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Harrow Pavement Works
Paul Humphreys


The story of Harrow pavement works has its origins in 1853, during the time of Alexander the 13th Earl of Caithness, and owner of the Mey Estate. It appears that the Earl was interested in exploiting any reserves of flagstone on the estate and was preparing to issue a 21-year lease to a group of entrepreneurs to prospect for, and quarry and export pavement. In return, the Earl was to receive a Royalty based on 7½% of all stones quarried and squared. The pavement was to have been exported from a harbour to be built at Gills Bay at an estimated cost of between £600 and £700 (Ref.1). Harrow had been considered, but was rejected for being too small. Flagstone samples were taken for evaluation of quality, and a suitable quarry site identified 1 mile east of the Earl’s family seat, Barrogill Castle (now called The Castle of Mey). However in 1855 the 13th Earl died, and his son James the 14th Earl inherited the Mey Estate.

The 14th Earl

The 14th Earl had a passion for science and invention. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, and already held patents in the paper and textile industries, and would go on to patent machinery for cutting and dressing stone. He also had a keen interest in electricity and steam power. It is not surprising, therefore, that the 14th Earl decided to set up in business on his own account, rather than lease quarrying rights to others.

He wasted no time, because a quarry was opened up at the East Mey site, most probably at Glenyra, in 1856. A tramway was installed to transport waste, known as tirr, away from the workings in horse draw, self-tipping wagons. A windmill-driven pump was employed to keep the workings dry. (ref.2) The 14th Earl rejected Gills in favour of Harrow, where he set about building a pavement works and harbour.

The Pavement Works

The Traditional method of squaring off the edges of flagstones was by hammering by hand, this method gave a rather rough finish and was also relatively slow. Later flags were sawn by hand using a toothless saw blade and a particularly abrasive sand lubricated with water. The stone was only cut partway through, after which the waste material would then be snapped off along the line of the cut. The frost mechanical saws, used by Traill at Castlehill for example, were driven by water wheels, these required a lot of water a consequence of this was that production sometimes had to stop during dry periods.

The innovation at Harrow was to use a steam engine to drive the machines. This used much less water than a water wheel and allowed production to continue during dry periods.

The construction of the Pavement Works and harbour at Harrrow probably started in 1856 in the same year that the quarry was opened. The harbour, referred to locally as Harrow Harbour, was originally called Philips Harbour, after Sir George Philips, its probable financier and father-in-law to the 14th Earl of Caithness. Two workers’ cottages were also built possibly to house the works’ engineer and the superintendent.

The works was in production by March 1858 although the pier was apparently not completed until 1861 (Ref.2),(Ref.3). The steam engine and its associated boiler were housed in an engine house which also contained a forge for sharpening stone-working tools. A dam was constructed to supply water to the boiler and also to the stone cutting machinery. A covered culvert carried waste water down to the beach.

The steam engine, manufactured by Messrs Forrest & Barr of Glasgow, was rated at 10 horse power. (Ref.2)

Its design has not yet been determined, it could have been a small half beam engine, known as a grasshopper engine, or a single cylinder vertical. However the archaeological evidence suggest that a horizontal cylinder design is more likely.

The detail of the type of boiler is also unknown, but the archaeological evidence suggests that a simple horizontal shell boiler was used. If this is the case, it would have consisted of a cylinder, approximately one metre in diameter by approximately three metres long, possibly with hemispherical ends, constructed from riveted wrought iron plates. It would probably have been fitted with a sight glass to indicate water level and a pressure relief valve. A feed pump would have supplied the boiler with water. The boiler would have been fired from below by coal or peat burnt on fire bars.

The machinery that comprised three-flagstone cutting machines, a dressing machine and three rubs or polishing machines, was housed in an open fronted dressing shed which was divided into five machinery bays by four masonry pillars.

Power was transmitted from the steam engine to the machines by a single drive shaft that ran along the front of the dressing house. The shaft bearings were mounted on iron brackets that were clamped to the masonry pillars. Archaeological evidence suggests that the dressing shed had a sixth bay added at a later date. It is not clear when this was done but an invoice from George Ross, a local mason, tells us that he "built in a scuffing machine" on the 14th March 1862, though this could have been an existing machine rather than a new one (Ref.1).

The cutting machines were designed by the 14th Earl. Each machine had two saw blades approximately 15 feet long, that were driven back and forth by a pair of crank shafts. A mechanism permitted the blades to be lifted slightly from the cutting slot to admit fresh water and sand to aid the cutting process. Each machine was capable of cutting between 300 and 500 running feet of stone per day dependent upon the hardness of the stone and the skill of the operator.

The dressing machine was designed to roughen the surface of the paving to increase grip. It consisted of a set of parallel vertically mounted metal rods with sharpened tips, mounted in guides within a frame. From the top end of each rod there protruded an adjustable arm or cam follower. A horizontal shaft carried a row of cams mounted helically around the shaft As the shaft rotated each cam in turn would first lift and then drop one rod onto the flagstone thus pecking a chip from the surface. As the shaft rotated, each rod would be dropped in succession. After one rotation of the camshaft a row of chips would have been produced. The flagstone was then indexed automatically to produce further row of chips.

The rubbing or polishing machines were used to produce decorative flagstone for the building trades. These machines accommodated four flagstones at a time mounted in a square pattern on a horizontal platform and equidistant from the centre. Each stone had another smaller stone on top of it. Each of these top stones was clamped to the end of a long steel arm that extended out from the centre of the machine. The arms were connected to a central crankshaft. Rotation of the crankshaft caused the top stone to be rubbed back and forth over the bottom stone, water and sand lubricated and accelerated the polishing process.

If a higher degree of polish was required then a further polishing machine was used. In this machine cast iron laps were used in place of the top rubbing stone and a special polishing abrasive substituted for sand.

The flagstones themselves were moved from one machine to the next using wagons running of a system of rails. The undressed flagstone was transported from the quarry to the Pavement Works by horse drawn road wagons. The stone was first sorted for quality before being placed on a low wheeled wagon. This wagon was then placed on a turntable mounted on a second wagon. This second wagon ran on rails set in a pit in front of the dressing shed.

This arrangement allowed the stone to be positioned in front of any of the bays: the stone on its low wagon could then be turned on the turntable through 90 degrees and pushed into the dressing shed on further sets of rails that ran into the dressing shed beside each of the machines (Ref.2). The stone could be moved from one machine to the next in this way, minimising manual handling. When each stone was finished, it was transported down to the harbour and along the pier on yet another railway. This last railway was not available in March 1858 as construction of the pier was still in progress.

Brief Trading History

The flagstone was exported directly from Harrow by boat. Documentary evidence records that until 1862 vessels were chartered for the purpose, but in 1862 a sailing vessel, the "Bessie", registered as 75 tons, was purchased by the Earl. On return journeys, the Bessie would import cargoes of coal, lime and land drainage tiles and domestic goods for Barogill Castle.

Trade appears to have been successful through most of the 1860s. However, in November 1867, the Bessie carrying a cargo of flour from London, was in a collision with the brig "William" of 269 tons off Scarborough, and from then onwards there were problems meeting deliveries. Letters tell of customers complaining about late deliveries and of a request, presumably from an agent, that Lord Caithness consider obtaining another vessel. Trade using the "Bessie" continued until 1868, though no references to her continuing to carry flagstone have been found, she may no longer have been fit for such a demanding cargo. This view is supported by a letter from her Master, Captain Barnesson, on the strictness of her last inspection pointing out that she was unlikely to pass. He recommended that she be pained up and sold.

It appears that the flagstone works probably closed in 1870 after only 12 years operation. The reason for this is not certain, but we know the Harbour was severely damaged during a great storm probably on 10th and certainly before the 18th of February 1870. We also know that the Earl’s wife, Louisa, was very ill at that time and died later in the same year aged only 43.

Evidence for the closure is supplied by a letter dated 6th April 1870 from W Reid of Spittal Quarry thanking Peter Keith, the 14th Earl’s factor, for passing on Harrow’s old customer list so that Spittal quarry could secure their custom. |In a letter dated 12th December 1870, J Saunders of Clapham offers to "sell flag on commission" or to "operate the quarries on a royalist basis", suggesting that the quarry was no longer being operated by the Harrow company. Further evidence comes from letters of January 1871 referring to the sail and shipping of the steam engine, rockers, gearing and pumps to The Morayshire Brick and Tile Works. This letter expresses concern over whether the engine would fit through the hatch (8’3" x 5’) of their vessel the "Freedom."

Though the works was closed, the harbour was repaired and a coal store was built onto the engine house possibly in 1871, and the sixth bay of the dressing house was converted into a lime store. The harbour continued to be used for the import of coal, lime, land drainage tiles and domestic materials for the Castle of Mey. (Ref.1)

The Products and Prices 1860

Class I from 2 ½" to 3" thick 1 ton covers 63 sq. ft.

Class II from 1 ¾" to 2 ¼" thick 1 ton covers 83 sq. ft.

Class III from 1 ¼" to 1 ¾ thick 1 ton covers 105 sq. ft.

Class I Sawn edge natural faced 4 pence per sq. ft.

Class II Sawn edge natural faced 3 ¾ pence per sq. st.

Class III Sawn edge natural faced 3 pence per sq. ft.

Tooled stone 4 shillings & 6 pence per 100 sq. ft. extra

Half rubbed 4 shillings & 6 pence per 100 sq. ft. extra

Full rubbed 10 shillings per 100 sq. ft. extra

Class II (1½" to 2") natural faced with hammer dressed edge

1 shilling & 3 pence per sq.yd.

Class III (1¼" to 1½") natural faced with hammer dressed edge

1 shilling & 1 pence per sq. yd..

The Possible Building Sequence

The original building comprising the engine house and five-bay flagstone dressing shed, was built between 1856 and 1858, as recorded by the only known contemporary photograph (dated c1910) but thought to date to the 1860s by the writer. There is some structural evidence to suggest that the five-bay dressing shed was later extended by the addition of a sixth bay probably in the 1860s.

Another structure, now gone, was recorded by the Ordinance Survey of 1873. This building abutted the frontage of the sixth bay with its long axis parallel to and in front of the original building line. The southern gable of the building would have corresponded with the northern revetment of the pit built in front of the first five bays of the dressing shed. The pit can be seen in a contemporary photograph. The photograph also shows what appears to be a single length of rail in the position of the now demolished building The sixth bay and the now demolished building, must have been built after the photograph was taken but before 1873.

The writer has not found any physical or documentary evidence to suggest the position of the rail track reputedly used to transport bogies loaded with flags down to the harbour for export. Tradition has it that the rail ran on top of the revetted bank still visible to the east of the modern road. The contemporary photograph indicates a small section of this area but shows a free standing wall rather than a revetted bank.

A second phase of construction appears to date to c1871, after the flagstone works apparent closure in 1870. The dating of this phase is suggested by the date stone on the building commonly known as "the coal store" that abuts the south wall of the engine house. The dating of this phase is based solely on an inscription "R C 18712" on the doorway facing. The inscription may have been carved by Robert Carswell, the son of Baird Carswell (ref.4), the works’ engineer, however he would have been only 14 years old at the time. The new coal store appears to have been extended before 1873 on the evidence of existing building and also the 1st edition OS map. Some time before 1873 the sixth bay was walled off to form a shed now commonly known as "the lime store". Some time after 1873 it would appear that the building in front of bay six, now a lime store, was demolished

It is likely that these later modifications were to provide storage for coal, lime and land-drainage tiles which continued to be imported to Harrow after the works appear to have closed.

Harrow Works Today

The Engine House: The building, built of mortared flagstone and originally having a pavilion style flagstone roof, still stands to wall-head height. We know from a bill of 1862 from a George Ross, a local mason, that the walls were originally plastered and whitewashed.

A small patch of plaster still remains on the west wall of the engine support masonry. Entry was via a single width door embellished by red freestone facing, a motif repeated in the doors of the two workers’ cottages and the later coal store.

The door was widened, what appears to be a salvaged ship’s timber being used as the lintel. The south wall was pierced by an original window, now blocked, and a later curiously angled doorway, apparently knocked through into the coal store. This doorway incorporates sawn flag off-cuts that demonstrate that the flag was only cut partway through, the waste then being snapped off.

The stump of the smoke stack and sufficient of the internal walls remain to allow the positions of the boiler and steam engine to be deduced. A large block of masonry in the north west corner incorporating a flywheel pit and drive belt slot, suggest the position of the steam engine. A deep socket in the west wall and a slot in the north wall above the flywheel pit may relate to the steam engine mountings. Joist sockets in the north wall suggest that the engine was tended from an operating platform that ran the length of the north wall. The north wall was pierced by two apertures. The smaller of the two may have served to communicate with the dressing shed or perhaps carried a remote engine regulator control. The larger aperture carried the long drive shaft with its bearing and bearing mounted bracket. The bearing bracket, one of at least six and possibly seven, was clamped to the pillar that can be seen built into the north wall. Long bolts passed through the bracket and a backplate located in a small slot, now blocked, on the opposite (east) face of the pillar.

The boiler position is suggested by the location of the smoke hole in the west wall and the remaining masonry. The boiler appears to have been mounted horizontally running east/west between the forge and the wall that supported and partitioned off the steam engine. The boiler was supported by a scarcement on the south face of the partition wall and a low wall, the remaining stub of which protrudes from the forge. Fire damage to the masonry beneath the scarcement suggests that this structure also formed the fire box and indicated a simple shell boiler may have been used. The square hole, still to be seen in the partition wall, probably carried the steam line from the boiler to the engine.

The forge appears to have been a contemporary construction, incorporated into the boiler support structure and having its original fume extraction incorporated into the boiler smoke stack. It is known that the forge continued in use after the smoke stack was partially demolished and blocked, a second fume extract was later knocked through the west wall. Over the hearth can be seen two iron hooks that would have supported a fume hood. The forge was blown from the left. A scoop in the wall indicates the position of the bellows. Above this scoop a wall slot probably indicates the support for the bellows’ operating arm. The aperture for the bellows’ nozzle ( tuyere) can also be seen on the left side of the forge.

The Dressing Shed: The building, which was originally roofed over, abuts the north wall of the engine house. A contemporary photograph shows that the building frontage was open. The roof was supported by a timber beam, which in turn was supported by four stone pillars thus creating five working bays.

The stub of this beam still exists and can be seen inside the north wall of the engine house. Four vertical slots in the rear wall of the building, probably aligned with the four pillars and presumably related to the cutting machinery installation.

A single drive shaft extended from the engine house along the front of the cutting shop. A slot and aperture on the north face of the pillar built into the north wall of the engine house indicates the position of the bearing support bracket. The slot would have housed one of the long clamping bolts. A circular cut in the pillar indicates the position and approximate size of one of the large pulleys that carried the flat drive belts that powered the cutting machinery. These pulleys can be seen in the only known contemporary photograph referred to above.

To the north of the cutting shop area is a roofed building. This is recorded as a lime store, but its unusual pillared construction suggests that it may originally have been a sixth bay.

An area of the inside north wall adjacent to the right-hand pillar, has a slot and bricked-up aperture, which looks similar to the slot and aperture on the engine house pillar. This may once have housed a support bracket and bearing block for the end of the long drive shaft.

The Dam: The steam plant and cutting shop required a reliable source of water. This was supplied from the dam, a "D" shaped structure constructed south of the ice house. Water was retained behind a dam wall apparently constructed of stone and clay. At the north end flagstone steps remain that probably gave access from the workers’ cottages to a penstock that would have controlled water flow.

Workers’ Cottages: A pair of workers’ cottages, the shells of which remain above the works, appear to have been specifically built for the works. Steam would have to be raised before the work force arrived for the day’s work and the boiler shut down again after they left at night. It would be convenient therefore to have an engineer living close by.


The writer acknowledges the kind assistance of Mrs Barbara Hiddleston, Mrs Janet Mackenzie, Mrs Anna Rogalski, Mr Alistair Ham, Mr Alexander Ham and Mrs Isobel Ham, who contributed towards the information used in this article.


  1. The Mey Papers
  2. John O’Groats Journal 12/3/1858
  3. John O’Groats Journal 29/8/1861
  4. 1861 Census Returns


Houston A L (ed) 1996 "Lest we Forget The Parish of Canisbay."

The Congregational Board of Canisbay Parish Church.

Watkins G 1979 "The Steam Engine in Industry" Moorland Publishing.

Omand D &Porter J 1981 "The Flagstone Industry of Caithness" Aberdeen University.