Panbride Mill

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.


Craigmill Burn from the top of the weir


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.

A deep hollow covered in weeds
A single stone leads to a whole lot more!


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

An Irish Diversion

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! signpost

 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.



The Cry O’ Howlets

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 here to 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.

‘Sunset Song’, a celebration of the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon at Barry Mill, 2015

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.


Ghost Mill

In my previous post, I was discussing the sort of energetic footprint we leave behind, when we live/work/visit a specific setting. Animals slip so quietly through the world, betrayed only by the faintest of markers: scent, sound, tracks in the earth and so on. Happily for writers, humans are not so subtle!

As adults, our perception of place is invariably skewed by experience, memory and expectation. A setting cannot exist in isolation from its human inhabitants.

We are noisy, clumsy, territorial and aggressive and it’s easy to imagine a residual trail of such behavioural memories staining the fabric of a place. Or perhaps buildings, in the true Gothic sense, mirror our own thoughts, feelings and fears, reflecting them back at us, rather than recording them.

However we choose to interpret the dynamic between setting and character, the relationship is integral to any complex psychological drama.

I find poetry helps me to understand my own impressions of place. There’s something about the immediacy of  the form that allows me to distil my own feelings into the right words. In attempting to convey a sense of continuation, and the overlapping of layers of time, I came up with the following poem:

                                                                       Ghost Mill

The wheel turns.


Dust falls from every wormhole;

every sandstone pore. Spores slacken

with the thump and thrum;

the din of timber.

The mill exhales, expands,

loosening old lives

like buttons on a waistcoat.


The wheel turns.


Shapes shift in the dark;

sparks blue as eyes;

the scent of old smoke.

The re-formed flour ghosts

of old men settle

beneath the faint silver of

their names.


The wheel turns.


The damsel in the machinery,

skirt dappled with

pawprints, slack-jaws gossip

down through generations;

until the past

meshes with the present.


On and on.


And still…


the wheel turns.


Sandra L. Ireland, 2015





Living in Harmony with (our artistic) Nature

As Barry Mill enjoys a busy summer season, my thoughts are turning to my personal writing goals, and how I can integrate my creative needs with the busy, commercial life of the mill. Barry Mill’s tagline is ‘Living in Harmony With Nature’, and there’s a balance to be achieved between the wildness and serenity of the landscape and the summertime buzz of visitors and activity. So, in many ways, the property reflects this conflict between our outer, materialistic life and the inner, otherworld of the mind.

My challenge is to achieve this same sort of balance- interacting with visitors and workshop participants on site, while still responding to the mill as a source of  inspiration and discovery for the purposes of my own writing.

My workshops to date have been an important personal learning opportunity for me. With writing exercises and creative prompts based around the senses, I’ve been aiming to open up a conversation about our perception of the environment. I’ve observed first-hand the way in which children can fuse their imaginative and day-to-day experiences, while adults struggle to lay down their cares and responsibilities long enough to attain that necessary ‘creative headspace’. There is a point where we must clear the mind of clutter, to create a vacuum where ideas, images and direction can take root.

Concentration is the keyword here, but it must be concentration of a certain quality which, in a roundabout way, brings me to monks. I suspect that monks (and nuns) knew a thing or two about the practice of creative concentration.

This week, I’ve been looking at the link between the monks at Balmerino Abbey and Barry Mill. The Abbey was founded in the early 13th century, and the site of the present mill formed part of the Balmerino estate. Corn mills would have been established wherever there was a settlement, so although official documents date Barry Mill from 1539, we can assume that there’s been a mill here for almost 800 years. Of course, historically, and realistically, it is doubtful whether the monks would have visited the mill for any practical purpose (perhaps they looked in on their way to Arbroath) but I can’t shake off the feeling that there’s a timeless, meditative quality to be experienced in the mill den.

Poet Jane Hirshman, in her essay collection Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1997) describes the ‘wholeheartedness of concentration’ as a place where ‘world and self begin to cohere’, a ‘grace state’, where ‘time slows and extends’. Total absorption, then, in the creative task. I’m keen to explore this link between the landscape and its impact on creative concentration, but for now, I’ll finish with a timely and evocative quote from Robin Wall Kimmerer. This is from her book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.

‘It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness… I snapped them off where they hung in slender twosomes, bit into one, and tasted nothing but August, distilled into pure, crisp beaniness.’ pangur

Illustration from The White Cat and the Monk, a retelling of the 9th century ode ‘Pangur Ban’ by Jo Ellen Bogart and Sydney Smith

A Long Way Down…

Another community workshop, and another chance to observe how people react to Barry Mill! This time the session was aimed at families, and the challenge was to collaborate on a poem or short story inspired by the five senses, although colour and memory could just about be allowed to sneak in there as a means to an end.

Lots of (very enjoyable) planning went into this one. Not only did we have the sounds and textures of the mill to play around with, but I’d smuggled in some outside help. Can you describe the piquant aroma of nutmeg or the fresh burst of mint and rosemary? We had art materials too…and the children soon got busy ‘chalk-rubbing’ (similar to brass rubbing but messier) the various surfaces to be found in the mill: the iron mesh of the kiln floor, the ridges and whorls of the slate flagstones, the pitted grittiness of the millstones. Very soon the kids resembled our legendary miller in last week’s poem, pale little chalk dust and flour ghosts!

But words came too! Lots of exciting poems, haiku and amazingly inventive stories. If I’d learned anything from that first ‘Weir-d Walk’, it was to expect the unexpected. Children have a very different take on their surroundings at times. I’d brought along magnifying glasses and torches, intending them to get ‘up close and personal’ with the mill; the silvery pencil inscriptions to be found on every bit of timber; the glittering cobwebs at the kiln window. They did enjoy that, but what interested me the most was their enjoyment of danger! Their conversation revolved around the big vistas- the sheer drop from our fairytale bridge (there ARE trolls underneath, in case you were wondering), the sensation of being pushed by the wind at the top of the outside staircase…and what if you fell down through the kiln floor into the fire pit?

What if…? Isn’t that the question that provokes the very best writing?

Until next time…watch out for trolls…



get creative workshop kids up tree

Finella and Bella: a tale of two women

Recently I was asked to deliver a workshop at a local event on the topic of myth. Myth, folklore…it’s all grist to the writing mill! I chose for my theme a little known gem of a story from St Cyrus; the story of Finella, who killed a Scottish king. I’ve been greatly inspired by the woodcuts of acclaimed Scottish artist and printmaker Sheila MacFarlane- view them here, and learn more about Finella:!the-finella-prints/c1slr

I asked the participants to re-imagine the myth in their own way. In brief, the tale is as follows: Finella was a tenth century, Angus-born noblewoman, a huntress, whose only son was sentenced to death by King Kenneth II. In order to exact revenge, Finella lured the king to a remote cottage in Fettercairn, where she murdered him with a crossbow. On the run from the king’s men, she entered the woods near St Cyrus (now known as the Den of Finella) and jumped to her death from the top of the waterfall.

Rare orchids now bloom in that location.

Curiously, many of my workshop participants seized upon that almost inconsequential fact and wove their own symbolic and startling narratives. In one piece of work, the flowers become imbued with the spirit of Finella. In another, the blooms reach out across the centuries and connect generations.

I suppose we are continually creating our own mythologies from the remains of the past, both collectively and individually.

Although Finella’s name rarely appears in the chronicles of her time, closer to home, another young woman has left her mark for us to find. If you look closely enough in the Barry Mill basement, the name’ Bella’ can be seen inden of finellascribed on the timber in a neat, schoolgirl’s hand. Showing this to a group of writers is always a rewarding experience. At my recent Midsummer Magic writing workshop, one of the participants captured the ‘voice’ of Bella perfectly, imagining her as a turn-of-the century mill child.

I will be including Bella in my next novel The Bone Harp, where she will make her presence felt through that writing on the wall. I love the idea of the past colliding with the present, and the intriguing overlap of art and life.

Pictured: A terrifying leap- Finella’s waterfall.