In 1792, after initial plans were abandoned, George Washington needed skilled stonemasons for his ambitious plans for the White House.
Here in Edinburgh, as war between Britain and France raged, skilled laborers were banned from emigrating during the conflict, leaving them with no means of earning money. Commissioners in the new US capital saw an opportunity and reached out to offer a group of stonemasons from Edinburgh a generous salary to defy the travel ban and travel to America.
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The Washington Commissioners admired the skills of Scottish stonemasons, Edinburgh in the 19th century experiencing a period of rapid expansion. “The Athens of the North” was world famous for its neoclassical architecture, the workers involved being already fully trained and having worked with many different materials.
The Edinburgh workers found it difficult to refuse the offer, with travel expenses covered and the war ending any building work taking place in Edinburgh. The challenge ahead of them in Washington, however, was more than any structure in Scotland.
The first design for the presidential residence was to be more than four times the size of the White House that exists today, with eleven million pounds of stone needed for the foundation walls alone. An Irishman, James Hoban, took over the plans when it became clear that a redesign was needed.
Many of the stonemasons who crossed the Atlantic were members of the Lodge of No. 8 Fellow Freemasons. John and James Williamson, both Freemasons, were two of the first to emigrate.
The brothers are commemorated in Edinburgh with a plaque at 66 Queen Street, a terrace they worked on before traveling to America. Traveling by sea, the journey would have taken laborers more than a month.
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Collen Williamson, a master mason known for his work on Moy House in Moray, was sent to act as chief stonemason at the White House. Known for his hot head, Collen was no stranger to an argument with colleagues or commissioners, and in 1795 his contract was terminated.
As for the six Edinburgh workers, their legacy can be seen all over the White House – especially in the Double Rose. The sculptures were based on the Scottish double rose, cultivated by the Royal Botanic Gardens in 1780.
The rose, associated with migration and homecoming, was particularly suited to Edinburgh stonemasons working at the White House. The mark of workers can be found both in their hometown and abroad, although what happened to the six workers is unclear.
The first president to live in the White House, John Addams, did not move there until 1800. As for the Masons, it is unclear whether they returned to Scotland or continued to earn their living in America.
In 2018, Historic Environment Scotland stonemason Charles Jones continued the tradition and traveled to Washington to work on the stone for the White House. Originally sculpted over 200 years ago, Charles recreated the Scottish double rose in the gardens of the White House.
Hailing from Carnoustie in Angus, Charles spent a week reproducing the design – which has been on permanent display in a Capitol Hill museum. He told the Daily Record at the time: “It’s been an amazing experience.
“I guess I’m following in the footsteps of stonemasons from Edinburgh coming to the White House. The stone they would have used here is of a similar consistency to what we have back home.
“I’m sure Scottish stonemasons would have been pleasantly surprised by this.”