Conserving Robert Burns | Historic stone matching

Robert Burns statue before restoration

The Burns statue in Camperdown, Australia is one of the world's oldest surviving representations of Robert Burns. It was taken to Australia from Scotland in 1882 where it has been on display in a public park for over 125 years.

The statue was repaired a number of years ago but has recently been vandalised and now requires stone repairs.

The BGS were approached by the Australian conservator (Cathedral Stone) to see if we could identify the stone in the statue and suggest the best stone type for repairs.

A sample of the damaged statue was sent to the building stones team in Edinburgh Scotland for analysis and compared to our archive database of Scottish stone quarries.

Stone-type fingerprinting

Cowie Rock

Petrographic analysis provides a microscopic 'fingerprint' of a stone type, and the sample from the statue was matched to historic sandstone quarries in Central Scotland.

It was particularly similar to the Cowie Rock, which is a famous seam of sandstone that crops out in the Falkirk area that was once quarried near villages such as Plean, Cowie and Denny.

Cowie Rock was prized for famous building and monuments throughout Scotland and beyond, e.g. Glasgow City Chambers.

All of these building stone quarries are closed today, and most have been infilled and effectively sterilised. One former quarry, Drumhead near Denny, still contains exposures of rock which of a good quality and are suitable for repairs to the statue.

Following testing of this stone, it was recommended that stone from Drumhead quarry would be a suitable stone for repairs to the Burns statue.

Working with the Scottish Stone Liaison Group, an advisory body set up by Historic Scotland, BGS contacted the owners of the quarry and a masonry contractor who was willing to obtain some surface block and cut the stone, to be sent to Australia.

Stone matching service

Close-up of statue face

The BGS building stone team provide a stone matching service, analysing samples from historic buildings and monuments throughout the UK to identify the best stone for repairs.

This is becoming increasingly important, as many of our famous buildings are of an age where the stone is beginning to decay, and our changing climate (particularly storm events and increasing rainfall) is taking its toll on our built heritage.

In Scotland, for example, there were about 750 commercial sandstone quarries in 1850 (when much of our heritage was being built) whilst today there are only six sandstone quarries. It is becoming increasingly difficult to source the right stone to repair our heritage, so the BGS technique provides a tool to 'fingerprint' stone and identify the best match.

About the sculptor

The Burns statue in Australia was carved by John Greenshields, a sculptor who produced several famous statues including many throughout Scotland. He operated in the Central Belt in the 1820s.

The statue of Burns was commissioned by William Taylor of Leith between 1826 and 1830, and is based on a painting of Burns made in 1786 (the only painting created when Burns was actually present).

William Taylor's son Peter emigrated to Australia in 1876, and shipped the statue out in 1882, donating the statue a year later for display in Camperdown's public park where it has remained for over 125 years.


Contact Dr Martin Gillespie (Scotland) or Dr Steve Parry (England and Wales) for further information on building stones.