The day was said to be “as bright and beautiful as a Sabbath morning as ever dawned”, and the Clyde-built SV Eskbank, her sails billowing in the breeze, put on a fine sight as she headed to the port of Honolulu.
It was early November 1878 and the iron-hulled barque had been launched a few months earlier.
Now, on her second voyage laden with a $200,000 cargo of dry goods, liquor and machinery destined for Hawaii’s sugar cane plantations, she was about to come to a rather premature halt.
The treacherous reefs just a few miles from the port of the island of Oʻahu were well known to sailors for their tendency to claim ships that strayed carelessly in their path.
Yet, under calm blue skies and for no apparent reason, the captain of SV Eskbank continued his ill-fated run towards the reef.
After being stranded with 11 feet of water lapping in its hold and after a few days of being battered by the swell, the boat was torn in two. Her precious cargo – from crates of beer and liquor to steam boilers and sugar mill machinery – spilled from her hull.
Most, much to the relief of the cane plantation owners, were saved: the cane crops were almost ready to be crushed and the cargo from the Eskbank was destined to play a crucial role in ensuring that would not be wasted.
Left on the seabed for nearly 140 years until recovered by shipwrecked divers, there were, however, two other small remnants of the barque’s cargo.
Rather battered bricks salvaged from the wreck site now feature prominently on the chimney of Mark Cranston’s home in Jedburgh, one stamped ‘Gartcosh’ and the other ‘Glenboig’.
Nearby is another brick – stamped ‘Forth’. It was salvaged from the ill-fated Whiskey Galore ship, the SS Politician.
While outside in two former stable blocks are over 4,000 bricks. Almost all of them were made in Scotland: building blocks used for homes, public buildings, infrastructure and, says Mark, who has spent the past 12 years collecting and documenting them, countless firebricks, forgotten heroes of the industrial revolution.
Next weekend (September 2-3) the public will be able to get a first look at the remarkable range of bricks, it turns out, not so humble as the Scottish Brick Collection joins hundreds of sites across the country participating in the annual Open House events.
Taking place over weekends in September, it will see properties such as courthouses, wind farms, Masonic halls and crematoriums open to the public.
Although a brick ‘museum’ may look like a pile of rubble, Mark, a former police sergeant who was inspired to start his collection after being intrigued by the stamp he spotted on a brick, insists on the fact that each held by the Scottish Brick Collection offers a glimpse into a lost slice of the national industrial heritage.
“Each brick tells the story of where it was made,” he says. “Some stories are more important than others, but they all help tell the story of Scottish industry.”
Brick making was introduced to Scotland during the Roman occupation in the first century AD, but it was not until the 17th century and the use of new materials that brick making developed.
By the 18th century, the use of bricks had grown considerably as large estates established small brickyards to supply bricks for icehouses, garden walls, and housing for estate workers.
However, the Industrial Revolution saw the development of heat-resistant bricks – setting the stage for a massive export trade which saw bricks made in Scotland travel to all corners of the world.
“Red clay bricks or sandstone bricks would break and need repair,” he says. “But fireclay bricks were either heat resistant or didn’t break down easily when subjected to high temperatures,” says Mark.
“The British led the Industrial Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution would not have progressed without the humble firebrick.
“It was used in every application under the sun – any process requiring heat, the firebricks provided protection.
“As a result, they were exported in huge quantities all over the world.”
Brickyards have sprung up alongside mining communities across the country, he adds, often with attached labs that would adjust the alumina and silica content in fireclay to create designer bricks for a wide range of uses.
As production increased to meet demand from foundries such as Carron Ironworks in Falkirk, brickyards began to stamp their bricks with their name and other “codes” to help identify them – an early form marking.
As a result, there are thousands of different stamps on bricks, each indicating a particular use, time period and location.
One of the largest brickyards in the world was at Whitecross near Linlithgow, which at one time supplied bricks to 150 countries around the world and was part of a small brick empire headed by John Stein.
Born in 1862 into a family whose brick business was already internationally successful, he acquired the rights to mine fireclay at High Bonnybridge, from some of the richest clay deposits in Europe. Stein would, however, come to a tragic end. “He tripped over a brick and scraped his shin,” Mark said. “He ended up with sepsis and had to have his leg amputated, then he died.
“You could say he lived and died by the brick.”
Mark’s meticulous research involved scanning maps, old newspapers and museum archives and uncovering stories behind individual bricks, the range of places around the world that used Scottish bricks and the characters involved in their production, now documented on its website, www. scottishbrickhistory.co.uk Every brick has a story to tell, he adds.
Like the two SV Eskbank bricks that would have been loaded with “paid ballast”, to be sold in Hawaii for use in the sugar cane industry.
“The SS Politician brick came from the boiler room,” he says. “One of the bricks I have is from the convict cell in Barlinnie.
“You look at him and think about the guys who would rub up against him as they walked up to the gallows.
“It’s amazing that Scottish bricks appear,” he adds. “They’re in lime kilns in Argentina, smelters in Tazmania, they’re in gold mines in Australia, and they’re found all over Russia.
“There is a huge story waiting to be told.”
Details of properties opening as part of the Doors Open Day can be found at www.doorsopenday.co.uk