A chance find in the mill archive sent me on a mission to Craigmill Den this week. I was looking for inspiration for this year’s Weir-d Walk – and I promise to tell you more about it next time- but first, a wee digression.
This old cutting from The Courier (date unknown) shows Panbride Mill, which sat at the head of Craigmill Den in times gone by. This photograph was taken before the start of WWI in 1914, and according to the article, the building had fallen into disuse at that point.
I headed up there recently to see if I could find this same view. As you can see from this shot, the cottage on the left survives, but the mill has not.
Like the burn at Barry, this stretch of water (originating in Monikie) served not only this mill, but the Panbride Bleachfields (now David Murray Transport) further downstream. Locally-produced linen was bleached here. The Weir, channels, sluices and lades which fed the pond in the grounds of Panbride House can still be found in Craigmill Den. What I find fascinating is that the sea originally came up much higher, and the mouth of the Craigmill Burn was wider, and used as a harbour for Roman ships bringing supplies to local garrisons. The remains of a Roman camp have been found in the fields to the east of the burn.
The small mill in the photograph would have been a corn mill, like Barry. There must have been a dam, perhaps on the high ground at the back of the cottage, with enough of a fall to power the wheel. There’s a deep dip in the ground where the wheel channel must have been situated, but no trace remains of the tail race, where the water would have rejoined the burn. I suspect improvements to the footpath have altered the location considerably.
I was determined not to leave without finding some evidence of the old place, and I did indeed discover a pile of moss-covered stones between the trees.
It’s so sad when our heritage, however humble, however redundant, ends up as a pile of rubble. If only stones could talk! Are the old millstones buried here somewhere? I suppose we’ll never know, but I can’t help thinking we have lost something precious. Certainly, anyone who has heard the rumble of the machinery at Barry Mill, and the splash of the waterwheel, will agree with me.
All the more reason for me to keep writing about it! I’ve uncovered a lot of fascinating folklore and facts over the last year, and I’m keen to include them all in a new non-fiction book. If anyone has anything they’d like to share, whether it’s family history or interesting stories connected with the local landscape, I’d love to hear from you!
You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
My recent visit to the Verdant Works gave me the perfect excuse to compare mill poetry with Erin Farley, who is currently researching the subject in relation to Dundee’s textile industry. You can check out her amazing blog here. I suppose a part of me assumed that the long hours and poor conditions of factory work would leave little time or energy for creative pursuits, so it was a bit of a revelation to discover that many female jute workers not only penned poems about their lives, loves and concerns, but also managed to get them published in magazines. Lanarkshire-born Ellen Johnston, began working as a weaver at the age of eleven, and published a volume of verse in 1867.
By comparison, the female voice in the literature of the rural water mill is mainly silent. Our most familiar mill poems are male-authored, such as the nostalgic ‘Keepsake Mill’, by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Walter De La Mare’s quirky Five Eyes, about mill cats. One exception is Victorian poet and composer of hymns, Sarah Doudney. Her poem ‘The Lesson of the Watermill’ is a rather sentimental call for her readers to live an upright life and look to the future rather then the past:
Listen to the water mill,
Through the livelong day;
How the clicking of the wheel
Wears the hours away.
Languidly the autumn wind
Stirs the withered leaves;
On the field the reapers sing,
Binding up the sheaves;
And a proverb haunts my mind,
And as a spell is cast,
” The mill will never grind
With the water that has passed. ”
While the Miller is celebrated in country ballad form as a bawdy rogue, his female customers tend to get a bit of a raw deal. Much ribald wordplay around the notion of ‘grinding the corn’ has led to the figure of the female farm servant being lampooned as either an innocent or a temptress. Below is part of a traditional song which tells the consequences of an ill-advised liaison between ‘the Miller and the Maid’. The girl is described as ‘wanton’ and seduces the Miller in order to evade the ‘multure’ or milling fee.
‘When forty weeks had passed and gaen,
Hech hey sae wanton
When forty weeks had passed and gaen,
Hech hey sae wanton she
This lassie had a braw lad bairn,
because she’d got her corn grund,
Because she’d got her corn grund,
meal and multure free.
Many versions of this narrative were printed on broadsides, and sold on the street for a penny. Such scurrilous stuff was hugely popular, but no doubt provided an accurate reflection of how women were viewed in the male-dominated world of the corn mill. In my recent interview with former miller and musician Alex Green, we can see that these social attitudes and gender roles were to continue for many decades. Women had a limited presence in the meal mill, and certainly no influence. It is interesting to contrast these literary stereotypes with the women of the pre-industrial era. The notion of the matriarch grinding the family corn at the quern is an empowering one, and the spirituality of the charms and rhymesassociated with the practice reflect this power.
It’s not all doom and gloom for the rural woman, however. Some ballads (although not many) show that girls of a certain class (probably the daughters of farmers, blacksmiths etc) did have a certain amount of freedom in choosing a husband. The Miller, with his abundance of corn and land, was considered quite a catch, as you can see from the following verse:
In my previous post, we looked at the poetry of jute mill women in Dundee, and next time we’ll see how the poetry and song of the corn mill measures up, but first, a slight diversion!
A recent short break to Ireland piqued my curiosity about the Irish corn mill, so I set about interviewing my sons’ Cork-born Granny, Joan Ireland. What does she remember about the mills of her childhood?
Joan was born in a cottage at Clonbanin Cross, Co.Cork, a place which has entered the history books as the scene of a shoot-out between the volunteers of the Irish Republican Army and British soldiers from the East Lancashire Regiment. Brigadier- General Hanway Robert Cumming was killed in the skirmish, which happened on March 5th, 1921, just ten years before Joan was born. Her grandmother, who witnessed the ambush, liked to recount the story with a few extra details which never made it to the history books. When a wounded volunteer burst into their kitchen, the grandmother hid him in the cupboard under the stairs and pulled her chair across the door. When the authorities came looking for him, all they found was the old lady, calmly knitting… Who knows what happened to the fugitive, but such a fascinating story, and proof that family history is a fragile thing. Interview your own grandparents without delay- find out how they felt about the events of their day. It may well be a voyage of discovery!
I asked Joan what she remembered about the mills of her youth. She grew up in an all-female household: Granny, Mum and four sisters. With only her mother in work, money was scarce. They kept hens and grew vegetables, but milk and corn had to be purchased from the nearest farm. I can imagine the little girls hauling buckets of milk along the boreen. Accidental spillages were rectified with water from the well- they prayed that no-one would notice!
It was the girls’ job to take the corn to the mill (possibly on the handlebars of the bike) and return with a sack of flour. The miller would sift the flour for them, so they took it home in two parts: the soft white product for baking and a pail of gritty husks for the hens. Once home, the flour would be stored in an enamel bin, while the sacks were washed, bleached and hung over the hedge to dry. They would then be carefully cut open and sewn into bedsheets and pillowcases. Nothing was ever wasted.
I can’t find any evidence of the mill near Clonbanin, but below is a replica of a saddle quern, from the prehistoric reconstruction at Craggaunowen, and a photograph of Bruree Mill, Co. Limerick, which I used to pass daily on my way to work.
In a (slightly belated) celebration of International Women’s Day, here is an obscure little folk tale which you may recognise! It involves a young girl, a big bad wolf and, of course, a mill.
In this story, Red Riding Hood rather typically doesn’t have a name. She is referred to only as the ‘melder-sifter’, which I’ll come to in a moment. The wolf is big, but perhaps not as bad as we’re often led to believe, and I’m afraid he doesn’t get a fair trial
A young servant girl was tasked with sifting a melder of corn at the Mill of Glascorrie, near Comrie. In the days before the role of ‘miller’ became a recognised trade, it was up to the farm servants to grind their own corn, so our ‘melder-sifter’s’ shift was long, hard and dusty. No doubt she emerged from the mill exhausted, still with a sack of meal to lug to the farm.
The day being fine and warm, she lay down on a grassy bank at the side of the road and immediately fell asleep. When she awoke, she was conscious of a heavy weight by her side, and heavy breathing in her ear! There beside her, snoring softly, was a huge shaggy wolf…
The girl tried to jump up, but discovered herself trapped. The wolf was lying on her cloak. She had no option but to untie her cloak and leave it to the wolf. She fled for home, and didn’t stop until she was safely inside her own cottage.
The next day, the villagers came upon shreds of the cloak (perhaps it was red) all along the road. There were bits of it in the hedgerow, and scraps fluttering in the trees. Convinced that the little melder-sifter had met a similar fate, the men of the village set about hunting down the wolf, which they believed to be responsible too for the slaughter of their livestock.
The wolf was eventually pursued into the hills and slain by one Robertson of Nathro, and in the tradition of such tales, he and the little melder-sifter were duly married.
If folktales have a message, I’ll leave you to figure that one out!
Interestingly, many of the placenames in Forfarshire (the old lieutenancy district of Tayside and Angus) contain the word ‘wolf’: Wolf Hill, Wolf Burn, Wolf Craig and so on. Geography and folklore reminds us of a time when the landscape was a dark and dangerous place.
This week Carnoustie residents have been enjoying a ‘behind the scenes’ look at the site of the Late Bronze Age settlement recently discovered in the town. Click here for the full story
Alan Hunter Blair, project officer for GUARD Archaeology, which excavated the dig site on behalf of Angus Council, describes the precious artifacts uncovered here as ‘the find of a lifetime.’ The finds include a sword still in its wood and animal skin scabbard, and a spearhead decorated with gold. The excavation also revealed the largest Neolithic hall so far found in Scotland, dating from about 4000 BC.
In milling terms, by far the most interesting ‘treasure’ has to be the discovery of rubbing or quern stones on the site. We’ve always been excited about the idea that a water mill has existed here at Barry since at least the sixteenth century (and probably as far back as 1240), but here is proof that our Neolithic ancestors were grinding corn just a few miles down the road over 3000 years ago!
With all this talk of buried treasure, it seems like a good time for a bit of folklore!
Like most stones, broken millstones (and querns, which were deliberately smashed by the authorities to compel people to use the mill) have been reappropriated and used in all manner of ways. Millstone segments offer a flat, dressed surface which can have many practical applications, but they also seem to retain a certain supernatural provenance! They show up in stories as well-covers, hearthstones and so on- often portrayed as portals to another world.
The following tale comes from Airlie, in Angus. A certain householder was baffled when the oatcakes she baked on her ‘new’ hearthstone kept disappearing. Time after time she would return to the kitchen to find the hearthstone empty, yet not a soul around. When no logical explanation could be found for the thefts, the Airlie house was thought to be haunted by some devilish (and oatcake-loving) sprite and was promptly demolished. As the last of the walls toppled, the hearthstone moved and a shocking discovery was made. Underneath it lay a mysterious subterranean dwelling. In similar stories, a fairy hand is spotted rising from the hole to snaffle the bannocks. A clear case of one woman’s floor being a fairy’s ceiling!
No doubt such narratives helped to make sense of the landscape; those ancient Pictish souterrains and barrows which must have appeared so alien and magical to rural folk. As the earth at Balmachie gives up its secrets at last, we all become a little more knowledgeable about the lives of our ancestors. We no longer need to make up stories to explain the things we don’t understand, but just as the sword, the spear and the quernstones are held in trust for future generations, so too must we take steps to preserve our equally precious folklore and traditional stories, so thank you for reading the Barry Mill Blog!
Next time, with Pancake Day on the horizon, I’ll be looking at the lost Scottish festival of Fester E’en.
Fearfu’ soughs the boortree bank,
The rifted wood roars wild and drearie,
Loud the iron yett does clank,
And the cry o’ howlets makes me eerie.
Some evocative lyrics there from the traditional Scots ballad ‘Are ye sleepin’, Maggie?’ (Hear the Dougie Maclean version here) For me this is the perfect storm (forgive the pun) of language, rhythm and mood. The old Scots words add eloquence and mystery: boortree; the bower-tree or elm; yett, a gate and, the subject of this week’s post, the howlet or owl.
Country folk have always taken great pains not to get on the wrong side of this magical bird. Last week, I shared with you the story of an irate miller who marched his young son back to the howlet’s nest to replace some stolen eggs.
The term howlet, houlet, hoolit or houlet appears in Scots literature from the earliest times. The Scots Language Centre cites ‘The Buke of the Howlat’, written by Sir Richard Holland in the middle of the fifteenth century, as one of the earlier poems referencing the owl. Click hereto learn more. The houlet, unhappy with his appearance is given a feather by all the other birds so that he is “Flour of all fowlis throw fedderis so fair”, but he gets “So pompos, impertinat and reprovable” that the birds strip him again. An entry in the Register of the Privy Council (1663) reveals the word being used as an insult: “Calling her ill-faced houlett, lyk that catt, thy sister”. In his Historie of Scotland (1596) James Dalrymple compares ‘traytouris’, or traitors, to ‘howlets’. A more humorous mention comes from this description in the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch (1891) of ‘a douce lad wi’ a daylicht face, they say, an’ nane o’ the hoolit aboot him”.
The name itself suggests a howl, evoking that eldritch cry we’re all familiar with. Imagine a time before electric light, a dark night and those eerie white wings floating above a moonlit mill. Little wonder that the bird features prominently in the myths and legends of most cultures. Owls were revered as symbols of wisdom, and dreaded as harbingers of doom. Definitely a creature to stay on the right side of!
The following lines by Sir Walter Scott reveal the sort of superstitious dread associated with the bird.
Birds of omen dark and foul, Night-crow, raven, bat, and owl, Leave the sick man to his dream — All night long he heard your scream.
The Gaelic word for owl is coilleach-oidhche, meaning ‘night-cockerel’. Despite this rather masculine label, the bird was associated with the Cailleach, the Crone aspect of the Celtic Goddess. The Cailleach was often represented by a blue-faced hag-figure, who stalked the land in winter, freezing the ground with her staff. In previous posts, we’ve seen how country folk honoured the Cailleach by burning the Yule Log. In a similar way, farm folk would make a corn dolly from the final sheaf of the harvest. The last farmer in the neighbourhood to finish his harvest was responsible for the safekeeping of the corn dolly, which was believed to harbour the Goddess spirit. Giving hospitality to the Crone in this way throughout the dark months would ensure the return of the light in Spring.
There is a very fine line between the light and the dark. Yule logs, corn dollies, hags and howlets were important touchstones in the lives of our rural ancestors. Next time you see a white shape soaring over Barry Mill on your evening walk, maybe wish it a good night and move swiftly on!
I haven’t yet found a poem with an owl and a cornmill, but The Owl by Tennyson is very close! I’ll leave you with a few lines:
When cats run home and light is come,
And dew is cold upon the ground,
And the far-off stream is dumb,
And the whirring sail goes round,
And the whirring sail goes round;
Alone and warming his five wits,
The white owl in the belfry sits.
Since my residency began in May, it’s been my privilege to meet some fascinating people, such as poet Petra Vergunst and artist Sheila Macfarlane. The experience has deepened my understanding of community and landscape, and helped shape my own creative practice. This week we have another name to add to that ever-growing list!
I’m extremely grateful to Mr Alex Green, of Foresterhill Mill, Oldmeldrum, for arranging a meeting with his father, Alex Green,senior, a mine of information on milling, rural life and traditional music, and a brilliant storyteller to boot! Expect to hear more from these two gentlemen in the coming weeks, but for now, let’s take a look at mill life through the eyes of Alex senior.
Alex Green is an Aberdeenshire man, and one of Scotland’s foremost tin whistle players. His father milled at Foresterhill Mill, Oldmeldrum, and then at Mill of Minnes, Udny. I think it’s fair to say that his childhood memories of growing up in a mill begin on a somewhat painful note. At the age of five, Alex lost two fingers in the mill machinery and was in hospital for three weeks. This prevented him taking music lessons, but determined to keep up with his musical family, he taught himself to play the tin whistle, and I suspect the missing digits became something of a legend!
Having just finished my second novel, in which my fictional miller is a bit of a devilish character, I was keen to learn how real-life millers fitted into the social structure between the wars. As the most educated man in town (with the exception of the school master, and the minister), the miller was the go-to person for sorting out village affairs. Along with the blacksmith, he was certainly the most influential person in daily life. With oats serving as the currency of the day (oats were legal tender), the miller could be considered a banker of sorts, and the mill a bonded warehouse. He also enjoyed a special connection with his landlord, the Laird, a relationship he was keen to keep sweet!
Alex gives a brilliant account of the ‘forelock-tugging’ that went on in those depression years. Nothing was too good for the Laird, to the extent that Alex’s father would refuse to place the Laird’s meal in a common jute sack, but instead would raid his wife’s linen press for white pillowcases. The Laird’s oatmeal was always delivered in clean white cotton!
The children of the mill, the smithy and the farm were the lucky ones. Alex remembers being sent to school in clean clothes, and wondering why so many of the other children would appear day after day in the same ragged things. It was only later that he realised they owned only one set of clothes. Having a second shirt and being able to change, was the hallmark of a ‘comfortable’ lifestyle. The mill family, with enough land for a cow, pigs and hens, was self-sufficient. They had dairy products, vegetables, corn and fruit, as well as trout and wildfowl.
Whisky and beer were too expensive, but the miller would make a spirit from fermented sowens, the‘mealy sids’, or husks. Sowens was generally made into a sort of porridge or brose, but the thin, fermented sowens was very potent and kept in the mill for a little tipple!
The employment term for labourers and farm servants traditionally began on Martinmas,November 28th. Fairs were held in most towns a few weeks prior to this, and the advent of the railways meant it became easier for people to travel outwith their own neighbourhood in search of work. The farmer or his grieve (farm manager) would approach a likely-looking man and inquire if he was ‘tae fee the day?’ If the reply was yes, a wage would be agreed, the farmer would proffer a shilling or two, referred to as ‘arles’, to bind the bargain. The men would then adjourn to a nearby public house, where the farmer would stand the man a dram. Such agreements, though purely verbal, were legally binding.
In practice, however, farm servants were invariably cheated out of monies due. Supplying them with ‘perks’ or foodstuffs in kind was one thing, but neither farmers nor millers were keen to part with cash! This goes some way to explaining our curious ‘writing on the walls’ here at Barry.
Most farm servants were illiterate and couldn’t read a contract, even if one was offered. They certainly wouldn’t have kept diaries, so names and dates were simply written down in the workplace on a convenient surface. An instant employment record, and a reminder of names, start dates and so on, when it came to wages. Millwrights and other visiting workmen would do the same thing, so there could be no argument over the bill, or whether the job had been completed. Significant events (such as the installation of the elevator at Barry) were also jotted down. The dates of severe flooding, bad storms and deep snow can all be found in other mills.
Alex and I never did get round to chatting about music, ballads and folklore, but I’m sure we will. I’ll leave you with some lovely little anecdotes.
The first one concerns Blind Dan, a previous incumbent of the Mill of Minnes. He may have been blind, but he managed to mill as competently as anyone else by having everything in a certain place. Woe betide anyone who moved any of his tools etc! The downside was that the rats knew he was blind and stopped hiding. Visitors were astonished to see them all sitting up on the sacks in broad daylight as large as life!
We did touch briefly on mill superstition. Alex’s brother returned home on one occasion with some eggs he’d taken from an owl’s nest. This was such bad luck, he was immediately marched back to the nest in the dead of night and forced to replace them! The owl is a big player in the world of Scottish folklore, so we might well return to the howlett next week!
For all you kelpie lovers out there…as mentioned previously, each stretch of water was believed to be inhabited by a kelpie, whose mission was to guard the mill from all misfortune. According to Alex, that particular gem is absolutely true!