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Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century


AMONG the "parts, pertinents, and privileges" granted under a baronial charter in the feudal times, perhaps one of the oldest adjuncts of a barony, was the mill. One mill at least, and not unfrequently several, were erected in each barony or lairdship, all the lands of the barony or lairdship being astricted or "thirled" thereto, forming the mill "sucken." The tenants were bound to have their corn ground at the mill to which they were thirled, which, in some cases, was not the nearest mill to their farms. Indeed, instances were known of a man having to pass not one, but two mills before he reached the one at which it was permissible for him to have his corn ground. But he had no choice in the matter. Each person in the suckcu had to pay mill multures, and to perform certain services, such as assisting to bring home a new millstone when required, or aiding in the more frequent operation of clearing out the mill lead.

The process of fetching home the millstone must, in certain oases, have been a peculiarly formidable one. Indeed, a local "byeword," which had a sort of lingering currency, though without any very pointed application, within quite recent times, would seem to have had its origin in, and be enused as a vivid illustration of, that idea. "As gwced to ye tak a miistane oot o’ Pennan," they said, when a man had a task before him difficult enough to bid defiance to his unaided streiigth. Pennan, in Aberdour parish, was the site of the quarry which furnished millstones for the greater part of Aberdeenshire and Banffshire.[The millstone found here is a coarse sandstone, or conglomerate of the Old Red Sandstone formation.] And in the time when there were neither properly made roads nor wheeled vehicles capable of bearing so heavy a load, it is not difficult to believe that the bringing home of a millstone from a distance of perhaps half-a-dozen miles or more, was an onerous business. The mode adopted was simply that of trundling it on its edge all the way, by the most direct route available. They got a long and stout stick, which was called "the spar," put through the eye of the millstone, and firmly wedged there. The spar projected from two to three feet on one side, and perhaps fifteen feet, or more, on the other, the long lever being used to keep the stone on its edge, the other in the way of guidance as the stone moved onward. Over the millstone was fixed a rough wooden frame. Four, or perhaps six horses, were yoked to the front of this frame, which had a steering tree attached behind, while its construction admitted of the spar turning round like the axle of the "tumbling" cart. One experienced man steered; another kept by the short end of the spar; while the general body of the suckeners managed the long end, or held on behind by ropes attached to the frame, to prevent the millstone-running off on the downward gradients. Despite every precaution, it would occasionally get too much way on a declivity and overpower all concerned, creating dire confusion; or by some unhappy chance it would have its equilibrium so disturbed as to get suddenly upset on the short end of the spar, throwing the hapless suckeners, who hung grimly on at the other end hither and thither, or tilting them up in the air. These experiences were neither pleasant nor safe; and hence came the common saying, "Many ane’s gotten an amshach at the spar." A not unfrequent source of danger, too, in connection with the mill, was found in the tendency of the indifferently set millstone to fly in pieces when grinding, maiming, or even killing the miller, if he, happened to be in the way.

The mill services and the exactions made in the shape of multure and "knaveship," as part of the tax in kind was called, seem to have caused the miller to be universally detested. Of both the existing system and the men by whom it was carried on, Dr. James Anderson gives a description that is more expressive than complimentary. In speaking of the state of matters in Aberdeenshire in his own time, he says the tenants, in some cases, paid the seventeenth peck in thirlage. Then they paid "multure, or the price of grinding, which," says he, "is often the thirty-second peck. They pay also to the miller a lick of good will, or a bannock, which tenants have sometimes allowed to be measured; and there are instances where another unmeasured lick has crept in. Even the seeds sifted from the bannock are sometimes paid. When all these items are added together, they amount at some mills to a twelfth or eleventh part of the whole corn carried to the mill." But even this was not all. The cog with which the shealing was measured was allowed to be "made or mended," according to the fancy of the multurer; and so its size was as likely to be wrong as right; and if wrong, the error would probably not be to the disadvantage of the miller. Then the tenant was bound to grind not only the meal to be used in his own family at the mill to which he was thirled, but also "all the other grain reared on his farm, seed only excepted; or to pay the full multure for every ounce of it that shall be sold elsewhere or otherwise disposed of; even horse corn and wheat which they cannot manufacture, as well as bear, are not excepted. The millers even insist for payment of the multure for the corn that might have grown on fields laid down to grass, which in the usual rotation of crops in the county ought otherwise to have been in corn." And, "besides this heavy tax," adds Dr. Anderson, "the tenants are in general obliged to clear out and repair the mill lead, which is often half-a-mile in length, and the edges of it, for the most part, serve as a road to the miller’s cattle." [For sample of contract between mill superior and suckeners see Appendix (4).]

Then he goes on to complain of the little trouble the miller gave himself in the way of attending to his duties. But why should the miller trouble himself about meeting the wants or wishes of his customers! They were bound to come to him; but he was not bound to put himself to inconvenience or disturb his cherished habits to please them. Neither did he. He was in a position to treat them after the manner of the churl if he was so minded; and occasionally, it seems manifest, he was. But not always, for the miller could at times be sociable as well as other people. It was told of a certain miller in the Garioch, that in doing a "melder" on one occasion, he "set on" the mill; not a very powerful one, in. the matter of grinding, it would seem; and then, the alehouse being conveniently near, went away with a crony to "slocken" his drought. There they sat for some considerable time, and there the mill "hottered" away by itself. And not quite by itself either, for the worthies had left a couple of dogs about the, place; and, the mill door being open, the two sagacious tykes went in, and, sitting down contentedly by the spout, licked up the meal with their tongues as fast as it was manufactured.

Of course, the farmer was expected to have his own kila, or "killogie" as it was termed, and to dry his grain for himself before he troubled the miller about it. Dr. Anderson, in prosecution of his loud complaint, goes on to say that the millers did not give themselves the trouble to get winnowing machines "till of late" (he is writing in 1794), "that the tenants in some cases have purchased them; and, for permitting them to be turned by the machinery of the mill, they must pay another multure, or carry their shealing out of doors to be winnowed by the wind. In short," he adds, "what with want of water at one time and want of wind at another, I have known instances of three persons being obliged to go to the distance of three miles to the mill three or four times over, and be employed nearly a whole week for the grinding of half a dozen boils of meaL" Weary work enough, surely, but Dr. Anderson has scarcely reached his climax even yet. After declaring that "there is not in this island such a compleat remain of feudal despotism as in the practice respecting mills in Aberdeenshire," he adds that "the millers, in many cases, exercise their power with the most wanton insolence, these men being too often supported by all the weight of the landlord’s influence, so that I have myself seen poor farmers, by vexation and despair, reduced to tears to supplicate what they ought to have commanded from him."

In 1757, the season being one of scarcity, the Aberdeenshire county gentlemen appointed a committee "to consider the state of the victual and what improvements might be made upon corn mills and the manufacture of grain to make it yield more and of better quality." They had had it represented to them that John Wright, a soldier in Captain Wood’s regiment, "presently lying in North Britain," was a man of skill and experience in the making and improvement of the machinery of corn mills, and would be inclined to settle in the north country; and the committee were recommended to apply to Lord George Beauclerk, commander of the Forces in Scotland, to know if he would oblige them by giving Wright his discharge, on a sufficient man being furnished as his substitute; or at least give him a long furlough with a view to his contributing to the improvement of the mills. The facts enable us to realise somewhat distinctly how utterly destitute of mechanical skill the county must have been when it was deemed an object to get hold of a stranger soldier to lead them toward improvement.

An idea of the limited power of the mills of the time may be gathered from statistics of their actual numbers within particular areas. Thus, in the large central parish of Fyvie, in Aberdeenshire, there were in the latter part of the last century thirteen corn mills, in each of which there was a "fanner turned by the machinery of the mill," enabling the work to go on in all weathers, and not leaving the winnowing dependant upon the natural currents of the air of heaven. In the neighbouring parish of Auchterless there were seven mills; while King-Edward parish boasted of ten corn mills, with two lint mills and two waulk mills.

The origin of the thirlage system was natural enough. When the quem driven by hand came to be reckoned rather behind the time, the mill, such as it was, was looked upon as "a masterpiece of machinery." [As early as 1284, the Scottish Legislature tried to supersede the quern by the water mill, the use if it being prohibited except in the case of storm or where there was a lack of mills of the new description. Querns were, however, largely used in Scotland down to the end of the last century.] When a mill was set agoing it was deemed needful therefore that the laird and the miller should have assurance of its being supported, and their own enterprise in its establishment and working adequately rewarded. Hence were the tenants and crofters bound to cast aside their family querns, go to the public mill of their sucken, and pay the statutory multures. The abstracted multures were a fruitful source of litigation until an Act was passed in the reign of George IlL (39 George III. cap. 55) authorising their conversion into money payments. Subsequent to the date of that Act the ground of complaint lay chiefly against the principle of thirlage, which in certain cases was not readily overturned.

A curious commentary on the utterly obsolete character of the old molendinary system is found in the case of the mills belonging to the burgh of Aberdeen. A charter of Charles I., granted in 1638, and confirmed by a subsequent charter, sets forth that as "the said burgh is becoming a populous city, famous for humanity and renown," and as His Majesty "is solicitous that the said burgh should daily flourish," therefore he grants "all and sundry the common mills" of the said burgh to the Magistrates and Council, "with the multures and sequels of the said mills, and of all grain growing upon all and sundry the crofts, acres, and lands of the community of our said burgh, and within the freedom and territory thereof, and of all grain pertaining and belonging to the burgesses and inhabitants of our said burgh tholing fire and water within the same." Doubtless the royal grant had been in its time a privilege worth having, and it seems to have been jealously guarded. We find, for example, that on 4th August, 1726, the Council ordained that all querns or iron hand mills "sett up" or to be sett up within the city for grinding malt or any other grain "be seized, demolished, and broken down to pieces ;" the object, no doubt, being the protection of the business of the town’s mills. And for very long after this the mills had no more formidable rivals than those connected with the various county lairdships, to which the tenants generally continued to be thirled during a considerable part of the first half of the present century. But it had latterly come to be the case that there was scarcely a single mifi within the limits of the burgh of Aberdeen kept up in a stain of complete efficiency. They had become antiquated and unfit to meet the demands of the time, while several mills that had been erected a short distance beyond the burgh boundaries were doing a thriving and profitable trade; simply. because their owners saw it to be to their interest to adapt them to modern necessities. And so, a few years ago, the Burgh Corporation, notwithstanding its chartered monopoly, found that the best thing it could do was to sell the motive power of two of its mills—the water by which they were driven—to certain manufacturers; and then sell the ancient fabrics of the mills themselves, one of which had by that time stood gaunt and silent for several years for want of a tenant.

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