Scots and rocks: The tiny Scottish island where the world's top curling stones are born

When Canadian curlers face off at the Brier this weekend, they'll be using stones that hail from the island of Ailsa Craig. Mark Callan explains why Ailsa Craig's granite is so essential to the sport of curling.
Canada's Marc Kennedy throws a stone during the curling men's bronze medal game during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games. (Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)
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Team Canada may have failed to defend its curling titles during the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, but Canadian curlers will soon get a chance to redeem themselves and reclaim curling glory. 

This weekend, the men will head to the Tim Hortons' Brier in Regina. And in a couple of weeks, the women will compete at the world championships in North Bay, Ontario.

During the Olympics, some commentators suggested that faulty equipment was to blame for some of the bad luck on the curling rink. However, Mark Callan remains confident in his curling stones. 

"There's the old saying that a bad workman always blames his tools," Callan tells Day 6 guest host Rachel Giese. 

"A lot of times though, [commentators are] just trying to fill empty air space and have something to say so they try to be a little bit controversial." 

Commentators suggested that some teams were struggling with certain curling stones during the Olympics. (Aaron Favila/Associated Press)

As the director of Kays of Scotland, Callan's company has been responsible for making curling stones used at almost every major curling championship — including the Olympics. That's because the company has the contract to access a tiny island that provides the material needed to create them. 

Just off the southwest coast of Scotland, the island of Ailsa Craig is made up entirely of granite. Less than two kilometres long and about 335 metres high, the island has no human inhabitants. But today, it serves as a bird sanctuary, providing a home for gannets and puffins. 

The two types of granite that are used to produce the stones — and both found on the island — are called Blue Hone and Ailsa Craig Common Green. 

Blue Hone is used in the running surface of the stone because it is waterproof, which makes it ideal for icy surfaces. Ailsa Craig Common Green is used to make up the body of the curling stone because it is a high resistance material, making it harder to splinter or crack. 

Most of the stones used in major curling competitions are made from granite found on the island of Ailsa Craig. (Wang Maye-E/The Associated Press)

Ailsa Craig's granite came out on 'top'

The granite at Ailsa Craig was discovered by Andrew Kay, the founder of Kays of Scotland, approximately 150 years ago. Curling was already being played at that time, but Callan says there was little to no regulation in the sport. 

"It was just generally played by people bringing their own stones, of any shape or size, to a frozen lake or pond. And as long as they could throw the stones to one end to the other, then that was allowed." 

Callan adds that curling was played through the process of elimination, where various types of granite were used to try and determine which curling stone was the best. And through playing, "Ailsa Craig came out top of that test!" 

Eventually, the Kays of Scotland approached the family who owned the island of Ailsa Craig, and asked permission to harvest granite for curling stones. The company was later granted exclusive rights by the Marquess of Ailsa to do just that and they go back to the island every 10 years to collect the granite. 

The light house on the golf course is seen in front of Ailsa Craig. Granite from the tiny Scottish island is used to make many of the curling stones at many major competitions. (Russell Cheyne/Reuters)

Advice for Team Canada moving forward

As Canadian teams gear up for their upcoming curling competitions, Callan offers his own advice for Team Canada as it moves forward. 

"What's happening recently with funding and investment in curling in Europe and Asia, some of the teams are really now beginning to develop as we saw in Pyeongchang," he says. 

"They're the kind of forums where Canada needs to get their nose back onto the grindstone and start the preparation work for the next Olympics in Beijing in 2022." 


To hear our full interview with Mark Callan, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.