Written in stone

The name carved on the Fleswick cliff (photo: Ann Lingard)

“I said, ‘Oh Dad, you didn’t go out with her? She was a horrible woman!’” Judith Beeby laughs as she tells me how she had discovered the words “James McKay loves ...” cut into the red sandstone of the cave in Fleswick Bay. “He said, ‘Well, she wasn’t so bad when she was young!’.” Later, though, James carved the name of "D K McKay" – Dorothy Kathleen – in a more prominent place, for this was the woman that he married, and who became the mother of Judith Mary McKay, Mrs Beeby.

This is a story that is very much part of the Solway coast: for me it started under the cliffs at Fleswick Bay and ends in the port of Silloth, where Mrs Judith Beeby now lives, but her own family's fascinating story is much longer, bound up as it is with the cliffs and quarries and buildings along the coastal margins.

I first came across Judy McKay’s name when I went to the coast at St Bees'. I had walked along the cliff-top and down the slippery path to Fleswick Bay, and almost immediately found some names carved into the red cliffs. Some names were part-eroded, others hidden by green slime, some looked as though they had been scratched in on a lazy afternoon - but one stood out: Judy McKay, engraved deeply and with handsome serifs, the superscript “c” underlined.

I mentioned this carving in an article I was writing about St Bees' sandstone, and a couple of weeks after it was published in Cumbria Life, Mrs Beeby phoned me to tell me the name was hers and had been engraved by her father, a stone-mason. When she began to tell me the story of the men who had worked with stone in her family, I was hooked.

The McKay family (it rhymes with “tay” not “tie") came to northern England from Caithness; the story has it that they were victims of the notorious Highland Clearances. Judith’s great-great-grandfather and his family settled near Lazonby, and he carried on with his previous occupation, quarrying, near Dalston. Quarrying carried on into the next generation, too; one son James, Judith’s great-grandfather, owned Shawk quarry where sandstone had been quarried since Roman times. This interest in stone passed down another generation, to his son Tom.

Soon after I arrived at Judith’s house she showed me a newspaper cutting from April 1936, about her grandfather Tom and his wife: “Interesting St Bees Golden Wedding. Well-known Cumberland Quarry Master.” One photograph shows Mrs McKay with hair drawn back smoothly from her dignified and smiling face; the other photograph, of Captain Tom – who “nobly served his country” in the Royal Engineers – shows a man with a smart grey moustache, a jaunty bow-tie and twinkling eyes. “He was a devil!” Judith told me, laughing. “He had his eye on the women, I don’t know how Granny McKay put up with him. He wasn’t a grafter like the others.” And Tom’s own stories, written in a 1929 letter to a Mr Smith, and also reported in that newspaper article, show him to have had considerable talent as a young man as a salesman and getting out of awkward situations.

A family photo showing Captain Tom and his wife, and their children (my thanks to Mrs Judith Beeby for allowing me to use this photo)

In 1875, James visited Philadelphia and, having seen Brown Connecticut stone on sale, thought it might be possible to sell red sandstone from Shawk there too. At that time sailing barques regularly brought grain to Whitehaven, Maryport and Silloth from Philadelphia and other American ports, and these ships needed ballast – usually in the form of gravel - to stabilise them on the journey home. In June 1879 an Italian barque called the Eliza C brought a cargo of wheat into Maryport, and James arranged for the ship to carry out blocks of Shawk sandstone as ballast. His son Tom was ordered to try to sell the stone in America. (Cumbrian sandstone still travels the world - read about Realstone's work with St Bees' sandstone in Albany, New York.)

Tom left on a ship from Liverpool, and arrived long before the Eliza C, which had become becalmed. When the vessel eventually arrived he found the stone was liable for excise duty of about a dollar a ton – he had to cable home for the large sum of about £100 to be sent to cover it. On top of this set-back, the local architects and builders were not keen to buy the Shawk stone because it was fine-grained and they thought it would deteriorate too rapidly in their climate. Tom finally managed to get rid of the consignment by selling it cheaply to a firm in Newark, New York, although this meant re-shipping it in barges. The whole venture made a serious loss and his father James would have nothing more to do with America. But Tom was clearly undeterred and struck a deal with another New York firm, Sherwoods, and with a quarrying firm in Annan – and soon Sherwoods “sent orders for thousands of tons”, Tom wrote later. Seeing the lucrative American market opening up, Tom became a stone merchant, and “took all the blocks that Cousins of Whitehaven could give me from the Sandwith quarry, also from Doloughans, Bankend Quarries, and all the blocks from Hy. Graves Aspatria quarries and also my father’s Curthwaite quarries”; there was stone from Runcorn and Dumfries too.

Judith’s great-grandfather James’ quarrying and contracting business was expanding meanwhile, and becoming very important in Cumberland and further afield. His stone and his masons were required on many important projects. He built the Maryport & Carlisle railway, including all the bridges; he was contractor for the railway and stations between Newcastle and Berwick-on-Tweed. When the Royal Border Bridge, of 28 arches across the Tweed, was opened by Queen Victoria in 1850, James McKay listed amongst its other particulars, “... quantity of stone work 1,437,644 cubic feet ... greatest number of men employed 2,738; Engineers, Robert Stephenson Esq ... James McKay and J. Blackstock, contractors, built the structure in three years, three months, three weeks and one day.”

The McKays’ quarrying business moved West. Judith’s Granny McKay came from Bromfield near Aspatria, and Captain Tom owned or worked quarries at Leegate near Aspatria, and at West Newton. They moved further South, working Sandwith Quarry then owning Bankend Quarry near St Bees’. Lamb Hill, near Parton, was quarried to yield a creamy-coloured stone that is marked with brown streaks of iron ore.

Captain Tom and his wife had eight surviving children, and one of the sons, James, became a stone-mason, serving his time first at Annan and then at Barrow, working on the Furness Abbey Hotel. By now the family was living in St Bees’ village - but James would cycle to Annan, by way of Sandwith to pay the men, then through West Newton, and finally to Bowness-on-Solway. At that time the railway bridge across the Solway was the quickest route to Dumfriesshire, and the railwaymen would allow James to carry his bicycle across the bridge. It was this James (or Jim) who courted and married Dorothy Kathleen from Huddersfield, and who was Judith’s father.

Jim and his youngest brother Tom set up in business together and as well as working with stone, owned Camerton brickworks between 1939-1951; they ran the brickworks for the Royal Naval Armament Department during World War II. Judith has written about her happy memories of visiting and playing at Camerton as a little girl, and remembers going along with her Dad to visit Mr Relph at Threlkeld, to buy fell ponies to pull the tubs and flat bogies: “Mrs Relph made us ham and eggs, a real treat. I got a ride some days and they called one of the ponies Judy after me.”

Jim McKay, Mrs Beeby's father; his mason's mark is clearly visible on one of the blocks. (My grateful thanks to Mrs Beeby for allowing me to use this photo.)

It’s not surprising that Judith knows so much about stone and how it is cut and dressed, and she knows many of the buildings and monuments on which her father worked. “His work’s like a signature,” she told me – and his mason's mark is quite distinctive. She had seen a foundation stone at Keswick chapel and recognised Jim’s lettering. Darlington’s Peace Museum, a spiral stone staircase at Montieth, a font and the Celtic cross memorial by the lychgate at St Bees’ church, a Bank at Thurso – these just a few of the many places where Jim McKay’s work could be found. The firm received their “bread and butter” work, such as bridge repairs, from the County Council, but Judith remembers that it was the memorials, church windows and the like that her father most enjoyed. When an architect sent in his plans, Jim would work on the drawings at a long table at the quarry. For window tracery, for example, he would mark out and cut zinc templates and the shapes – the arches and curves – were traced onto the stone blocks for the masons to cut. The finished sections of worked stone were numbered and marked with a mason’s own mark, then packed in straw in special wooden containers. These were carried by wagons to the LMS Railway and sent to their destination.

Mrs Judith Beeby, in her flat in Silloth.

And what about those carved names at Fleswick Bay? Judith Beeby remembers going there twice with her father, taking sandwiches and a screwtop bottle of lemonade. “He’d wrap up his tools in a cloth and take them with him, and when we got there he’d say, ‘You sit there now and be a good girl’.” She doesn’t particularly remember him carving her own name, but once, at the end of the day, “He put me up on his back and told me to ‘hang on there now’ and carried me up the hill. He was a grand man, a good father.” 

(A version of this article first appeared in Yesterday in September 2006, and has since been updated. Copyright: Ann Lingard, 2010) 

Back to top