The Rathlin Limestone Company

By Dr John Maclean, collated from family papers (2017).

The Rathlin Limestone Company quarry played a significant part in the economic life of Rathlin Island in the early 20th century and it is important that the correct story is on record.

The limestone quarry was started about 1900. All the materials required for constructing the pier, the rails for the railway and the bogies arrived on cargo vessels from the Clyde and were transferred ashore using rowing boats.

The house constructed in 1903 for the quarry master was a prefabricated steel and wooden building, supplied by Speirs and Company, Glasgow. The materials were hauled up the cliff path by horses and assembled at The Bridge in Knockans.

Economic importance
The quarry was the only source of paid employment at the time for a number of men. It is interesting to see that the pay for a 44-hour week in 1924 was one pound, seven shillings and six pence, £1/7/6, which equates to approximately £225 (£5.11 per hour) in 2015 *.

See below, the time sheet and payslip, week ending 20th September 1924, for a Mr Black.

Screen Shot 2017-07-14 at 15.40.21

* When compared to the earnings of an average worker (

Operation of the quarry
A horse hired from a local farmer went up and down the cliff path as required to haul the bogies loaded with limestone which was then taken by boat to the Clyde. For a number of years, the limestone was quarried east of the pier and after 1922 the operation was extended west of the pier.

The rusting rails can still be found on the beach and the only remnant of the pier in 2016 is the concrete base.

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Looking West towards the pier
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Looking East from the pier

In 1920 the quarry and other island assets were acquired by a Northumberland business man, Mr W.S Johnstone. A period of bad weather in 1923 and the exposed position of the Killeany pier had caused delays in uplifting limestone from Killeany.

Mr Johnstone was informed by Martin Barrowman & Co., quarry masters in Glasgow, that a boat waiting four days in Islay to cross to Rathlin for a cargo had returned to the Clyde. The importance of lifting at least two cargos from Rathlin was stressed to the master of the boat.

The quarry master
The first quarry master was a Mr Galloway, a Scot, who lived with his family on the island for three years. In 1907 John MacPhee, son of a crofter born on the Isle of Skye, was asked to take on the job of quarry master. He was well educated in the basics of the time as was the tradition in the Scottish Highlands.

John had been a quarry master at sites as diverse as The Butt of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides and in Ayrshire. John and his wife Mary moved to Rathlin in 1907 with five of their children and quickly settled into life on the island.

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The quarry master’s house in 1920

Economic decline
By 1924 the recession after World War One, the increasing use of motor transport and other factors, including the exposed pier, began to have an impact on the finances of the business.

In February 1924, Mr Johnstone received a letter from Waugh and Robertson Ltd, Bunkering Contractors, in Glasgow informing him that the price of limestone delivered to the Glasgow Quay would be in the neighbourhood of 14 shillings per ton. The letter was of the opinion that it would be difficult for Rathlin limestone to compete at such prices.

By 1925 the business was essentially uncompetitive and finally ground to a halt when Mr MacPhee was 66 years old, having been quarry master for 18 years.

Screen Shot 2017-07-14 at 15.41.22
This page from a 1924 ledger shows expenditure for several weeks in the summer, including outgoings for tasks such as drilling, quarrying and loading, with the total for the week of 30th August coming to thirty-three pounds, sixteen shillings and one penny (£33/16/1), about £1,739 in 2015*.

Screen Shot 2017-07-14 at 15.41.33
Heading of stationery used in 1924

*When compared using RPI (

After closure
John MacPhee died in 1935 and is buried in St Thomas’s Church Yard on Rathlin Island. Mrs MacPhee lived on the island until 1939 when she left to live with family in Glasgow. She and family members returned in 1941 and 1942 to escape the bombing during the Second World War.

The house has remained in the possession of John MacPhee’s descendants and at the time of writing (2016) is owned by one of his great-grandsons.

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Killeany Pier 1953

The above photograph shows what was left of the wooden structure in 1953. The beach at Killeany was accessible by the cliff path until about the mid-1990s when it was overgrown by briars and bracken.

Screen Shot 2017-07-14 at 15.42.18
The quarry master’s house in 2010

All words and photos copyright Dr John Maclean.

John Maclean

John Maclean (pictured) is the grandson of the late John MacPhee who was the quarry master of the Killeany limestone Quarry from 1907-1925.  John, known to friends and family as Ian, was first taken to Rathlin in 1935, aged seven weeks, to see his grandmother in the family home at The Bridge. The family lived with his grandmother on the island in 1941-42 where he went to school. This was when he developed his life-long love affair with Rathlin, especially the area around Knockans and Killeany. He has since spent a lot of time at the family home there, visiting at least once almost every year. It is due to Ian’s dedication over the years to maintaining the property that the house is still standing today.

Ian had a ‘day job’ as a researcher and teacher at The University of Glasgow Veterinary School where he was skilled at developing and applying radioisotopic and radiation techniques in veterinary investigations. He is the author/co-other of 48 scientific publications. Ian regularly organised and supervised training courses in developing countries. He retired in 1996.

Ian is married to Jean and they have a son Alan, a daughter Marian and three grandchildren.

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