Tag Archives: watermill

The Mill at Atholl

The historic watermill at Blair Atholl. Absence of corn growing in the surrounding area today. Extensive field systems and enclosed land in the mid 1700s. Andrew Wights 1780s descriptions of innovation, enterprise and crop diversification. Part of a Living Field series on old corn mills.

The watermill at Atholl [1] offers a welcoming break to journeys along the A9 road, offering – in addition to the working mill – coffee and freshly baked bread from a variety of grains. In 2017, the mill and its bakers gained some deserved exposure on a BBC2 television programme, Nadiya’s British Food Adventure, presented by Nadiya Hussain [1].

The remaining corn mills in the north of Britain tell much about the phasing in and out of local corn production over the last few centuries. The Living Field’s interest in this case lies in the mill’s history and location, being a substantial building but presently in an area that has no local corn production. In this, it differs from Barony Mills in Orkney which lies within an area of barley cultivation that still supplies the mill [2].

The images above show the water wheel fed by a lode that runs from the river Tilt to the north, the main grinding wheel (covered, top l), hoppers feeding the wheel and an old mill wheel. The watermill’s web site [1] and the explanation boards in the mill itself describe the history of the building and workings of the machinery.

The Atholl watermill was a substantial investment, but what strikes today is the absence of corn-growing (arable) land in the area. When visited in 2017, very few fields were cultivated.

What do the historical maps tell us?

The information inside the mill states that it was present at the time of Timothy Pont’s map of the 1590s [3]. It is there on his map, just south of ‘Blair Castel’. But Roy’s Military Survey [4] of the mid-1700s gives the best indication of the possible extent of cropped land in the area. Features on the Roy map (copied below) include ‘Blair Kirk’ (church) which still stands at what is now known as Old Blair and ‘Tilt Bridge’ on the road that ran north of the Garry; then areas of enclosed land or parkland, bounded by tree lines; and the Mill, shown within the white circle in the upper map, with its lode clearly leaving the River Tilt to the north and flowing past the mill to enter the River Garry upstream of where the Tilt joins it.

The Roy Map shows what appear be clusters of field systems on both sides of the Garry, depicted by short parallel lines suggesting rigs, some indicated by white arrows on the upper map. The lower map has been displaced to show more field systems around Aldclune.

Later, on the first edition of the Ordnance Survey 1843-1882, the village of ‘Blair Athole’ has started to take shape, the corn mill is marked being fed by a Mill Lead originating at a sluice off the River Tilt. Later still, the Land Utilisation Survey 1931-1935 shows arable land remaining, consistent with the location of many of the field systems on Roy’s map.

Therefore crops, and they must have included corn, whether oat or barley, were grown in the region and presumably fed the mill, but more information on what was grown was reported by Andrew Wight, travelling 30 years or so after Roy.

Andrew Wight’s survey of 1784

Mr Wight’s surveys of agriculture in Scotland in the 1770s and 1780s again provide rare and sometimes surprising insights. He meets and reports on mainly the improvers, the landowners and their major tenants, less so the householder and small grower. Yet he was there at a crucial time in the development of food production and able to present a unique and consistent account throughout mainland Scotland.

Part way through his fourth survey [6], he spent the night in Dalwhinnie, then on travelling south towards lowland Perthshire, he stopped at Dalnacardoch, commenting that the innkeeper was a ‘spirited and enterprising’ farmer. There he reports a “clover field, dressed to perfection; an extraordinary sight in this barren country” and also “turnips in drills in perfect good order, pease broadcast, bear and oats with grass-seeds”, and notes ‘great crops of potato are raised here’. [Ed: bere is a landrace of barley.]

On ‘Athol House’ (near the mill) he concentrates on the animals, various breeds and hybrids of cattle, and also sheep; but on the tilled land, he writes the “Duke’s farm is about 700 acres arable; of which not more than 120 are in tillage, the rest being hay or pasture.” The rotation is “turnip broadcast, barley, oats and turnip again”. So corn crops – barley and oats – occupied 2/3 of the 120 acres, equivalent to 80 acres or 32 hectares (abbreviated to ha, 1 acre = 0.405 ha). It is uncertain what this land yielded at that time, but assuming it was 1 t/ha or one-fifth of todays typical spring cereal harvest, then that’s 30 tonnes of corn annually. By itself it does not seem enough for such a big mill.

Again, it is unclear whether tenants and crofters are included in the stated area, but they were probably not. For example, later he mentions tenants, including the innkeeper and farmer at ‘Blair of Athol’ who grew corn for his own local consumption. The extent of other corn land cultivated by small tenants, for example, on the field systems shown in the maps above, is not mentioned.

Mr Wight continues in his appreciation of the standards as he moves south, finding after Killicrankie and towards Faskally, an enchantment of orderly farmland. On the road south to Dunkeld, he writes ‘hills on every side, some covered with flocks, some with trees and small plantations, mixed with spots of corn scattered here and there; and beautiful haughs variegated with flax, corn and grass.’

Driving along the A9 road today, the land flanking the Garry seems impoverished and the climate inhospitable for crops, but Wight presents an entirely different view: innovation, improvement, and diversity of plant and animal husbandry. As in many upland areas, the land reverted to poor pasture, in some instances as recently as the 1980s. Why? Higher costs of growing crops, low profit margins, easier alternatives based on better transport connections and ready imports of cereal carbs.

Sources, links

[1] Blair Atholl Watermill and tearoom. Location shown on map, right. http://blairathollwatermill.co.uk (check web site for opening). The mill and its bakers were featured in 2017 on BBC2’s Nadiya’s British Food Adventure.

[2] Living Field articles on water-driven corn mills: 1) Shetland’s horizontal water mills and 2) Landrace 1 – bere (Barony Mills, Orkney).

[3] Pont maps of Scotland ca. 1583-1614, by Timothy Pont http://maps.nls.uk/pont/index.html

[4] Roy Military Survey of Scotland 1747-1755 http://maps.nls.uk/roy/ The web site of the National Library of Scotland (NLS) allows educational and not-for-profit use: acknowledgement given on the map legend.

[5] Land Utilisation Survey Scotland 1931-1935. “The first systematic and comprehensive depiction of the land cover and use in Scotland under the supervision of L. Dudley Stamp” http://maps.nls.uk/series/land-utilisation-survey/ See also
https://digimap.edina.ac.uk/webhelp/environment/data_information/dudleystamp.htm

[6] Wight, Andrew. 1784. Present state of husbandry in Scotland Volume IV, part I. Edinburgh: William Creech. The sights noted above, between Dalwinnie and Dunkeld, are described at pages154-165. [Available online, search for author and title.] Other reports of Mr Wight’s journeys are given on this site at Great quantities of Aquavitae and Great quantities of Aquavitae II.

 

 

Shetland’s horizontal water mills

Corn mills in Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles; the horizontal water driven mechanism; locally managed and owned; bere and oat;  the similarities of mills in in Europe and Asia.

“The praying machine of Thibet is, I believe, of similar construction.’ (Goudie, 1885-86)

Three small water mills, housed in stone huts, lie one below the other down a small waterway near Huxter in Shetland (HU 172572), west of Sandness and NW of Walls.

lf_yr_ss_wtrmllhxtrshtlnd_gs_1100

They must have been some advance over the saddle quern, which was still in use when Gilbert Goudie investigated Shetland’s horizontal mills in the 1880s. The mills were of a time when each family or group grew its own bere barley and oat and then ground it to meal, to eat.

The mills are small stone buildings constructed along a waterway or burn. They were locally made and owned, sometimes by several families. Goudie cites Evershed (1874): ‘No portion of the material is purchased, except a single clamp of iron”. The millstones are sourced locally.

The water is channeled off the waterway above the mill along a stone-lined lode (visible in the images below) which enters the mill to turn a paddle wheel under the floor. The mills are called ‘horizontal’ because the force of water turns the paddles in a horizontal plane, rather than vertically as in the later water wheels of the type at Birsay in Orkney.

lf_5_innvcrnmll_hxtr_gkimages_1100

The paddles drive a vertical  iron rod, fixed so it turns the upper of two millstones (up to 3 ft diameter) in the room above. After passing through the paddles, the water then runs out to rejoin the waterway and on to the next mill.

There’s no sign of corn crops in this area today – it is all grazing. Yields of corn are uneconomical now and people can import their bread, rice and pasta from other regions, as do most others in the Atlantic croplands.

But what did bere look like? The photograph below shows a bere landrace from Eday, Orkney,  grown in the Living Field garden in 2015.  Bere in Shetland in the 1800s would have looked much like this – very different from today’s two-row types, but not quite a six-row barley.

lf_5_nnvcrnmll_hxtr_edaybr_gs_1100

But in the later 1800s, the people here probably grew mainly oat, as they did all over Scotland. But which oat – a landrace of the nutritious common oat Avena sativa or one of the black oat Avena strigosa?  Those concerned with the industrial archaeology of the late 1800s rarely noted the crops.

Easier than a saddle quern

The mills were reported by Goudie to grind a bushel an hour. Depending on conversion factors, a bushel (volume) is equal to about 22 kg of bere – which is equivalent to about 15 kitchen-sized bags of flour or meal, though the actual yield of pure meal would be less because of all the chaff (husks, awns) that would have to be be discarded. So not a bad yield for an hour’s work!

lf_5_innvcrnmll_hxtr_grzngshp_gs_1100

Horizontal mills in history

Horizontal water mills had been in use for many hundreds of years when Goudie wrote his account. Both Goudy (1885-86) and Wilson (1960) point to the almost global occurrence of these machines, stretching from eastern Europe and Asia to Shetland and the Faroe Islands. Wilson illustrates characteristic types of mill wheel – Shetland, Irish, Alpine, Israel, Balkan – the design transferred in antiquity across the land masses of Europe and Asia, evidence of the connectedness of the northern islands to the wider world.

So how and when did they get to Shetland? These authors note that despite the similarity between mills in Shetland, the Faroe Islands and Norway, suggesting a common ancestry (9th C?), there is no evidence to confirm the direction of travel. Goudie also points to similar constructions in eastern Europe and Asia, and concludes:

“Almost obliterated as it is elsewhere, it is here still to be found in extraordinary numbers” and “… almost in Shetland only, that we find it in active operation …”.

One factor that hastened the loss of these mills was the (not untypical) action of a landowner, who constructed his own big mill, and then dissuaded families to abandon their small enterprises and pay for the use of his.

Certainly, the mills work no longer to grind meal, except as archaeological curiosities. The last one at Dounby in Orkney was taken over by The Office of Works in 1932.

But what a location! Imagine harvesting and milling bere or oat here on a fine day: sheep on coastal grazing, the Island of Papa Stour over the Bay and Vinland over an unbroken stretch of ocean to the west.

lf_5_innvcrnmll_hxtrvw_gs_1100

Sources, references

Main sources are Goudie and Wilson – both give diagrams of the mechanism

Goudie, Gilbert. 1885-1886. On the horizontal water mills of Shetland. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 20, 257-97. Available online via the Archaeology Data Service: http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/psas/volumes.cfm then click on Volume 20 and scroll down to a PDF of the article.

Wilson, Paul N. 1960. Watermills with horizontal wheel. Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (London). Titus Wilson & Son ltd, Kendal. Available online: try http://www.fastonline.org/CD3WD_40/JF/430/22-526.pdf

lf_5_hxtr_thrftclffs_gk_550Further diagrams and general information

Cruden SH. 1948. The horizontal water-mill at Dounby, on the mainland of Orkney. Search: Archaeology Data Service / Archives (shows photograph of the Huxter Mills).

http://sihs.co.uk/features-waterwheel.htm

https://canmore.org.uk/site/69376/huxter-norse-mill

Another mill of similar type at Eshaness
http://www.heard.shetland.co.uk/Projects/Project8.htm

Fenton A. 1978. The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland. New edition 1997.

Article and images, taken 26 June 2016: Squire / Living Field; except where stated by gk images.

[Last update 15 July 2016]

Landrace 1 – bere

Barley Hordeum vulgare has been grown here as a crop for many thousands of years. Some of the earliest charred remains of seed found in neolithic settlements were of barley.  It has not always been the most widely grown corn – oat had that status a century ago – but now barley covers more acres than wheat and much more than oat, its main products whisky and animal food.

Most modern varieties of barley are supplied by seed merchants. The seed for each variety is grown and bulked under controlled conditions that minimise impurity and keep the line genetically uniform, so each has a particular ‘look’ and growth characteristics and suitability for different uses. At one time however, all our crops were maintained as landraces, as seed from one harvest saved for the next. (See What are landraces?) Few landraces remain and one of those is bere barley.

Bere canopy, image modified to show structure, green bere crop in Orkney and seascapes (KM and GR Squire)
Bere canopy, image modified to show structure, green bere crop in Orkney and Orkney seascapes (KM and GR Squire)

Where did bere come from?

Like all our corn, or cereal, crops, barley started life in the eastern Mediterranean or west Asia when crops were domesticated from wild grasses around 10,000 years ago. From there it came west and north reaching the croplands around 5000 years ago, well after the ice retreated.  The earlier Living Field web site had the following paragraph –

“Imagine the small bags of seed, carried overland step by step, century upon century, from its site of domestication to the east of what is now Europe, and then by small boats to Iberia, then Brittany and north to the stone age settlements of the north-east Atlantic coasts, or else by other routes through central Europe and across the North Sea. How many times must those bags have perished and how many times must the boatman have reached dry land to see the seed rotted and the crops fail. And yet, 5000 years or more later, we still have a landrace of barley, known as bere (sounding in the north more like bear than beer) and still grown for special food and drink.”

When you see or experience the seas around Orkney (images above) and the other islands, you wonder how our early settlers managed to get here carrying bags of grain in their small boats.

Does any of that ancient barley remain?

Is there a continuous ‘bere line’ from the stone age? There can be no certainty. Landraces can be erased by natural calamities, or by peoples moving or changing their way of life. When a seed stock was lost, it might have taken centuries for new seed to be brought in. Later, waves of migrants from south and east would have brought their own seed with them.  Where the new seed came from  is not clear.  What we can say is that the bere still grown today is very different from modern varieties.

In Lawson & Son’s catalogue of 1852, bere or rough barley, was listed among the four-row barleys. Most of the barleys at that time were two-row.  The number of rows refers to the alignment of grain on the ear, obvious when you see it in two- and six-row types.

The four-row types, as Lawson and Son suggest, are probably better classified as structural variants of the six-row types. But the four-rows look different from the six-rows, so on the Living Field site, we will continue to call bere four-row. In the rough and tumble of subsistence agriculture over the millennia, the bere landrace, maintained as harvested seed saved from year to year, must have contained at various times, as well as the four-row, two- and six-row types within it.  Purity is not a feature of landraces.

Bere has now almost disappeared except in some remote corners and most commercial fields you will see are two-row. Yet bere has great significance as a traditional crop, a true heritage and a possible source of genetic material for future crops.

Barony Mills, Birsay Orkney, showing interior, old grinding wheel, tackle, water wheel with new wooden paddles (Squire)

Barony Mills, Birsay Orkney, showing interior, old grinding wheel, tackle, water wheel with new wooden paddles, 2011 (Squire)

The Orkney bere

A landrace of barley is still grown and used in a few places, notably in Orkney, where fields are gown each year to supply grain to the Barony Mills, near Birsay (images above). When the grain starts to fill and ripen, it has strong, characteristic red bands on the outer husk of the grain (images below) and long, tough awns.

As in most barleys, the protective coating around the grain does not fall off after harvest (as it does in modern wheat, for example), so the husks and awns have to be removed to get the bere meal (flour).  Once, bere grain and other corn was ground between stones, then in stone saddle querns and later by hand-turned stone wheels, one on top of the other, and then by great mechanised grindstones powered by wind or water.

The Barony Mills in Orkney grind local bere grain into flour by great water-powered wheels. The Mills sell bere meal to the public (web link below). Bere grain is also sold to a few distilleries to add that something to the malt whiskey.

Barony Mills is an excellent place  – an essential visit for anyone interested in rare grain and flour and living industrial heritage; and if it’s spring or summer, ask for directions to the bere fields.

The Living Field’s bere crops

The garden has grown bere for several years. The crop is grown in the Garden as a landrace – seed is harvested, saved over the winter and sown the next spring.

The bere seed germinates quickly, after just a few days, and once outside is vigorous in its vegetative phase and then flowers and seeds profusely. As a seed stock it does not give any problems and requires no special treatment. As with all seed, it has to be kept dry between harvest and the next sowing.

The red striping on the outer husk, or covering of the grain, is visible upper right and lower left below. The seeding ‘ears’ tend to bend and together the awns form an asymmetrical fan, visible in the image at the top of the page and in the one upper left below.

Bere grown in the Living Field Garden and a sample of grain lower right (Living Field collection).
Bere grown in the Living Field Garden and a sample of grain lower right (Living Field collection).

Each year, a few two-row plants emerge in the bere. They could be impurities introduced from commercial varieties grown in the garden? We take them out to preserve the general bere character.

Growing bere and other landraces in the Garden has been  rewarding for the team and brought great interest among visitors. We start it off in April, it begins to flower in early June and is ready for harvest usually in August. It does not seem to have changed much in the last 180 years: Lawson and Son, in their experimental trials of 1835, record they sowed it on 7 April and it matured on 12 August after 127 days.

References, sources

The Living Field’s original bere seed was given to us by the Agronomy Unit at Orkney College. For which, many thanks. Barony Mills, Birsay, Orkney, also gave us a couple of bags of grain. We have bought flour from them for demonstrations at various open days. Thanks to miller Rae Philips for advice.

Gladys Wright, Linda Ford and Jackie Thompson grow the bere crops and maintain the seed stocks for the Living Field garden. Text and images by Geoff Squire (unless stated).

Sources and references

Books

Dickson C, Dickson J. 2000. Plants and people in ancient Scotland. Tempus Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire.

Fenton A (ed). 2007. The food of the Scots. Volume 5 in A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology. Publisher: John Donald. (Describes the many uses of bere meal).

Fenton A (ed). 2011. Farming and the land. Volume 2 in A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology. Publisher: John Donald. (Many references to growing bere.)

Lawson P and Son. 1852. Synopsis of the Vegetable Products of Scotland. Edinburgh: Private Press of Peter Lawson and Son.

Bere on the Living Field web site

The bere line – rhymes with hairline – random notes on the origin and nature of bere, including Thorburn’s Diagrams – acreage and yield or bere and barley in the mid-1800s, and Bere, bear, bair, beir, bygg – names for bere in Old Scots, (also links to article with old names and for other cereals).

What are landraces? – introduction to crop landraces.

Web links

Barony Mills, Orkney: http://www.birsay.org.uk/baronymill.htm.

Argo’s Bakery, Stromness: http://www.argosbakery.co.uk

And see the page on miller Rae Phillips at Slow Food UK: http://www.slowfood.org.uk/ff-producers/producer-rae-phillips-barony-mills-beremeal/

Orkney College, Agronomy Institute: http://www.agronomy.uhi.ac.uk

SASA Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (previously Scottish Agricultural Science Agency or ‘East Craigs’): Scottish landraces and traditional varieties 

Botanical name

The botanical or latin name Hordeum vulgare is used on this web site to cover all types of two-, four- and six-row cultivated barley. Some taxonomies separate the two- and six-row as different species, but where does that leave the four-row? Others suggest they are are better classed as sub-species of Hordeum vulgare. 

Author/contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

[Last update 13 September 2016]