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McIan's Highlanders At Home
The Hand-Mill


THE art of reducing grain to meal for human food is coeval with the first practice of agriculture. The corn productions of the earth were ground by manual labour, the simple method of using a Hand-mill being common to all people in the early stages of civilization, and it is still in practice among those whose primitive circumstances have not estranged them from the artless manners of their fathers. Baking and boiling were the only preparations in ancient use, and Sarah is the first on record who kneaded meal, and she has left, says the quaint and honest Thomas Fuller, in "The Holie State," the prints of her knuckles in the leaven to this day.

The circumstances recorded in Holy Writ of Esau having parted with his birthright for a mess of porridge, is a proof of the early use of meal in the state so generally served up in the north; and although the people in that part of the kingdom may be jeered on the subject of their roughish fare, as the Sybarites of old were on their black broth, it is now fairly proved by analysis, that oatmeal contains more nutritious substance than the flour of wheat, or that of any other grain.

The Hand-mill is called in Gaelic, Muillean-bra’, which will strike one as being a term very similar to the French Moulin a bras; in the Irish idiom it is Bronn, and in the Lowland Scots it is named Quern. The stones are eighteen to thirty inches in diameter, the undermost being rather larger than the upper, and having a spike in the centre as a pivot on which the other is turned. The women, when at work, seat themselves on the ground, beside the Muillean, and with a stick, which is fixed into a hole in the margin of the stone, turn it round while they pour in the grain by a central opening. There are generally two females employed, who sit opposite to each other, and as usual in almost all their avocations, they lighten their labours by appropriate songs. In this employment we are reminded of the Scriptural passage, Matthew xxiv. 41: "Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken and the other left;" and we are told by Dr. Shaw, that the Arabs at this day use two small grindstones, the uppermost turned by a handle of wood placed in its edge, and when expedition is required, then two persons, who are generally women, sit at it.

When water and windmills were introduced, the lairds very strictly prohibited the use of the hand-stone, by which they were deprived of their thirlage dues, and the miller of his lawful multure; consequently, wherever found they were broken up. In 1284, it was enacted by King Alexander III., that "na man sail presume to grind Quheit, Maishlach, or Rye, with a Hand Mylne, except he be compellit be storm, or be in lack of mylnes quhilk suld grind the samen;" if he was found to do so, he was muicted of the thirteenth measure, or multure, and by a repetition of the offence, he was to "tyne," or lose, "his hand-mylne perpetuallie." The exception permitted their very general use in remote parts, where they cannot yet be laid aside, and in caves and beside the ruins of ancient houses these stones are frequently discovered.

The conversion of grain into bread, or other food, was an operation which did not occupy much of the time of a Highland goodwife, as will be seen from the following account, among many others that could be given. It is furnished by Ian fada, or long John, of Ben Nevis, a much respected gentleman and true-hearted Celt. He verges on the patriarchal age of fourscore, and recollects when a boy having been sent by his grand-father, Ian du’, or dark John of Aberarder, on a message to a distant part of the country, and when he reached the end of his journey, he found there was no bread, or other eatables, where he was to take up his quarters for the night. The woman of the house, however, speedily supplied this want; for taking a reaping-hook, she went to the field, cut a sufficient quantity of corn, and quickly separating the grain from the straw, winnowed it in the open air, dried it in an iron pot, ground it by the Quern, and presented it in well—baked Bonaich—cloich, or cakes prepared on a stone before the turf fire; the time occupied in these various operations not exceeding half an hour! Long John is a Mac Donald of the braes of Lochaber, and adds to his other qualifications that of being one of the best and most extensive distillers of the native Uisge—bea’, or Whiskey.

The corn and meal prepared in this ancient manner is called Graddan, from grad, quick, speedy, and the operation after reaping is thus performed :—A woman sitting down takes a handful of corn, and holding it by the stems in her left hand, she sets fire to the ears, which immediately flame up; but to prevent them being burnt, with a small stick held in her right hand, she dextrously beats the grain off the straw, the moment when it is sufficiently done. For sifting the meal from the husks, a sheep’s skin, perforated by a small hot iron, is stretched on a hoop.

It is maintained all over the Highlands, that the meal thus manufactured is more pleasant to the palate and is more wholesome than what is dried and ground by the aid of machinery, and the graddan meal is preferred for bannocks, brose, brochan, lite, or porridge, fuarag, a mixture of meal with cream, or water, and other culinary preparations of the Celtic housewives.

The practice of burning corn in the straw prevailed among the Irish; but as they performed it so recklessly as to destroy most part of the straw, an Act of Parliament was passed in 1635, which declared it illegal.

Oats and rye, we find, were raised by the Britons before the introduction of wheat and barley, and in the barbarous ages acorns were ground for bread, hence, by the Welsh laws, the oak tree is declared to be common property.


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