Dalmore Daytime

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Wednesday, 4 March 2009

The Lewis Corn Mill ( "Norse" Mill )

The milling of corn and barley,the main crops of the old Lewis townships,was an essential requirement(as anywhere else)in producing flour and meal. Hundreds of these simple mills were built and operated throughout Gaeldom. Wherever one finds a loch feeding into a stream below,then an old mill ruin will lie close-by. In some cases,the head of the loch(the reservoir)was dammed to give a better outflow of water. Any school pupil(well,some) will know that the potential energy stored in the water high in the loch,is converted to kinetic energy,as the rapid flowing waters of the stream pass through the mill down below. I suspect that, even back then,there were some Ph.Ds around who could tell you all about it! I notice that there is little archaeology in Scandinavia(Viking or Norse)to show that this type of mill ever existed there,or that the design has anything to do with the Vikings who conquered and settled the Hebrides. The simple design of this "muilean"(cf.French "moulin") had been around for a very long time,I think, and has even been referred to as a "Greek" mill. Still,it's a great advance on the quern stone. In a 1898 map of the area,the Shawbost "norse mill",which is today a favoured tourist attraction,is in fact only one of two "corn mills" on"Allt nam Breac"(trout stream)which flows from "Lochan Tioram"(small dry loch)near Beinne Cloich and ends in "Loch na Muilne"(the loch of the mills).Note the use of the plural here, suggesting that both mills were operational at the same/different times. The map shows that at this time a channel or mill lade had been constructed,taking the mill water from the east end of Loch Raoinavat,beside the road,along parallel to the stream and passing through two corn mills in turn, before joining Loch nam Muilne. The mill lade was possible here because for much of its course,the terrain is fairly level,and it was only as it approached the mills,that the level ground gave way to a considerable downward slope.This is the mill race whose fast water flow is responsible for driving the mill stones. The early corn mills for long and weary had retained the same basic design.and had always been considered "fit for purpose" by the people who built and used them. Here, the Shawbost mill of 1898 seems to be a "later model",with its mill lade and mill race.
The corn mill was built and thatched in the usual way,but this was a small building comprising the dry upper level where the millstones ground out the oats and flour,and the "wet" lower level where the incoming water torrent turned the shaft of the millwheel. The wooden blades of the wheel were arranged horizontally and consisted of 6 or 8 of them arranged symmetrically around the shaft,usually perpendicular to the axis of rotation. The blades in today's wheel at Shawbost are angled to the axis to give a smooth flow of water,which is an improvement,but devised of course in hindsight. The "engine room" of the mill was often located below ground level(after a bit of digging),and this,together with the down slope,led to a very fast millrace. The rotating shaft was of wood,and would be strengthened with further blocks, bound by iron braces. Above in the dry milling area,directly above, were the two large millstones,one on top of the other,but only the upper stone was connected to the rotating shaft. It was the turning of this stone on the fixed stone beneath which produced the milling action. The corn was fed into the centre of the top stone by means of the "brog"(shoe),a leather container which was slightly shaken as it was suspended from a moving part of the mechanism.This ensured that the corn was fed into the mill at an even rate. The ground corn or barley spewed out between the stones to be collected by the miller. It seems that at some stage a "corn kiln" was added to this milling complex to dry grain that was damp,before moving it to the mill proper. Was there no end to the ingenuity of the Shawbost men? But it took a Garenin man to raise the Shawbost mill from a heap of stones in the late 1960s. Robert Macleod MBE,a cousin of both my parents,was at that time a technical teacher at Shawbost School. The first complete rebuild of this mill was undertaken by Shawbost pupils under the able guidance of "Rob Calum".
I remember that it would be around this time, that I took my young brother,Gordon, to show him the rebuilt Shawbost mill(it wasn't so well patronised in these days),and ,of course,to give him the complete guide of a Viking/Norse/Greek mill, as related to me by George Dalmore. After a mind-numbing "Time Team" style lecture,which I'm sure he appreciated,,we retraced our way back along the mill lade to the lapping waters of Loch Raoinavat. There was a sort of sluice gate(I think),composed of various wooden slats which,if removed,would allow water to leave the loch and enter the mill lade. I removed 2 or 3 slats and started back towards the mill. The channel(lade) at first filled slowly, but as we approached Rob Calum's mill,we could see that the volume and rate of flow was growing exponentially by the second. A tsunami was about to enter the mill race,and when it struck the whole mill roared,as if it were being tested to destruction! The rotation of the blades was just a blur,and the upper millstone threatened to take a walk. Running back to the loch,I replaced the slats in the sluice,and prayed very hard. The waters subsided,the water wheel survived its most extreme test,and after 33 years,I'm glad I've got that off my chest!
For more on the norse-type mill,see the post "An Gearraidh. Some other stories."

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post!