From Ailsa Craig to Olympic glory

  • Ruiyi Zhao delivering a stone from Ailsa Craig at YOG 2016 Photo: WCF / Richard Gray

Picture a windswept island with no inhabitants, no electricity, no fresh water and no arable land. Now imagine it playing a significant role at the curling competition of the Lillehammer 2016 Youth Olympic Games.

But if Ailsa Craig did not exist, who knows what the world of men’s and women’s curling would be like, both at the Youth Olympic Games and the Olympic Games.

A dot on the map, Ailsa Craig is located 16km off the west coast of Scotland. It is 1.6km long, 800m wide and 338m high.

The island has served as a redoubt for repelling Spanish invaders, a sanctuary for pirates and, for the last 25 years, a preservation area for tens of thousands of breeding seabirds, especially gannets and puffins.

But in the close-knit world of curling, Ailsa Craig is a source of granite used in every official Olympic curling event. The island’s quarries are known for a distinctive, water-resistant microgranite used to make most of the world’s curling stones.

The curling stones in use at the Lillehammer 2016 are made of two different types of granite; the body is Ailsa Craig common green, while the island's blue hone makes up the running surface.

Both granites contain virtually no quartz, meaning the stone does not absorb water.

“It makes it ideal sitting on ice,’’ said Mark Callan, the World Curling Federation’s chief ice maker, who is affiliated with Kays of Scotland, the company with exclusive rights to supply curling stones to the Olympic Games.

“What would happen [if water was absorbed into the stone] is it would start to degenerate in the running surface and the stone would become erratic and the stone’s speed and direction would change so that would make the stone almost uncontrollable.”

Kays of Scotland is a family-owned curling stone business that traces its origins back to 1851. Kays and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have a lease agreement with the island’s owners.

“We can remove granite from the island at any time and in any quantity, provided we do not interrupt the birds’ breeding season,’’ said Callan.

Kays mines the granite once every 10 years and removes 2500 tonnes each time, which keeps production lines humming for about a decade.

There are 12 stages to making a curling stone and the average lifespan of a stone is 25 years, although some have lasted half a century before they were returned to the factory to be refurbished.

Each stone used at the YOG and Olympic Games weighs 18.14kg.

The most famous stone (housed in the Royal Caledonia Curling Club’s museum in Perth, Scotland) to come from Ailsa Craig is known in curling circles as the “stone of destiny”. It is the stone that Scotland's Rhona Martin threw to win the gold medal in women's curling at Salt Lake City 2002, Great Britain's first Winter Games gold in 18 years.

Courtesy of YIS/ IOC Alan Adams

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