Fraser's Scottish Annual
The Scottish Quern in Canada
BY J. D. MCLENNAN, Queen's
University, Kingston, Ont.
AMONG the many valuable
relics to be found in the museum of Queen's University, Kingston, is one
which cannot fail to draw the attention of the visitor. This relic is a
Scottish quern, the hand grist-mill of the old days, which was added to
the University Museum collection in March, 1898, the donation of j Mr.
Angus MacCuaig, Kirk Hill, Glengarry County, Ontario.
This quern first came to
my notice while on a visit to my granduncle, Mr. MacCuaig, in the summer
of 1892, when he showed it to me and told me something of its history.
At that time he had offered the quern to the Redpaths, of Montreal, to
whom he was related by marriage, for the Red- path Museum at McGill
His generous offer must
evidently have been forgotten, for some years afterwards I learned that
my granduncle still had the stones in his possession, and in 1898 I
succeeded in pressing the claims of Queen's University Museum for them,
and soon after in receiving my uncle's donation and placing the same in
the museum of my Alma Mater.
In structure the quern is
very simple, being in the shape of two flat circular stone discs,
closely fitting on top of each other. These discs are made from flat
slabs of a metamorphic rock known as mica- schist or glossy-schist,
which is thickly studded with common garnet crystals. The fine-grained
schistose rock itself is not only a very hard material, but with the
harder garnet well cemented in it, a good abrasive or grinding surface
is secured. Being a highly stratified rock, after being quarried in
large slabs, it is easily split into thinner slabs of from one and a
half to two inches in thickness, and then dressed to the desired
circular shape with edges bevelled. The specimen in question is about
eighteen inches in diameter, and is in two sections, each of which is
about one and three-quarter inches in thickness.
The top section differs
slightly from the bottom section or base, in that it has a circular hole
of about four inches diameter, at the centre of it, which acts as a
funnel through which the grain is passed in. This circular hole at the
centre is spanned by a small hardwood bridge about three- quarters of an
inch thick, strongly wedged into the section. This bridge serves the
double purpose of being a handle by which to lift up the top section
from the base when it is necessary to clean out the ground meal, and
also as a pivot-bearing for the hardwood pivot secured in the centre of
the base, and about which pivot the top section revolves, while the base
is stationary. On the top of the upper section there are drilled at
equal intervals around the circumference, and close to it, three small
holes in which could be placed wooden handles with which to revolve and
operate the mill.
The lower section or base
shows a very slight circular groove or depression, the only slight sign
of wear after its long continuous use. In the centre of the section a
hole has been drilled and a small hardwood pivot inserted. The grain fed
in at the top is caught between the two discs, and by the revolution of
the top section it works its way towards the outer edges, over which it
finally passes in a well- pulverized meal. These stones, so long since
retired from use, are still in first-class condition and as fit for
service to-day as they were in the days of our ancestors when the
problem of "our daily bread" was not such an easy one.
Although I have been told
that there was only one locality in Scotland, Strontian in Ardnamurchan,
Argyleshire, where this rock could be quarried for millstones, it is
quite possible that this one particular quarry was so well known and so
generally used for that purpose, that other places of similar formation
were either overlooked or possibly not then known. Similar rock
formations are quite common in this country—in Eastern Ontario in
Hastings County, in Western Ontario in the Lake Superior district.
Regarding the history of
this quern, the following is an extract from an article written by Mr.
McEwan for the Montreal Witness, on the occasion of his visit to Locheil,
Glengarry County, in 1894, at the centennial celebration of its early
"Here Mr. MacCuaig showed
us an ancient quern or hand-mill for grinding grain. These stones, he
said, were owned by Mackenzie, chief of Kintail, or Lord Seaforth, and
were used to grind grain for his soldiers at the battle of Kintail in
1715. They were brought from there by Mr. MacCuaig's great- grandfather
MacCrimmon. . . ." From conversations with, and from letters I have had
from my granduncle, Mr. MacCuaig, and also from my uncle, Mr. Duncan
McLennan, of MacCrimmon, and from my father, I have learned the
The quern came into the
possession of the MacCuaig family through Catharine (MacCrimmon)
MacCuaig, mother of the donor, who, as youngest daughter, received it
from her father, Donald Ban MacCrimmon, as part of her marriage dowry.
In 1802, Mal-: coim MacCuaig, sen., with his wife, left Gleneig,
Inverness-shire, Scotland, and came to Canada, settling down the same
year in Glengarry County. Needless to say, part of the necessary outfit
brought with them to the new country was their grist-mill, this same
quern. Here they used it during their pioneer days, until the more
modern gristmill allowed them to discontinue ts use. When it was no
longer required, Mr. Angus MacCuaig, jun., became its owner, and for
about three-quarters of a century kept it as a highly-prized memento of
the hardships of the early days, until he sent it to Kingston. Mr.
MacCuaig, now a hale old gentleman about ninety-three years of age,
still keeps up his interest in the past, and enjoys telling his friends
of the many changes he has seen take place since he was a boy in
Among other travels, this
quern was once taken by a former MacCrimmon owner on a military campaign
to Strascuile, Ross-shire, in 1719, where it was, no doubt, a very
important part of the regimental equipment. The owner of such a quern
was evidently a very highly-respected man in the community. In many
cases a community could probably only boast of one "brath," but it was
at the disposal of all, and due respect was paid to the owner. An
incident illustrating this respect is told of Donald Ban MacCrimmon's
ownership of the quern. A herdsman was troubled by the stray cattle of
his neighbours, and was driving the offending cows to pound. The
herdsman was informed by a passerby that among these cows were some
belonging to Donald Ban, the owner of the quern, who would not allow him
the use of same if his cows were impounded by him. As his daily bread
depended on the use of the quern, the herdsman wisely decided to release
Donald Ban's cows, and to show no partiality the other cows were also
released and driven home. The owner of the small hand-mill of that day
was probably a more popular man than the owner of a flour-mill to-day
with its capacity of thousands of barrels a day.
Slow as the process of
making flour by this hand-mill might seem, stories are told of some
amazingly quick work done by it, and of some of the records established
in cases of emergency. From standing grain in the field to a baked
bannock inside of thirty minutes would be a record hard to beat today,
yet stories are told of many actual cases in which this has been done.
The grain was reaped, prepared for mill, ground and baked up into
bannocks all within half an hour. Such bread or bannock was known in
Gaelic as "aran gradan," or quick bread, and from this it is seen how
serviceable such querns would be in the military campaigns spoken of
above. When we consider the immense output of flour from the present
flour-mills of the country, we cannot have any proper conception of what
must have been the conditions of the old days with the hand-mill.
That this quern, made in
Scotland, used there for many years during peace and war, brought out
here and used for many years more by those same Scotchmen who became
pioneers of Canada, should find a final peaceful resting-place in the
museum of our Scottish- Canadian University, is but a fitting tribute to
the memory of those sturdy pioneers and patriots.
A QUERN ANECDOTE.
BY J. G. MACKAY.
Before the erection of
meal mills, the corn was all ground with the quern, two flat stones
fixed, the one upon the other, the upper having a handle to turn it
round and a hole in the centre by which the corn was put in; this was
very laborious work. I have seen the quern even yet at work when the
quantity of corn was so small as not to be worth while sending to the
mill. It is astonishing the quickness with which a smart person could,
with this appliance, prepare a quantity of meal. A friend of mine on one
occasion had a good example of this. Visiting an old woman in the
heights of Assynt, she was pressed to wait and get something to eat,
whereupon the old matron went out to the barn, took in a sheaf of corn,
and in a minute whipped the oats off with her hand, winnowed it with a
fan at the end of the house, then placed it on the fire in a pot to dry;
after that it was ready to be ground, and then being put through a
sieve, was ready to bake. The whole thing was done within an hour, from
the time she took in the sheaf of corn till the cakes were on the table,
and my friend says she never tasted better.
THE QUERN CROON.
TRANSLATED BY MALCOLM MACFARLANE, ELDERSLIE.
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