Not just any rock: curling stones' special granite comes from Scotland

The American men's curling team during a practice session at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics.
By Henk Stouwdam in Troon/Mauchline

Curling, perhaps the oddest sport at the winter Olympics currently under way in Vancouver, probably originated in Scotland. The stones used to play it are made from the granite of one tiny volcanic island there: Ailsa Craig.

From the study of his run down house, David B. Smith pointed to where the sea crashed against the west coast of Scotland. "Out there," he said, "is Ailsa Craig." Not even a dot on the horizon could be spotted, but the 73-year-old retired judge and curling historian extraordinaire knew the exactlocation of the island that supplies the granite for the Olympic curling stones.

Ailsa Craig is little more than a one square kilometre volcanic plug in a nature reserve in the Firth of Clyde coastal waters, but it has mythical status in curling circles. Ailsa Craig equals Common Green plus Blue Hone: the two types of granite needed to make superior curling stones. Aficionados deem all other rocks inferior to their black dotted 'gold' from this Scottish island.

Elastic and firm granite

Smith's garden on the sea was riddled with curling rocks. Not the ones made from Ailsa Craig's granite, those pearls he keeps inside as part of his collection of 3,000 stones with a handle. His love for the sport goes beyond collecting curiosities, Smith gives lectures and writes articles about curling and has studied Ailsa Craig, where the perfect curling granite was discovered 200 years ago.

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Its unique molecular structure makes the granite elastic enough to mold and firm enough not to crumble when it bumps against other stones. It absorbs very little water, which prevents freezing and melting water from eroding the stone. The combination of a Common Green granite body with a piece of Blue Hone as the bottom 'running edge' makes the Scottish stone unbeatable, experts say.

'Not a threat to national security'

Despite the Scottish pride in the sport, Smith is "not 100 percent sure" they invented curling (rules in box below). "Little has been written about the origins, but it is certain it is an old sport. Latin writings show curling was played in Paisley, near Glasgow, as early as 1541. I presume the popularity of curling had to do with the ban on golf and football at the time. The Scots had to spend their time killing the English. Curling was allowed because it was only played in winter and was therefore not seen as a threat to national security."

Vancouver

Today, the Scots play alongside the English as Great Britain at the Olympic games in Vancouver. On Tuesday, the first day of play, Canada took the lead in the men's competition and Sweden preformed best amongst the women teams. The finals are played on February 27.

Scotland definitely developed the game. Curling, whisky and golf are the three great gifts from Scotland to the world, according to Smith.

About 50 kilometres inland lies the village Mauchline, where time seems to have stood still. This is where the local factory Kays of Scotland makes the exclusive Ailsa curling stones. Ten men, covered in dust, were working amidst the grinding and polishing machines. Cars were parked outside between large blocks of granite. , The office was situated in a container. Director Donald Macrae took time to tell about the exclusive connection between his factory and Ailsa Craig.

In the Olympic spotlight

In the 1980s, many people were complaining about the quality of curling stones, Macrae said. The stones absorbed to much water, they crumbled too fast and they didn't move in a good line. These stones were made from Trefor granite, harvested in Wales, because it had become too expensive to mine the rocks of Ailsa Craig by hand.

"We wanted to survive and had to get access to the granite of Ailsa Craig again," Macrae said. "We got in touch with Lord Ailsa, whose family has owned the island since 1560, and after some tough negotiations, we got the exclusive rights to the granite for an annual fee - a pricey sum."

The new stones were indeed of the quality they had been in the old days, but sale of the 20-kilo stones, which cost between 1,500 and 4,000 euros, didn't meet expectations. Kays of Scotland was on the verge of bankruptcy in the early 1990s, when a two-step rescue operation saved its life.

First, the International Olympic Committee decided curling would be added to the list of competition sports at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano. Next, the World Curling Federation came to the aid of the factory. "It is in their interest too that we make good curling stones," Macrae said of the partnership. "WCF invested over 250,000 euros in 2002 to get 1,500 tonnes of Common Green and 200 tonnes of Blue Hone from the island and bring them to Mauchline. Enough material to make 8,000 curling stones over ten years."

Growth opportunities

Kays of Scotland was chosen as purveyor to the games, the 64 curling stones used during the Winter Olympics all hail from Mauchline. A competitor from Canada, where curling is very popular, made a bid as supplier of this year's games, but they could not deliver Ailsa rocks. "Fortunately, our quality prevailed," Macrae said with relief.

But Olympic status does not guarantee the factory's future. It needs to boost its production to stay in business and is making plans to do so in association with the curling federation. "We hope to tap a market in eastern Europe, looking ahead to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. But we see growth opportunities especially in the United States. This is a country with about 6,000 hockey stadiums. How wonderful would it be if every one of those accommodations had a curling rink? The World Curling Federation is making great efforts to promote curling in the United States, but that is not going smoothly. The Americans are what we Scots call 'can't-do-people', they are difficult to excite for new sports. "

But Ailsa Craig is patient. A new excavation of granite is planned a few years from now and after that, the supply will be far from exhausted. "We can go on for centuries," Macrae said.

Some background to help enjoy Olympic curling

Curling involves two teams sliding 19.1-kilogramme granite stones toward a target of concentric circles on the ice. One game consists of 10 'ends' during which each member of two four-person teams slides two stones.

The closest stone to the centre of the target earns a point. If a team has the two closest stones it earns two points, and so on. The team with the most points at the end of 10 ends wins.

After the stone is sent sliding down the ice, two players use brooms and sweeping motions to control it – to make it go faster or slower, or to change its direction, or 'curl'.

Although curlers like to have fun, counting the social aspect of the sport as a big part of the experience they love, curlers around the world have taken their fitness to a new level in preparation for these games. They have personal trainers, high-intensity training camps, sports psychologists and more.

The sport prides itself on a tradition of sportsmanship and good manners. The Chinese women didn't talk to the media after Sunday's practice in order to keep their focus, and it caused an uproar of sorts.

Curling has its special terminology. The 'button' is the innermost circle within the 'house': the area the stone must cross into to be in play. The 'hog line' is the first far line the stone crosses just before reaching the house. And there's 'broomstacking', the post-match ritual of heading to the lounge with the opponent for a friendly drink. Traditionally, the winners buy the beers.

Source AP

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