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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 University.

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 settlement.

"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 following facts:

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 Glengarry.

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.

November, 1901.


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.


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