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The Horizontal Mill at Kirtomy, Farr, Sutherlandshire
By Alex MacKay


"DAR ruigeas tu Suardli, cha'n fhada uat Ciurtami"—When you reach Swordly, you are within a short distance of Kirtomy, was an old and common saying in that part of the country, and though I first saw the light in the former, a good deal of my boyish days were passed in the latter, having near relatives therein. Besides, it had attractions for me that my native hamlet was devoid of. It had at that time a large herring-fishing industry, it had also its school and a mill, the former it is fortunate in having retained, but the latter—the last of its kind, probably, on the Mainland of Scotland—has been a ruin now nearly twenty years. True, Swordly also had its mill in remote times, but the "Fuathan" (Furies), having taken umbrage at its miller, razed it to the ground, and it was not rebuilt. At the time referred to, and for many subsequent years, Kirtomy supplied the most of the millstones used in the North, for the Cairnich, at its east side, produced the best grit I have seen anywhere, but the difficulty in transportation was such that for some time past the demand has lessened. My early schooldays were at Kirtomy, and as the schoolhouse, if I may use the term—being merely a sheep cote was near the mill, I, with the rest of my schoolmates, would be often in and about the mill. And, after attaining to manhood, I spent many an evening and not a few nights in it And now that it is a thing of the past, I shall, to the best of my recollection, endeavour to describe it.

The burn on which it was situate ran through the centre of the hamlet; the mill stood North and South, facing eastwards, length about 24 or 25 feet, breadth about one half inside measurement. A man of ordinary height could touch the roof while standing. It was covered with foid (divots) and thatched with straw, held together with ropes made of heather, stretched lengthwise and crosswise, and held down at the eaves with stones. The door, as already mentioned, was on the east side; there was also a small aperture or window on the same side, opposite the millstones, without board or glass, while an old sheep-skin bag filled with chaff served the purpose when necessary. The fire-place was on the ground against the North gable, and a small hole in the roof right above it for the smoke to find partial egress—merely partial, for a portion of it went out by the door. On the left, as one entered, and immediately behind the door—say two-thirds of the length of the mill—there was a raised platform about 18 inches, and covered with planks, on the centre of which were placed the millstone, no covering over them. This platform was termed "an leibhinn" for which I have no English word. The "treabhailt" (hopper), in that part of the countrytermed "sleaghag," was suspended by four pieces of rope tied to the couples. It would be about four feet high, square, about 27 inches at top, in shape like an ash-bucket, tapering to 6 inches or so where it entered the brag or boot, which discharged the grain into the suil or eye, the circular hole in the upper millstone. The bróg or boot was attached to the hopper with ropes, and on its side was fixed the "claban" (clapper), the noise of which would deave any one but a miller, as it played fast and loose with the millstone, and as the stone gained velocity, so, in proportion, did its noise grow; and latterly its different sounds became so familiar to my ear, that at some distance from the mill, I could judge whether it was grinding oats or bere, and could pretty accurately pronounce if either was being ground small or the reverse. Across the mouth of the brôg was a wooden pin to which a piece of small rope was attached, fixed to another vertical wooden pin that turned in a horizontal piece of wood fixed half way up on the same side of the hopper, that increased or diminished the quantity of the grain falling into the eye of the stone. A piece of board also slid down the front of the hopper, while the grain was being poured into it, to prevent it from scattering over the top of the millstone. Lifting the grain to be poured into the hopper, if in large quantity, required strength of arm as well as care, to avoid coming in contact with the upper millstone in its rotation. Close to the wall on the right, was a wooden erection for raising or lowering the upper millstone as occasion required it for rough or small grinding and termed, "an-t-each "-" the horse" a sacred animal; for woe betide the individual that dared to touch it in presence of the miller. It was worked by a wooden lever and wedges of the same material; connected with it was another piece of wood, down the side of the wall to the waterhouse, to which was attached the wooden beam at right angles which contained the socket of the water-wheel.

"Bodach-a-Mhuilinn," (The Old Man of the Mill), being the term by which the water-wheel was known, was to me when a boy a source of endless delight. Casting the recollection back through the long vista of half-a-century, I cannot recall any object or scene so often visited, and crouching on hands and knees till I would turn dizzy, watching its black body and darker wings, (sgiathan) struggling as it were to free themselves from the force of water that incessantly poured itself on them—the contrast between them and the myriads of tiny white drops and spray, dashing off and thrown against the side of the narrow house, and then thrown forward to the still more narrow passage through which it found egress, still white, swelling, bubbling and foaming, till, at some distance in front of the mill, it merged into its kindred element, there to assume its natural colour and easy flow. And at a later period, when on different occasions I had to go to the mill in the small hours of the morning, dark and calm, when all around was hushed. Still as the grave, the noise of the clapper, and the peculiar lower sound, that the blending of the waterwheel and the stone, in its evolution grinding the corn, gave forth was at, some distance away, something peculiarly weird, something that charmed me, but I digress.

Bodach a Mhuilinn was a round block of bog-fir, about twelve inches in diameter and about four feet in length, standing uptight right below the millstones. Through its centre passed the iron axle, square, and well wedged round about. This axle, termed an t-Iarunn Mór (the big iron) went up through the lower millstone, at which point it was rounded, and wedged with wood. On the top of it another cross piece of iron was slid, for which corresponding notches were cut in the upper millstone, into which this cross iron fitted. This was termed "Crascan an iarunn mhèr." About afoot from the lower end of the "Bodach" the wings extended —sixteen in number, each about two and a-half feet in length, and about nine inches in breadth, and one and a-fourth inches thick, and concave, to enable the water, as it struck the hollow face, to have more power. These all were well wedged where sunk into the "Bodach," or block. The water-house was square, and four wooden beams were laid along its sides. Across the centre of these was another beam, in the centre of which was a small hole, into which the pivot of the "Bodach" worked. The Amar, the narrow wooden trough that conveyed the water from the sluice to the mill, would be about 20 feet or so in length, 18 inches in breadth, and about a foot in height, and lay at an angle Of 45 degrees, so that the water struck the wings with a good deal of force. The above is all I can now recall regarding the rural structure which did service for hundreds of years, but now is numbered among the "things that were." And now a few words about its shelling and grinding.

Around the millstones, as already mentioned, there was no covering, so that the meal fell on the Leibhinn, or raised platform, right round about the lower millstone; but, when shelling, a "flatan" (mat), made of straw and woven with "fiasg "—a long, green fibre that grows on the sides of rivulets in heathery districts—was put round the stones, and met till within a foot; here the grain was all thrown out and lifted into Caisidh's, generally then carried out to "Cnoc-a-mhuilinn" (the mill-hill), an eminence on the.common, about fifty yards to the north of the mill, where itwas winnowed by the breeze, out of a "guit" (fan), a piece of old sail, or reddish, rough bed-cover keeping it off the sward. The shelling of oats was never well executed—not more than two-thirds of the grain was shelled; but oat-shelling day at the mill was a red-letter day in the calendar of us school boys, for each filled his pockets of the grain, and kept chewing at it till teeth, gums, and throats would yield, despite the threats of the teacher. If the shelling was not all that could be wished for, it was made up in "pronn"—that is, sids for sowans, a healthy dish, and, when properly cooked, a very palatable one. The portion of oats meant for "groats" had to be put through the mill two or three times. Whether or not bere was shelled, I have now no recollection. Its grinding of oat meal was not at times quite satisfactory, but for bere meal grinding it was all that could be wished. It would grind it exceedingly fine, but at a slow rate. I have repeatedly filled the hopper with bere about mid-night, gone home and to bed, slept till about five o'clock in the morning, and on going back found it had not wholly fallen down to the "bràg."


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