberdeenshire, north of Montrose. The A-listed structure, dated 1770-1777, was found to have 283 masons’ marks on one span and 362 on another, with analysis showing that they belonged to 16 different masons.

For further information about the project or to take part contact Moira Greig on 01224 664726.

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