Scotland’s ‘granite city’ imports stone from India

By Prasun Sonwalkar
Aberdeen (Scotland) : This heritage town has been synonymous with granite for over two centuries. But winds of economic change in recent years have forced it to import granite from India to feed the booming local construction industry.

The durable stone hewn from the once great quarries at Rublislaw, Kemnay, Alford, Dunecht, Peterhead and numerous other locations was used by skilled craftsmen and architects to shape the form and character of the city over a period of two centuries.

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At its peak in the early years of the 20th century, there were more than 20 firms manufacturing granite in Aberdeen. The industry, however, went into decline from the 1930s and the extraction from the city’s last working quarry at Rubislaw ceased in 1971. It is said to be the largest manmade hole in Europe.

The City Council encourages the use of natural granite within new prominent developments in Aberdeen. Granite salvaged from demolition sites throughout the city is stored to be made available for re-use wherever it is considered appropriate, ensuring that Aberdeen remains ‘The Granite City’.

However, the industry’s decline has led to a ‘look India’ policy because of the high cost of quarrying, cutting, polishing and transporting granite within the UK. Most new buildings in Scotland and elsewhere in Britain now use granite imported from India.

The boom in Scotland’s construction industry includes high demand for granite surfaces in kitchens and bathrooms. Local granite quarry owners find it more worthwhile to meet the demand by importing granite from India, where it is cheaper and where there is more choice.

However, the large imports from India have prompted concerns over the working conditions in quarries there, including those around the reported employment of children.

Some consider it unethical to profit from granite that is produced by workers that are reportedly exploited in India.

Maureen Young, research fellow at the Masonry Conservation Research Unit at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, told newspersons: “Because of the conditions under which it is produced, it is very unethical.

“There is an argument for introducing legislation to regulate granite imports. We really should know where this granite is coming from and how it is produced. The import of Indian granite is extensive.

“There is quite a price difference and more choice. But it is very unethical. Often it is difficult for the importer to know under what circumstances it is produced.”

Among the Scottish companies importing granite from India is Fyfe-Glenrock, which also quarries granite from its quarry at Kemnay outside Aberdeen.

Company spokesperson Alan Bruce said: “We do import granite from India. It is economical and there is a great choice of colours. We have an ethical purchasing policy that we rigidly stick to.

“I have never seen child or bonded labour in the quarries we use and I visit India five times a year. We employ 300 in our Indian factory and pay 30 to 50 per cent above the going rate. We insist on high health and safety standards.”

Another importer from India is Kirk Natural Stone, of Fyvie. Its managing director Martin Kirk told newspersons: “We try to ensure that everything is ethically sourced but what can you do from this distance? You can go and see your supplier but you have to take what they show you at face value.

“I don’t believe pregnant women and nine-year-old boys are working at the quarries we use.”

However, Beth Herzfeld, of Anti-Slavery International, said: “India uses bonded labour to quarry granite and slate and British firms are contributing to that. They must ensure their supply chain is free of slave labour.

“Bonded labour is the most extensive form of slavery and is prohibited under international and Indian law. But it’s widespread.”