Caithness Field Club

Building the John O’Groats Mill In 1901
Contributed by Magnus Houston

Magnus Houston kindly provided a copy of a letter from William (Billy) Campbell Houston, 1873-1933, to his uncle Magnus Houston, 1856-1943, the grandfather of the present Magnus. As a youth Billy had suffered from asthma so was sent from smokey Glasgow (where his father was a draper) to the clear air of Caithness where he got to know his uncle and the mill. Billy was a lecturer in mechanical engineering at Glasgow when this letter was written. Part of the existing small mill was being converted for threshing, and the new tall mill was being built. It has worked from 1901 to the present day. C.D.B. is the Congested District Board who provided grants. The Exhibition was the Glasgow Exhibition of 1901. The McKidd mentioned ran the Thurso Iron Foundry, and the iron skirtings were to support the edges of the perforated cast iron plates in the grain drier:-

4 Abbotsford Place

April 5th 1901

Dear Uncle,

I received your letter along with McKidd's notes and note to Mother. I am glad you have got the C.D.B. money settled, at least the greater part and I hope you may manage to get your extra £25 as well.

The cost of the Building is very high in comparison with your existing premises, but you should, with no nearer opposition than Lyth & Mey do a much larger trade. You see, to your cost unfortunately, that it is no small matter to build a new mill nowadays. The time was when a mill consisted only of a few pounds, a little labour for the local mason & joiner, but now it must be specially contracted for and even specially designed.

However I agree with you that in the meantime one or two items can easily be left out. I had that in mind in the design, they can easily be put in afterwards with little inconvenience.

In the note from McKidd I think that you can cancel the iron skirtings round the kiln. Cement will do. As regards the sifters is 5' x 2' large enough ? I am under the idea that 2' is rather narrow. Don't get too small sifters for the sake of a pound. Of course you know if the original data was correct in the specification. The present pair of mitre wheels ought to do on sifters. I think the existing material is ample & only needs to be cut to suit the new position & in this case the item for crossshafts & extra gearing might be reduced.

The corn riddle is certainly very dear. I am sure the one we saw at Achingale did not cost above one half this amount. However you need a feeder, and a good one & you can't do without it.

You intend driving your Bruiser in your threshing mill I understand. In this case you don't require Bruiser pulley.

I have arranged the joist that it can be put in at any future occasion.

Draught passage can be done by yourself.

Corn heads on the top floor can be done without in the meantime, but I am sure you will see that they be a great advantage to you specially for shelling twice etc. and the elevator must be put up as high as shown to suit when they eventually go in.

The three way shoot will then be replaced by a simple shoot suitable for bags or discharges into the other head.

I should like to get your existing footstep put right. It ought to have some means of putting bearing pieces in under shaft without lifting the whole shaft.

I think the above will do alright so get alterations carefully altered. I hope you will manage to get soon underway now.

I am very busy just now at the University.

I am having a Summer Session which lasts till the second week in July. I may take a run North & see how you are getting on.

Our Exhibition is going up famously. It is going to be a huge affair. Aunt Betsy & you must never think of missing to see it.

With love to you all

Your Affect. Nephew


Proc R.Soc. Edinb., XII 269-274, 1893

Published in 2000 Bulletin