Shortly, we’ll be organising our second annual Weir-d Walk at Barry Mill. Back by popular demand, last year’s walk saw our intrepid Weir-d Walkers complete the circuit of the Mill Den, before writing some fabulous stories based around the tales they heard en route!
The purpose of the walk was to explore how our ancestors mapped out the land around them in terms of stories and poems, and to find out if we could, individually, create some new work from these traditional forms and ideas. The den at Barry Mill has something for everyone; running water, woodland, steep banks and the beautiful mill pond. Untamed yet strangely alluring, it’s easy to see how the man-shaped tree, the unfathomable water, the misshapen rock have been used as starting points for some of our best-loved folktales.
Over-use of digital technology is a cause for concern, especially when children prefer the screen to the great outdoors. Our Weir-d Walk is the perfect way for the whole family to re-connect with the landscape. Leave your phones at home and bring a picnic and a pencil. Let’s get creative and allow our imaginations to run wild for an hour or two!
We’re looking at Sunday, June 11th for the next walk, so keep a space in your diaries. More details will be available very soon – check the Friends of Barry Mill Facebook page and the NTS webpage. Here are some images of last year’s walk.
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
No poetry this week, but I’ll begin with a few timely lyrics from Chris Rea:
Look deep into the April face /A change is clearly taking place/ Looking for the summer.The eyes take on a certain gaze/ And leave behind the springtime days/ Go looking for the summer.
April is a big month for Barry Mill, as the Easter Duck Races herald the start of another busy summer of welcoming visitors to the property. For me, it’s also an opportunity to look back and reflect on the progress of my writing residency at the Mill.
This time last year, I was anxiously waiting to hear if my application for Creative Scotland funding had been approved. Knowing the field is intensely competitive, it was a nail-biting few weeks, even though I’d done my homework, and the National Trust for Scotland was on board with my proposal. The Creative Scotland selection process is rigorous, with your application discussed at length by a panel of experts in your field. Even though my debut novel, Beneath the Skin, had been accepted for publication at this point, I still wasn’t convinced I would be taken seriously.
Finally, I received the email I’d been haunting my inbox for: ‘We are delighted to inform you…’ As soon as that word ‘delighted’ popped up, I began to breathe again. I think it was a full twenty minutes before I could read the rest of the letter!
So what has this funding meant for me?
First of all, it’s bought me time. As many of you will know, I worked for many years as a cleaner in my local Co-op, in order to fund myself through an undergraduate degree, and then the Mlitt in Writing Practice and Study at Dundee University. As many writers will know, the effort of being creative while working in mainstream employment can be stressful and draining. So, clocking into the Co-op at 6 a.m. every morning (which is my most creative period) was always going to be a problem. Creative Scotland agreed to fund a twelve-month residency at NTS Barry Mill, which meant that I would have the great luxury of time to write my second novel (which takes as its setting an old watermill!).
And what has it meant for the mill?
The residency has included provision for a series of workshops, in which I have been able to observe how people react to and interact with the mill. One of the most popular events was The Weir-d Walk, when I led a gang of willing ‘victims’ through the mill den to the weir. We encountered a lot of folklore on the way, but I’ll tell you more about that next week!
Working in partnership with the National Trust for Scotland has opened up another strand of enquiry for me. How can we engage people with their heritage through the arts? As the provider of food, the mill has always been at the heart of the community. Can it now move forward with a new identity, as the custodian of local culture? It is the perfect venue for storytelling, exhibitions and readings.
I also set out to research and document some of the many ballads, stories and poems associated with Mill life, and this has been an absolute joy. Regular followers of this blog will have shared some of my ‘finds’, and if you haven’t already, do scroll through the posts! Still, I feel that I’ve only uncovered the tip of a very large iceberg. This is the exciting part of Creative Scotland’s generosity – I have met so many interesting and helpful artists and creative professionals this year, and have gathered so much material. I am really looking forward to some collaborative projects in the future, and a chance to shape my thoughts about mill life and lore into some kind of non-fiction miscellany. Mill Life and Lore? There’s a book title already!
And the all-important second novel?
The Bone Harp, my second book, was completed in January, and has been met with great approval by my agent, Jenny Brown, and my publisher, Polygon. An announcement is imminent- watch this space!
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.
Last week I took a little field trip to another mill, the Verdant Works. There, I met with Erin Farley, who is working on an AHRC-funded project about poetry, song and community in Victorian Dundee. As part of Dundee Women’s Festival,Erin took a small group of us on a fascinating ‘Women’s Words Walk’ around the mill museum. This gave us an excellent opportunity to experience life in the city through the words of the women who lived, loved and worked there.
Women of Dundee, Verdant Works
Erin reading before a hand loom
Both my mother and my grandmother were weavers, so I have first- hand experience of the strength and independent spirit of Dundee women, but I had no idea that so many of them put their thoughts into the written word. Many of the poems Erin referenced tackle injustice and poor working conditions; some are very poignant, others express a sense of joie de vive.
If you would like to know more, please do click HERE to visit Erin’s excellent blog, In Ma Fair Toon, which forms part of her research for a Collaborative Doctoral Award between the University of Strathclyde and Dundee Central Library’s Local History centre. Her work explores how people wrote, performed and listened to poetry and songs in 19th century Dundee, and how their creativity shaped and was shaped by a sense of place.
I got the chance to chat with Erin over a coffee after the tour, and we spent a brilliant hour comparing mills! Although the Verdant Works and Barry Mill may seem worlds apart, the humble meal mill bridges the gap between the traditional agrarian economy of Scotland and the Industrial Revolution, which brought such seismic change to Dundee.
The waterwheel was the original driver for the early textile factories in many places, such as the cotton mill of Lancashire, but in Dundee the Scouring Burn and the Dens Burn did not have enough ‘fall’ to allow for a wheel. However, the streams were used to feed the great steam engines which powered the machinery. The city’s industrial heritage can be mapped out along the banks of the rivers and burns of the area. In our digital world, it’s easy to underestimate the importance of water, but in the steam age, no water meant total shutdown.
As Erin comments in her blog, rivers don’t just disappear, and it was amazing to see the Scouring Burn still visible beneath the Verdant Works complex. A different kind of mill lade for me! Here is a wee rhyme that celebrates the power of the local burns:
The Scouring Burn and Dens Burn
How many a wheel do they turn?
Now I do believe that they Turn
twice the number of the Tay.
The Scouring Burn
The Mill Lade
Next week I’ll be looking at more Mill Women. How does the Victorian poetry of the watermill reflect women’s lives and identities?
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.