Scottish island wins Olympic curling

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At a factory outside Ayr in south-west Scotland, James Wyllie carefully lifts and strokes a curling stone, while well-used drilling and polishing machines grind in the background.

The 40-pound (18-kilogram) stone is made from single granite rock harvested on Ailsa Craig, about 16 kilometers (10 miles) across a stretch of wild sea west of the mainland.

Wyllie, 72, is the retired owner of Kays Curling, which has been making curling stones since 1851 and has the exclusive right to harvest granite from the remote volcanic island.

Stones from his factory will be used at the Beijing Winter Olympics, which begin with a mixed doubles event between Great Britain and Sweden on Wednesday.

“Ailsa Craig has been for probably almost 200 years now a unique source of granite for curling stones,” Wyllie told AFP at the factory in Mauchline, 20km from Ayr.

“There is so far no equivalent type of granite found elsewhere in the world that is suitable for the purposes of a curling stone.

“There have been one or two other springs tried with varying degrees of success, but none of them have proven to be as good as Ailsa Craig’s Stone.”

– ‘Paddy’s milestone’ –

Ailsa Craig is known to locals as “Paddy’s Milestone” for being a resting place across the sea between Glasgow and Belfast.

It was a haven for Catholics fleeing persecution from Protestants during the Scottish Reformation in the 16th century.

Today uninhabited, it serves as a nature reserve for colonies of gannets, puffins and seals that watch over the granite quarries.

Kays Curling, which harvests rock on and off, has been involved in supplying curling stones for the Winter Olympics since the Chamonix Games in 1924.

The quarries contain two types of granite ideal for the sport, which is believed to have first been played on frozen ponds and lochs in Scotland around 500 years ago.

Blue Hone non-porous micro-granite, formed by volcanic eruptions 60 million years ago, has low water absorption, which prevents repeatedly frozen water from eroding the stone.

Ailsa Craig Common Green is more resistant to heat transfer, helping it cope better with condensation and it does not split after contact with another stone in play.

The Blue Hone insert – which is the part of the curling stone that comes into contact with the ice – is fitted to the Ailsa Craig Common Green stone body, using a technique called “Ailserts”.

The bottom surface of the stone needs to be extremely hard because the ice can be very abrasive, Wyllie says.

Durability is key in a sport in which players slide rocks across slabs of ice about 150 feet (46 meters) long toward a target area of ​​four concentric circles.

Curlers sweep the ice in front of the moving stones with brooms to help them hit the intended target.

– Precision and harmony –

The precision and harmony of the granite with the ice are essential.

Even the slightest bump could cause the stone to slip and be the difference between a gold medal and bitter disappointment.

“The running surface of the stone can wear out, believe it or not,” says Wyllie.

“And on top of that, it has to be impervious to moisture absorption.

“If moisture from the ice penetrates the surface of the stone, it can eventually freeze and expand and damage the running surface.”

Kays Curling managing director Jim English says curling stones are exported to 70 countries.

Demand for the stones, which take five hours each to produce, is increasing, he says.

“Canada, America, certainly Switzerland, Austria and Europe itself,” he says of the market.

“But we sell as far as South America, as far as South Korea, Afghanistan and Nigeria.”

In the yard outside the factory, a short distance from the house that once belonged to Scottish national poet Robert Burns, Wyllie inspects a row of discarded curling stones that are destined to be used as planters.

“I’m sure curling will gain popularity after the Beijing Olympics,” he said. “The demand for the stones will certainly be high in the coming months.”

As always, Wyllie will be keeping a close eye on the curling events at the Olympic Winter Games.

“Curling is just too much fun to miss,” he says with a smile.

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