Lara Townsend - from university to an apprenticeship
I had lots of options when applying for university.
Engineering, architectural engineering, law – I also applied for history of art. I eventually settled on art history and in my third year I did conservation of Scottish architecture.
Moving from South Africa to Scotland made me appreciate the heritage here so much more.
The house I live in now is over 200 years old - that’s more than some of the national monuments over there.
The stunning buildings in Edinburgh and the contrast between the new town and the old town really impressed me.
My friends would laugh when I said “you have an actual castle on the hill!” I was never able to go by without staring.
The practical side
When I was leaving school I was pushed towards university and other options weren’t really discussed.
I love learning and enjoyed my subjects but the academic environment didn’t really speak to me.
With essays I sometimes found it hard to see what the ultimate purpose was, apart from proving that I could analyse and manipulate information to answer a question.
When you’re cutting a piece of stone and put a ruler or straight edge on it to check it, you can tell if there’s nothing you could have done better. You can’t criticise it when the facts show otherwise.
“It was difficult at the start”
I wasn’t looking for an apprenticeship but that was exactly the right format for me. I knew people who had done MAs in conservation but said they lacked on the practical side and that’s what I really wanted to focus on.
The first stone I ever cut was for the west end of Glasgow Cathedral. It was quite simple but it was really exciting to see the process from the beginning, to actually be on the scaffolding, to cut the new stone and to build it in.
I felt really good once it was in place. If I'm doing maintenance around the cathedral now, I'll still look up to pick out my stone.
I've been doing the apprenticeship for 3 years now and have a few more stones in the cathedral as well as our other monuments.
It's amazing to think that they could be there for the next 100 years and that's just work I’ve done as an apprentice.
It was difficult at the start and I felt quite intimidated. I struggled with the rhythm to begin with – coming from sculpture you tap constantly when cutting but in masonry it’s a definite hit hit hit.
Sometimes I questioned myself and why I was doing it at all. It takes a while to understand how things work and how to be efficient, even with the simple stuff.
Now, I get given responsibility for various tasks and brief apprentices coming in. I know what the next steps are going to be and understand how to solve issues. Even a year ago I would haven’t felt that confident.
I was lucky to get in here, everyone is so knowledgeable and my mentor has been cutting stone for almost 30 years.
You can’t get that just anywhere. To be able to work with these people is incredible.
The thought that always comes back to me is, “you would have volunteered to do this job, to learn these things, and here you are getting paid to do it”.
That’s a privilege and I couldn’t have done what I’m doing now without taking an apprenticeship.