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Issue 55 - Bread and Water

Scotland Magazine Issue 55
February 2011


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Bread and Water

John Hannavy explores more of the rich heritage passed down to us by our ancestors

Surprisingly few of the marks left on the Scottish landscape by our ancestors are monuments or houses. The majority of them are changes in the land, in the rivers, and around the coast made by the farmers, the fishermen, and the population in general, as they went about the constant task of keeping themselves fed and watered. The man made landscape may seem brutally stark when first created, but time and nature soften its edges, blurring the boundary between the natural and the manufactured. And as man has been leaving his mark on Scotland’s surface for millennia, many of the marks left behind are as much part of today’s landscape as the landscape itself.

And some of those surviving marks are not about what remains todayl, but rather about what is not there today. The vast oak forests which once covered swathes of the countryside were cut down centuries ago to build ships and boats, so finding small naturally-seeded oak woods, such as the groups of stunted and contorted oaks which grow close to the shore at Portavadie on the western side of the Cowal peninsula, is in itself a tangible link with the past.

If a plentiful supply of timber was important to the nation’s ship builders of yesterday, the management of vital water resources, never far out of the news these days, as demand at times gets close to outstripping supply, was every bit as important in the lives of every generation of Scots.

Without fresh drinking water man and animals die, and without running water mill-wheels could not turn, so harnessing water has long been a key part of life. The need for bread and water, two key components of people’s lives, has left many reminders across the country, some of them well known to tourists, others perhaps less easy to see.

The need for water has changed river courses, raised water levels in lochs, and led to the creation of reservoirs large and small, some of them now every bit as beautiful to behold as the natural lochs which have existed for millennia. The need for bread has left the landscape dotted with mills, some of them fed by fast flowing rivers, others from specially constructed millponds, and the fishing industry has left its mark all around our coast.

But the most frequently found industrial relic is probably the corn mill, the focal point of every agricultural community, and a key component of the food supply chain. The mill’s location was dictated by geography.

Ideally it needed to be near the farming community whose corn it ground, near the community who bought and used its flour, and located close by a plentiful supply of water.

While some mills were established in remote locations simply because there was a ready supply of fast running water, a number of towns and villages owe their very existence to their mill, being developed around this key facility, and sharing its water supply.

The first mills in Scotland were probably ‘Norse mills’ (also known as ‘Greek mills’), so it is not surprising that examples are still to be found in the Orkneys, Shetland and in the Western Isles. Such mills were in use over 2000 years ago, their simple design being easy to construct with even rudimentary expertise. However, they were not efficient, so could only be used when there was a substantial supply of water. While Orkney today has but a single example, those on Shetland and in the Hebrides have fared a little better.

The design was very simple, a stream of fast moving water drove a rotating set of paddles beneath the mill floor, directly turning the millstone above.

With some mills it was the natural force of the water which did the business, but where the water moved more slowly, it was collected in large millponds and, when the mill was working, it was directed through narrowing channels to increase its flow, eventually passing under the mill and driving the rotor.

In more populous and ‘civilised’ places, Roman influences saw the rotor mills replaced with what were known as ‘Vitruvian mills’, presumably named after the 1st century BC Emperor Vitruvius, and they marked the introduction of the overshot or bucket mill into Britain. Medieval development, however, went into the development of the undershot wheel, where flow which propelled the bottom blades of the waterwheel forwards.

A fine example of a 17th century undershot mill can be found in the Lothian village of East Linton. Preston Mill has been restored to working order by the National Trust for Scotland.

Undershot wheels were fine when rivers were in flood and the water flow was considerable, but tended to be at their least efficient in the dry autumn, when the corn was ready to be ground!

So water needed to be conserved and stored for when it was needed, and that requirement drove the development of the millpond, or in many cases, a series of ponds sited successively higher above the mill.

More efficient was the breastshot design, where water was introduced via a narrowing mill lade to fall on to the blades of the wheel at axle level. This proved twice as efficient as the undershot wheel, and with this design the same quantity of water produced over double the energy, combining water power with the natural forces of gravity.

But it was the overshot wheel, where water was introduced at the top of the wheel, which drove the majority of later mills, and the water powered ‘manufactories’ of the Industrial Revolution.

As larger mills were developed and demands on farmers and millers increased to meet a growing population, getting the grain to the mills, or the flour from the mills to the bakers, clearly demanded an improved transport system.

The drove roads and tracks of old were ill suited to the needs of larger horse drawn vehicles and ever heavier loads. But building Scotland’s new roads and bridges is quite another story.

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