AILSA CRAIG, Scotland — This stunning volcanic island has been part of Scottish legend for a thousand years, its sugarloaf profile decorating Scottish bank notes and memorialized in a sonnet by John Keats.
It has no inhabitants, no electricity, no fresh water and no arable land — nothing of value, it would seem, but this: For a century and more, its quarries have been the source of the distinctive, water-resistant microgranite used to make most of the world’s curling stones. These include all those used in recent world championships and every Olympics since 1924, including the Sochi Games that begin in February.
But the modest income from quarrying the island’s prized product and a lease granted to Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has taxed the dwindling resources of its owner, the eighth Marquess of Ailsa, whose family has owned the island for 500 years.
Like many of Britain’s old landowning families, the marquess’s family has been through decades of retrenchment as a result of inheritance taxes. It lost the family seat, Culzean Castle, to the National Trust in 1945, and in 2010 the current marquess decided to part with Ailsa Craig, posting an initial price of $4 million.
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That figure was later cut to $2.4 million, and as the waters of the Firth of Clyde have lapped at Ailsa Craig’s rocky shore each day, little has changed. The island remains misty, monumental and for sale.
When Keats first saw the island soaring 1,100 feet into the sky off Scotland’s west coast in 1818, he went to a mainland inn and wrote a sonnet by candlelight describing it as a “craggy ocean-pyramid,” summoned from the deep by some mythic power and attended for eternity by eagles and whales.
Finding a buyer will require more than the poetic flights of Keats or “the dreams” the 57-year-old marquess says he would be selling to anyone whose fancy runs to an island that has no modern conveniences, no continuing form of employment and only one habitable structure.
Over the centuries, the island’s 220 acres, much in the form of precipitous crags and thick uphill reaches of bracken, have provided Scots, and sometimes their enemies, with an ocean fortress.
Barely three-quarters of a mile from tip to tip, the island has served as a redoubt for repelling Spanish invaders, a sanctuary for pirates and, for the past 25 years, a preservation area for tens of thousands of breeding seabirds, especially gannets and puffins.
So it is little surprise to find that the property agent listing it reaches for hyperbole in stating its attractions. “The only island to win a gold medal in the Olympic Games!” says Farhad Vladi of the Vladi Private Islands. He claims to have sold more than 2,000 islands worldwide, many in more enticing, or at least warmer, locations than the Firth of Clyde.
Vladi’s medal reference referred to the curling stones used when Rhona Martin, the Scottish champion who threw what became known as the “stone of destiny” to win the women’s gold medal at the Winter Games in Salt Lake City in 2002. The victory set off fireworks celebrations in Edinburgh and Glasgow; it was the first time Britain had won a winter gold in 18 years.
The British are hoping for a repeat at the Sochi Olympics, and they look to Ailsa Craig, at least metaphorically, as a talisman.
Two thousand tons of previously quarried granite was taken off the island this summer by landing craft and used for cutting, spinning and polishing into the Sochi stones at the factory at Mauchline, 25 miles away on the Ayrshire mainland, that has a contract for the Olympic stones.
A few of those stones will slip gently out of the sure hands of Britain’s best medal hope, its world champion women’s team and its 23-year-old skip, Eve Muirhead.
The 44-pound, kettle-shape rocks will be made, in the body, from the speckled Ailsa Craig granite known as common green, and will glide to the “house,” or target, on a base ring of the island’s inimitable blue hone, whose tight molecular structure makes it impenetrable to melting ice.
In the meantime, the marquess, who has lost a leg to diabetes, waits for an offer on what he calls his rock. During an encounter at his favorite pub, he spoke with scant sentiment about the prospect of giving up ownership of the island.
“It’s going to go out of the family,” he said. “But I think of it this way: It’s not going anywhere. It’s always going to be there, and it really doesn’t matter who owns it.”
The same dispassion came when the talk turned to Ailsa Craig as a sporting icon.
With a smile, he summed up his attitude toward the sport that is said to have had its origins on Scotland’s frozen ponds in the 16th century.
“It’s the boringest game you can ever watch,” he said.