Caithness Field Club

Watten Mills
From a Manuscript of 1925
by Robert W Macadam (1850-1933)

This homely account of life in Caithness two centuries ago appeared in the May 1995 edition of The Highland Family History Journal; it appears here by kind permission of the Highland Family History Society.

It was about the year 1780 that the estate of Watten and Bridgend was bought by Sir Robert Anstruther of Balcaskie, Fife, from Sinclair Manson of Bridgend, Watten, who was obliged to sell owing to his connection with a bank in Ayr which came to grief. Sir Robert, on buying the estate, resolved to take Watten Mains into his own hands for a time, and he resided there during a part of the year to supervise the improvements which he had planned. He took with him from Fife his horses and carts, his ploughmen, blacksmith and miller, the latter being Peter Macadam, my great grand father. The carts and horses created quite a sensation among the natives of Caithness as the horses were always driven tandem in the carts and made two journeys per day to Staxigoe, the seaport of Wick in those days, the road or track running past Tarroel, through North Bilbster at the Hill O'Reich, Winless, Sibster and Gillock to Wick and Staxigoe. The surnames of the ploughmen were Ireland, Gay, Pryde and Small and the blacksmith was Munro. With the exception of Macadam the other names have all disappeared from the county, Mr Ireland of Georgemas Inn being the last, and previous to that the Prydes of Lybster. But I believe that some of these names can still be traced in the female line at Wick or neighbourhood.

My great-grandfather, Peter Macadam, was born in Anstruther, Fife, and served his apprenticeship in the Canon MIlls, Leith. At that time there were several mills wrought by the Water of Leith, and all turned by the same water in succession. When the uppermost mill, which had control of the dam, wrought, the others had to work, or else the water was lost to them. In dry seasons the water often ran short, and when the dam filled, be it day or night, Sunday or Saturday, the upper mill started and the others had to follow suit. My great-grandfather had scruples about working on Sundays and refused to work on that day; but, being an indentured apprentice he was brought before the Council and lodged in jail where he lay for a year, and then gave in and completed his apprenticeship. Thereafter he was employed in the mill at Anstruther.

When my great-grandfather came to Watten he was a married man, and his wife, whose maiden surname was Norrie, came with him, and could not be induced to stay in Caithness permanently; their family was therefore educated in Anstruther and went to school with Dr Chalmers, the great orator and preacher. My great-grandfather and my grandfather went once a year to Balcaskie with the proceeds of the Watten Mill. They owned a house in the High Street in Anstruther and a small plot of land at Milton of Anstruther.

I remember going to Anstruther with my father when I was about 14 or so. Of course, there was no railway line up to Caithness then. We went by boat from Wick to Granton and by rail from Edinburgh. The railway was then only available as far as Thornton Junction, from where we were conveyed by horse bus. On that occasion my father sold the plot of land at Milton, but the house property was disposed of at a much later date, when I was sent to Anstruther to sell it and got a train all the way.

My great-grandfather died in middle age and was succeeded by his son, Peter, who became tenant of the mill, and, subsequently, tenant of Bridgend Farm, the latter greatly against his will, as he knew nothing about land and was well up in years; but my father, Robert Macadam, was then a grown man and took over the management. It was then difficult for a laird to get a tenant when a place became vacant as few had money to stock a farm.

Carts were not common in Caithness at this time; the sheaves were carried off the fields on the backs of horses, a contrivance called a "clubber" being attached to the back of the animal, on which the sheaves were piled. The first farm cart made in Caithness was reputed to have been made by William Gunn of Catchery, whose daughter Jean, was my grandmother. The wheels of this cart were of wood and had no tires (sic).

In those days rents were paid, not in cash but in meal, and the laird had a girnel at Watten Mains that held over 1000 bolls, besides another large girnel at Laurel or Clayock, Dunn. This meal was designated "Farm Meal" and the miller had to attend at stated times to take delivery from the tenants and issue receipts, which were handed over to the Factor on rent day. Meal used to be packed in 280 lb sacks, which had to be heaved by millers, bakers and stevedores, but the 280 lb sacks were eventually given up, as they were so heavy for a man to carry. As payment in kind gradually died out, these girnels were no longer required; but I remember in the first of my time at the Mill here that the laird still had a girnel holding over 200 bolls of "Farm Meal", most of which was weighed out again in half-bolls or firlots to workmen on the state, of whom there was then a pretty large squad, under the superintendence of the Ground Officer. Not until the crop of the year 1911 did this practice entirely die out, as 17 bolls of meal were required yearly to pay multure to the Achingale estate. However, the present owner of the Achingale estate cannot produce any written title or deed to show that the customary payment has not expired and the payments have lapsed.

It was this long-standing and now disputed arrangement that explains, as well as I know, the origin of the Mill of Watten in 1742. In 1742 money was scarce, and of much greater value than now, and a man could not erect a mill, even of the most primitive kind, without what was considered than a considerable amount of capital, and, of course, never started work until he had made sure of his future customers, by having the grain of certain districts thirled or bound to his mill.
The mill at Achingale seems to have been in existence long before there was any word of a mill at Watten, and the parish at that time was evidently divided up into quite a number of small estates, and it appears that the estates of Bylbster, Bridgned (Watten) and Cogle were, among others thirled to the mill of Achingale.

The laird of Cogle had, however, a peculiar clause in his agreement entitling him to have his grain ground at Achingale mill whenever he pleased to come to the mill, only having to wait until the grain actually in the hopper ran out, even although it was in the middle of another man's parcel.
This arrangement did fairly well as long as all the parties were friendly, and no doubt the crop of Cogle at that time would not amount to much. But by and by the lairds of Bridgend and Cogle began to lay their heads together and saw the possibilities of a mill with a superior supply of water at Bridgend. The laird of Bridgend then opened negotiations with the view of having his estate freed, but his proposals were rejected with scorn.  

Knowing, however, of the powerful lever held by the laird of Cogle in his peculiar agreement, if judiciously operated, a system of torture of the miller of Achingale was promptly arranged. Day after day and week after week, and very often three or four times a day, the laird of Cogle sent small quantities of grain to be milled, and insisted on his right of precedence, which could not be denied. Not only was the miller tortured, but the other customers of the mill were greatly incommoded and bitterly resented such treatment. Ultimately a bargain was struck with the laird of Bridgend to release his estate and that of Cogle for yearly payment of seventeen bolls of multure meal; and the first Mill of Watten was started.

Although mills were then so numerous, it appears that the tenants still stuck to their querns or hand mills; and my grandfather, when a young man, was sent round with his axe to break up all the querns on the lands bound suckent to the mill of Watten. Except for grinding of bursten which was made chiefly from oats dried and parched in a big pot over a good-going peat fire by continual stirring with a long wooden shovel, then rubbed, winnowed, ground and sifted into a meal of a most peculiar flavour, there would I fancy, be little use for the querns, for, of course, grain cannot be shelled in querns. What, there is no doubt, they were so much used for was grinding malt, as the illicit distillation of whisky and smuggling went on in every district.

 At the time Sir Robert Anstruther came to Watten the grain was kiln dried on the farms in straw kilns. I have never seen a straw kiln being worked, but have been told, and can readily believe, that these kilns made a first-class job of drying any kind of grain. The kiln bearers or "simmers" were of wood, no iron being used in the structure. However, Sir Robert had a kiln built at the Mill of Watten for his own and his tenants' use. It was in the shape of an ordinary bottle, all of stone and the drying bed was of brick perforated and laid on brick arches. The object of making it circular was that it could not burn down and it was not connected with the mill building. Down below the bed was the furnace, or "sornie" and the oats were dried by a fire made from the hulls or hard shells encasing the oat kernels, which needed constant stoking. Much of the drying was done during the night, and the attendant had a lonely vigil. The entrance to the "sornie" faced the by-burn and the lonely river strath beyond it, the kiln being cut off from the dwelling by the bulk of the mill building. The "bottle" kiln was for long a picturesque feature of the mill group of buildings, but was taken down about 1872 and the stones were used for the present kiln which is incorporated in the mill building.

The Mill of Watten has always been considered one of the best in the north. No doubt the importation of a miller who had served a regular apprenticeship in the Canon Mills of the Water of Leith gave it a certain prestige, but it always had the advantage of a steady supply of water from the loch even in the driest seasons. A barley mill for making pot barley was put in at an early date, and for a long time this was the only one in the county. After 1840 there were two pairs of mill stones. Alterations after 1872 introduced sack-tackles, elevators, sifters, conveyers, separators, and other machinery.

Before the introduction of machinery the farmers had to empty their grain from their "kaises" into the hopper for "shelling", carry out the hulled grain to the "shelling" hillock to be winnowed and back again to the hopper to be ground into meal. There were no sieves attached to the mill, and the work was chiefly done by women with skin sieves, sometimes in the mill, but often at home. The coming of machinery has completely changed the old system, for the farmers can not be trusted to handle the machines, while the miller must pay for more or less skilled labour. For many years now the farmers have been delivering their grain and returning later for their meal.

The millstones were generally about four feet in diameter, and were mostly taken from Dunnet Head. The stone got there was of firm texture and fine in the grain, not well adapted for either shelling or grinding purposes; but when we consider that these mills had, as a rule, only the one pair of stones for both shelling and grinding, and that most of the grain grown was bere, this stone was perhaps as suitable as could be got for the operations.

There being neither carts nor roads in the country in these early days, the stones were trundled on their edge from the quarry to the mill, a stick of wood being passed through the eye to keep it in balance, and relays of men, taking in turn their places as the stone, very soon brought it to its destination. I may here relate an amusing incident that took place in my great-grandfather's time, when Watten Mains was in the occupation of Sir Robert Anstruther, shortly after his purchase of Watten estate. When Sir Robert came to the County, the ordinary pay for a labouring man was fourpence per day; but he, having brought his own men with him from Fife, raised the labourers' pay to sixpence per day. One of these labourers was David Dunnett, a cottar in Tails of Watten, who was regularly employed at Watten Mains, and who was much respected and trusted by all his neighbours, as well as by his employer. David, however, had not acquired the art of writing, but adopted a very ingenious plan of his own for keeping account of his time. When he was employed working with a spade, he drew a sketch of the implement, with "strokes" for the number of days; and so with hammer, shovel, tuscar. He presented his account-book regularly at paytime, and the factor had ordinarily no difficulty in understanding his hieroglyphics. One payday, however, the factor was fairly puzzled by one entry in David's book, and had to call him in for an explanation. The book presented a rough sketch as usual, thus; 0 1111. This, on being interpreted, meant that David had been engaged four days in bringing home the millstone! He did not fail to express his surprise that the factor was so stupid as not to understand.

Now as regards the Dunnet millstones, I have already mentioned that they were close and even in texture and free from flints and pebbles, but occasionally small pockets of fuller's earth were met with. These stones got a very rough-and-ready dressing at the quarry and an eye of nine inches in diameter was put in as near the middle as possible. The miller faced them, put in the rhynd (I speak of the runner), and having got in the spindle, marked and dressed it according to taste. The stones had to be dressed to an even plane, which is called "facing" The back is slightly rounded, all this is called "backing". The rhynd is of iron and is fitted to the spindle for turning it. In the bedstone (the nether millstone) the bush was formed with three pieces of beech wood, on which three bushes were roughly fitted, backed by iron wedges and the whole pinned up very tightly. In the bush the spindle revolved. The neck of the spindle never saw a lathe, but came from the smithy straight from the file; so it may be easily imagined that the millstone could never run true, and bush troubles were the order of the day. The stones had to be lifted and dressed very often, and this gave an opportunity to sort the bushes.

The custom was to shell all day, and to begin to grind when darkness set in. After the grinding was finished, and any considerable quantity of bere ground, the stones had to be dressed anew before they would shell again. This dressing was done by steel implements called "picks" and facets were cut in the stone; narrow at the spindle and broadening as they rayed out to the circumference. The edges of these facets broke off the shells from the grain in the shelling and crushed and granulated the kernels when grinding.

The grain was passed once through the shelling stones and then carried out to the shelling hillock to be winnowed. The sieves were circular, made of sheep-skin, punched full of holes and stretched over a wooden frame. A great deal of skill and practice were required to manipulate the "wecht" or small blind sieve which was used to stream the grain in the wind. The "coom" or finer dust-like particles, was of course, blown far enough away and few cared to carry home the husks, except a few cottars near by who had little or no straw, and depended on these husks, "leeped" (scalded), to bring the cow through the short winter days. The husks, or shellings were used for the fire in the kilns, and some skill was required to feed the fire just enough and not too much, so as to keep up a steady, moderate heat. Given a moderate and suitable breeze, the grain could be shelled quite clean, and the "tails" (the light and imperfect kernels) could be separated.

The place where the meal fell from the stones was called the "troch" (trough). The meal was seldom left in the mill for any time. Indeed, there was little room provided for storage, and generally the horses were waiting at the door to carry it away when finished.

Of course, the miller had no work to do but tend the stones, and take the multure, or toll grinding, dipped out of the top of each sack, for the farmers themselves did every part of the manual work; but he had a long day and often a weary vigil at night, perhaps snatching sleep if the mill was going well.

There was always a fire-place and good fire of peats, around which those waiting their turn were usually congregated, telling stories and discussing the questions of the day. Those who came from afar - for the Mill of Watten from the start attracted customers from distant parts of the County and far beyond that -came well supplied with their own food and drink. Orkneymen landed their grain at Wick and paid carters to bring it to Watten and back again. They accompanied the grain and did all the manual work associated with the milling. Their staple drink was "sour whig" a form of sour milk which they carried with them in casks. I understand my grand-mother, Jane Gunn, was very kind to them, as indeed to all who frequented the mill.

Being in Orkney about 35 years ago, I had occasion to cross from the Mainland at Ham to Burray, and had two old men as boatmen. I was the only passenger and got into conversation with them. They knew I was from Caithness by my tongue, and asked my name and if I knew a place called Watten. When I told them I was miller in Watten and my name was Macadam, I was never so overwhelmed with kindness in my life, and they came a long way after landing to point out my destination at the other end of the island. These men, when young, had often been at Watten with grain, and had never forgotten the kindness shown them.

From my description of the millstones, it can be understood that the shelling process was a very imperfect one, even with the best of grain, and when ground and sifted out there was a large proportion left of meal "sids" or "sowan sids". The sids are the outer shells of the grain kernels, and much of the gluten adheres to them. These sids were always more or less "fat", according to the trim of the stones for grinding, but nothing that could contribute to the sustenance of man was lost. In every house the sowans barrel was an institution, in which these sids were steeped in water and the gluten dissolved. When the sids were wrung out through a cloth nearly every vestige of meal was recovered from them.

 I have already said that, in the earlier time, bere was the chief grain grown, and from the beremeal were made the scones or bere-bannocks, which formed the staff of life. The sids of the bere could be sifted cleanly from the meal as the meal was finely ground; consequently it was from the oatmeal sids that sowans was made. Comparatively little oatmeal was used in any house, the oatmeal being nearly always sold in the towns, the farmers milling nearly all their grain and selling the meal directly to householders or consumers. Sowans was therefore the principal stand-by in the country house. At a certain stage of the steeping process it made a very good drink in its raw state, and could be thinned down with water to taste, but usually it was cooked as "broonplet" or "gauan-thegither", a very strong and sustaining diet, which would, as the saying goes, "stick to ones ribs". The broonplet was of a more delicate and digestible nature, and is still considered an excellent food for those of a weak digestion.

"Brochan", a kind of gruel made from oatmeal, milk, butter, pepper and salt, was often taken for supper, along with beremeal "scoorags", which were very thin tough scones. They were very good and well-flavoured when newly baked, but became leathery after twenty-four hours. During the late summer and the winter months the kail-pot was a good deal in evidence. A leg of smoked goose served to make kail soup for a large family. The "goodman" as a rule monopolized all the meat, and the family had the benefit of the flavour! A patch of "size" or chives, and a plot of cabbage was all that was cultivated in the kailyard, although a bunch of Southern Wood, a species of wormwood, esteemed for its sweet and pungent odour was often to be seen growing in the shelter of the boor tree or elderberry.

Pork was not at all common, but everybody of any standing killed a grass-fed "mert" or cattle beast at Martinmas. The meat was salted for winter use, but the quality was usually very poor. Potatoes and salt herring came by and by into vogue, generally as dinner; but when meal was scarce, as it often was, the potato served for breakfast as well. Dried dogfish and cod were common articles of diet, especially near the coast, but the poorer families often had to be content with "potatoes and point", boiled potatoes dipped in a little milk as they were eaten. Tea was a great rarity, a cup on New Year's Day or when sick being the general rule, and in better off families a cup on Sunday for the goodman and goodwife.

Home-brewed ale or illicitly-distilled whisky was, however, no rarity, the ale taking the place of tea, cocoa, and coffee of the present day. Any householder can now obtain a licence to brew, but none of the amateurs seem able to turn out a palatable brew, and the art of properly making malt has been lost. I have dried and ground the malt after the tax was changed from the malt to the ale, but it was miserable stuff, and the ale made from it tasted more like vinegar than beer!

When a new dwelling-house was built at the mill fifty-eight years ago, the mill lade, or race, which ran in front of the site, was covered over so as to form a garden. The brae at the north side was over twenty feet high, and there was a lot of grading work in forming the slope. It was the estate workmen who did the work, and in doing so they came across two graves, containing cists or stone coffins formed of rough flagstones, two at each side and one at each end. They contained bones, which were reburied. Later, in carting away earth from the same brae, and a little further west, another grave of the same construction was found, and also an iron spearhead in pretty good preservation. This spearhead may now be seen in the Museum of Antiquities, Edinburgh.

When first started, the Mill of Watten had the most lasting and adequate supply of water in the County, but this is not the case now, as the level of the loch has been reduced. A spender or spillway eighty feet across has been put in, which reduces the level of the loch, even after a spate, in three days to its ordinary level. The fall from the loch level to the mill being only four feet, a large quantity of water is needed, and now during a dry season the power is not sufficient to drive the stones and machinery which has been added to the mill.

Conditions since the war (First World War) have altered very much to our disadvantage. The mill has been doing badly for the last few years and the smaller mills in the north are being closed one after another, as the revenue will not meet expenses of rent, rates, insurance, and the wear and tear on machinery, not to speak of wages. The bottom has gone out of the commercial side of the business owing to the rapid disuse of oatmeal over the northern counties. The land in Caithness is being gradually laid out in grass, and farmers have little grain to market, preferring to feed any oats they grow directly to their stock. The wholesale trade is nearly finished as the people have ceased to use oatmeal.

Compare this with the conditions I have written of when my great-grandfather came to Watten.

Editorial note - The article then records that Mr Robert Macadam, author of the above article, died in 1933, at Angle Park, Wick.