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Aberdeen's Water Driven Mills

It has been already mentioned that in the "Book of St George's-in-the-West" there is an account of the finding of the traces of a Mill in the south end of the block of houses between Broad Street and Guestrow. There is no record of this mill, and the presumption is that it had ceased to work before 1398, the date when the town's records begin. It had been driven by the Spital Burn, augmented by the Westburn from Mastrick.

The map below shows the Location of the Justice Mills around which the battle was fought in 1644 .  During an assessment in June 2001 of an area on the corner of Justice Mill Brae and Union Glen upstanding walls of the early 19th-century Justice Mill were recorded. Excavation revealed demolition material from this later mill but no evidence of an earlier structure was recorded. The earliest reference to the Justice Mills is 1398

The earliest mention of Mills in or near Aberdeen is in a charter dated 1349-50; quoted in "Records of Marischal College," I. 13, note, where two portions of land are described as lying near the Denburn on the north side of the road from the Denburn to the Justiciar's Mills. This was the Windmill Brae and Langstane Place roads. These are the mills now called the Justice Mills. They seem to have got their name from the King's Justiciar in the north being accustomed to hold courts on the knoll beside them. There are two Mills driven in succession by the same stream — the Rubislaw or Holburn. It is now covered up from Rubislaw Bleachfield downward to its mouth in the bank of the Dee below Wellington Bridge. Formerly there was a mill dam for the upper mill on the west side of Holburn Street, which is now filled up, and another for the lower mill between the two mills, which is still in existence. After driving the lower mill, the water was used to drive the wheel of Ferryhill Mill ; but it was withdrawn from Ferryhill Mill on account of the formation of new streets on the east side of the mill. In Munro's " Common Good of the Burgh of Aberdeen " it is mentioned that from the first entry in the Town's Records dated 1308, it is seen that in 1394 the town's mills were let at £20 Scots. In 1575 the town's four mills were assigned to Provost Gilbert Menzies as security for money lent by him to the town. The four mills must have been the mills mentioned in 1398, which undoubtedly had been the two Justice Mills, and the Upper and Nether Mills within the city.

The Holburn or burn of the howe has two head waters, the north, which is the greater, coming from Hazelhead through Walker Dam, and the south from Craigiebuckler. The two streams are crossed in going from Rubislaw Quarry to Springbank Cemetery, a little above their junction. The united stream did service in feeding steam condensing ponds at the now extinct Rubislaw Bleachfield and then flowed eastward. It crosses Forest Avenue and St Swithin Street, and at the bend in Hartington Road it again divides into two branches. The south branch, which is the original burn, keeping the low ground crosses Union Grove and Ashvale Place and passes under Holburn Bridge, built when the Stonehaven turnpike was made early in last century.

James Gordon - Map of Aberdeen 1661

The north branch, an artificial mill-lead, goes to the Upper and Lower Justice Mills. At the end of Stanley Street it enters on Albyn Lane, which it follows to Holburn Street. Near the end of the lane may be seen a sluice on the mill-lead. The advantageous situation at the east side of Holburn Street had early led to the erection there of first one mill and then another, both worked one after the other by the same water. The Chartulary of St Nicholas mentions the Justice Mill, II. p. 95, and subsequently in 1438 the Justice Mills, p. 1U2. A tradition of the town says that William Leith of Barns gave the original mill to the town as a peace-offering, that he might be exempted from punishment for killing a baillie. The memory of the slaughter being upheld by a cairn at the spot it is not unlikely that the traditional story is correct; but as the Burgh Records do not go so far back as the time of William Leith, the tradition cannot be confirmed. The " Book of Bon-Accord " says that the name Justice is a corruption of Justiciar, which implies that the King's Justiciar in the north had periodically held Circuit Courts there at a mound, the seat of justice. Below Holburn Bridge the mill-water rejoins the parent stream, which thereafter passes under the Hardgate at a bridge called the New Bridge, erected in 1775 when the Hardgate was improved and widened. Above New Bridge a branch of the burn was diverted to the right along Willowbank and Rosebank to drive Ferryhill Mill, originally a meal mill and afterwards a flour mill. A good many years ago it was burned, and after standing long unoccupied it was converted into a glove manufactory. The Town Council got an annual rent for the water-power for several years, but the water was afterwards withdrawn from the mill to save the expense of making a new course for it after leaving the manufactory.

Map Showing Burns and Mills

Before 1394 the Netherkirkgate Mill had given place to another situated in what is now known as Flourmiil Brae, then outside the town. One reason for transferring the Netherkirkgate Mill to a lower site must have been the possibility of bringing to the new place a supply of water from the Denburn by a lade branching off at the old Gilcomston Dam. The water brought by this lade joined the united Spital Burn and Westburn in Maberly Street, and flowed east along Spring Garden into the long dam in Loch Street. Emerging from the south end of the dam at the Loch E'e the mill burn flowed along Burn Court and across Upperkirkgate to the Upper Mill in Flourmill Brae. Leaving it the water ran across the lowest part of Netherkirkgate, across St Nicholas Street, St Nicholas Lane, Union Street, East Green, and passed under the Market. Then it crossed Hadden Street diagonally and drove the Nether Mill on the west side of the street, and afterwards entered the Denburn at Trinity Street. Probably there had at first been only one mill on the burn, but in 1525, if not before, the Nether Mill had been erected. Originally the Upper Mill was only a meal mill. Latterly stones for grinding wheat were added, driven by the same wheel as those of the meal mill. The Upper Mill continued to work till 1865
Flour Mill Lane. - The Burgh's Upper Mill, fed by the mill burn running from the Loch, stood nearby from the 13th century to 1865. The Mill was an important source of revenue and was leased out to tenants who milled wheat, rye and malt.

In Gordon's Map, 1661, among the references in the margin is one to the Mid Mill, but its position is not shown on the map itself. Taylor's Map, however, shows the three mills, Upper, Mid, and Lower, all on the same burn. Their positions are indicated by small white circular spots. The Mid Mill must have been on the site of the Commercial Bank in Union Street. It was erected in 1619, as is shown by an entry in the town's records, where there is mention of paying for a pint of wine on the occasion of " taking sasine (ownership) of John Fraser's house where the Myd Mill is biggit. (Built)" It was a meal mill at first and afterwards a malt mill. It ceased to work in 1798, when its site was required for the construction of Union Street.

The Nether Mill is shown in Gordon's Map in 1661 and in other old maps of the city. In 1897, in the course of some alterations in the base of No.s 9-11 St Nicholas Street, the channel of the mill burn was found in the house; and when Nos 13-15 was rebuilt a few years later the channel of the mill burn was found partly in the house and partly in the street, coming from the Flour Mill across the end of Netherkirkgate. The site of the Nether Mill was within the block of building bounded by Hadden Street, Exchange Street, Imperial Place, and Stirling Street. It was at first a meal mill, in 1847 it became a malt mill, and lastly a sawmill. It ceased to work at the same time as the Upper Mill.

James Gordon - Map of Aberdeen 1661


The mill lade from Gilcomston Dam to the Loch passed along the north side of Baker Street; and here the Town Council had granted a site for a lint mill, with water power to 'scutch' the lint, and a croft on the south side of the road to spread out the lint upon after being in the steep. In 1751 the mill and the croft were transferred to a distillery company on a tack of 99 years, at £? per acre, a condition being that the tack would terminate if the property were used for any other purpose than a distillery. The business did not prosper, and in 1763 the Town Council permitted the lease to be assigned to a brewery company, with leave to take water by a lead pipe from the lade.
Scutching: - The flax was bruised on a stone with a timber club to break up the outer straw and release the fibre. Hand scutching was done
with an upright board, which had a slot at one side near the top. A handful of flax would be held in this slot and turned while the fibres were beaten down against the side of the board with a wooden bladed scutching tool.

In 1766 the company got leave to divert the mill burn to the south side of the road to drive a wheel there, on condition of returning it to the north side. This led to an extension of the brewery company's premises and business. A mill-house was erected on the south side of the road with two pairs of millstones in one end for grinding oats and wheat, and two pairs in the other for barley and malt. The mill-wheel was in a pit crossing the middle of the house, which had to be deep because the water passed over the wheel. This wheel was intended merely to drive millstones ; but another use was found for it. In digging the pit water was found. Much water was required for brewing, and hitherto the only supply had been the mill burn. The brewery company, however, wishing to have spring water for making their malt liquors, sank a deep well in the mill-house beside the wheel, and put in a pump worked by the wheel to raise water.

Milnes Map 1789

In 1616 the Town Council ordered the construction of two mills to be driven by the influx and efflux of the tide. Probably they were to work in conjunction, alternately; and the site may have been on the Trinity Burn above the harbour at Shore Brae. There is no doubt that mills could be driven in this way, and very many attempts have been made to utilise the inimitable power of the ocean in the rise and fall of the tide. Hardly ever have they been successful, and the Aberdeen Shore Mills seem to have been failures. There are three great obstacles to the economical working of sea mills. The hours of high and low water vary daily, and at unequal intervals ; the range of the tide, or the difference between high water and low water, also varies from day to day ; and there are four considerable periods every day during which the tide ceases to flow.

In 1621 two corn mills were erected somewhere within the floodmark, to be driven by the influx and efflux of the tide; but they proved failures. It was also proposed to erect others near the mouth of the river on the south side. There would have been a more powerful current there; but the power would have been intermittent and variable in direction, and they seem to have done no good, if they were erected.

Tide Mill. At the left, the sluice gate is closed and the millrace gate is open, with the water wheel in action. At the right, the incoming tide has opened the sluice gate to fill the pond; the millrace gate has been closed, and the mill is inactive. Milling can be carried on in two periods of five or seven hours each for every twenty-four hours.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013