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Meal Mill Grist

Finer grain for meal making cannot be grown anywhere in the world than that produced by the farmers in Aberdeenshire, and the meal offered for sale in Aberdeen cannot be surpassed in quality. The abandonment of innumerable small mills in the town and country has been followed by the erection of large establishments fitted with machinery which produces a perfect article. Before the grain is roasted in the kiln all foreign matters are extracted, and the quantity and variety of these strike the stranger with amazement. The shelling of the dried grain is perfect, and a "sid" is never seen among the meal. Formerly an article of food called "sowens" was made from the particles of fine meal which remained in the bosoms of sids sifted out of the meal. Now the machinery does its work so well that mealy sids are not obtainable, and sowens can no longer be made.

The province of the Garioch (pronounced "Gearee"), consists of the parishes of Kennethmont, Insch, Culsalmond, Rayne, Daviot, Meldrum, Bourtie, Keithhall and Kinkell, Kintore, Kemnay, Monymusk, Oyne, Premnay, Leslie, Clatt, Chapel of Garioch and Inverurie. It could be termed the heartland of Aberdeenshire, has been agriculturally productive for hundreds of years and for this reason has been known as "the meal girnal" of Aberdeenshire.

A change has also come about with regard to the use of the shells taken of the grain before it is ground. Formerly they were used to burn in the kiln; but though this use continues to some extent the shells are extensively used now for adulterating cakes for feeding cattle. They are not known to be used for this purpose in this country, but they are exported from Aberdeen, ground and un-ground; and it is at least possible that they may come back in cakes to be eaten on the farms where the grain they came from originally grew.

In 1767, the harvest being unfavourable, and the price of meal consequently high, the populace broke open and robbed one of the meal cellars in town, and threatened to hang its owner, under the impression that he had wilfully raised the price beyond what was necessary. In order to quell this riot, the magistrates were obliged to call in the aid of the military, and it was not till one of the rioters was killed and several wounded, that the mob was dispersed. In 1782, the alarming deficiency of the crop led the citizens to adopt precautions to avert the threatened famine, and accordingly a subscription was opened, and a committee appointed to purchase corn to be distributed to the inhabitants. By their accounts it appears that, up to the end of July 1783, they had imported 2205 sacks of various kinds of meal, 619 quarters of barley, and 9082 bolls of grain.

Attempts were made in 1786 to redress certain abuses connected with the administration of the funds of the Scottish burghs, and in these attempts several of the citizens of Aberdeen took a principal share; but the Bill which was introduced into Parliament for this purpose was thrown out in 1789. These attempts were renewed in 1792, and a select committee of the House of Commons was appointed to report on the matter. This report was presented in June 1793; but the odium which was cast upon reform by the democratic principles of the "Corresponding Society" and the "Scottish Convention," induced the prudent abettors of burgh reform to discontinue their exertions.

The harvest of 1799 was extremely unfavourable, and the utmost exertions of the magistrates were required in order to prevent famine. But though the prices were very high, [The price per boll was, for oatmeal, L. 2, 5s.; bear, L. 2, 4s.; potatoes, L.2, 2s.] and much distress was suffered in consequence, no serious disturbance took place.


Oatmeal of Alford

Mill on the Esset Burn in the Parish of Tullynessle & Forbes since the Bishop of Aberdeen built one in 1317

The mill’s dark interior, where every surface was covered in a fine white stoor of oat flour. After a brief transaction, a large bag of the Oatmeal of Alford was hefted into the car’s boot, to provide for the morning porridge. The scene at home was familiar throughout Scotland: the hottering pot, wooden spurtle, and steaming bowl were essential to a generation of Scots for whom processed ‘Porage Oats’ are an anathema.

Although water has been put to work milling everything from gunpowder to slate, meal mills are a characteristically Scots tradition which extends back in an unbroken line for over 800 years. Montgarrie truly is the last survivor.   Many mills were set up by Monasteries and local Lairds, and run on their behalf by artisan millers. In fact, the base course of the current mill at Montgarrie is actually part of a previous mill that dates back to Jacobean times, although legend has it that there’s been a mill on the Esset burn since the Bishop of Aberdeen built one in 1317.  All of Tullynessle was owned by the Bishopry at that time, and from its roots in the Middle Ages, the land which the current mill sits on was feued in November 1878 to James Wilson by the Reverend Leith.  Building work started in 1882, organised by The Aberdeen & Alford Milling Company, which ran Montgarrie for several years until it was bought by Mr Purdie, who went into business with the miller, Mr Wilson.

That partnership was shortlived, though, as Wilson decided to emigrate to Australia accompanied by Purdie’s wife, and all his savings! In the aftermath, the mill was taken over by Angus Macdonald, whose family owned and worked it for over a century.  The need for a new mill may well have been the result of a disastrous fire: oatmeal is combustible, and the finest powdery meal can explode with a mere spark, or even friction against a surface. Certainly, the kiln side of the current mill has burned down twice in its history – the last time was in 1955, after which the roofs and floors were rebuilt, and the grain storage buildings were reconstructed in metal. Maltings and Brewhouses face similar risks, and most are kept scrupulously clean as a result.  Mills face an additional hazard, though, because they’re subject to the twin perils of fire and water. The Esset occasionally overflows its banks in winter, inundating the small flood plain around the mill. In normal weather, some of its water is diverted along a lade, and that’s where the miller’s tale begins.  The mill lade was rebuilt in reinforced concrete in the 1950s, yet looks quite in keeping with the granite rubble mill behind it; ‘spillwater’ allows the miller to divert the water back into the burn, or towards the mighty wheel.

Montgarrie’s wheel is one of the most impressive in the country: an overshot bucket wheel which measures 24 feet in diameter and is four feet broad.  It has 10 spokes, it weighs 21 tons, and was made in 1886 by James Abernethy’s Foundry in Aberdeen.  Mill wheel-makers use larch for the buckets, taking advantage of that timber’s natural disinfectant properties which make it rot-proof.  Once it’s going, the wheel revolves at six revolutions per minute, and drives through a 15 foot sprocket on the water wheel axle, which meshes with a gearbox and chain drive, cogged to engage in turn with the five pairs of millstones through slotted pinions or stone nuts.  After use, the water of the Esset flows along a tailrace into an underground culvert 250 yards long, then debouches into the Don.

Several generations of McDonald family worked the Montgarrie Mill, from their purchase in 1894, to financial straits in 1998, when John and Carol Medlock took over.  Today, the mill employs two millers, Gwen Williamson and Richie Duncan, and is the last commercial meal mill operated in the traditional way: the process has remained constant for over a century.  The mill did a brisk trade in the early decades of the 20th century, but its heyday arrived during World War II, when 25 people worked at Montgarrie – including a night shift!  The mill made 1,000 tons of oatmeal per year (compared to around 200 tons today), and large quantities were shipped out to provide servicemen with their morning porridge – but the mill also produced seed oats and bruised oats.  

Today, individual farms buy their own oil-fuelled grain driers (some of them made by my extended family, at Edwards Engineering in Perth), but Montgarrie’s ‘flat’ kiln once acted as a communal grain drier for the local farmers.  Things became tougher after the war, as cereal processing was industrialised by firms like Rank and McDougall.  Meal mills were an endangered species by 1970, when a Scottish industrial survey was instituted to find and record the survivors.  There were only a handful of traditional mills still working at that time – Tarlan, Prettsmill, Folkerton, Barry and Craighead among them, and a watermill at Tarves had fallen by the wayside just before the survey began.  These mills often had a haze of dust in the air, the product of decades of milling, like fog on a spider’s web; yet today Montgarrie is immaculate, despite working as hard as ever.  Predictably, winter is the busiest time at the mill – because porridge is in demand.  Montgarrie produces 30 tons of meal each month we get cold weather, but far less in summer.

Yet there is always work to do here: the mill machinery has over 3,000 grease nipples to attend to, a laborious process of filling up little tubs with grease, then adjusting screws to deliver it to the bearings.  Just as the machinery hasn’t changed, the process has remained the same, too.  The fresh oats are raked over the floor of the kiln, using a long-handled wooden ‘sheeler’, where perforated cast iron plates allow heat from the furnace below to rise up and dry them.  The furnace is built of stone, with a vaulted brick lining and iron hearth doors: a couple of electric fans provide the extra draught which once came from a set of bellows.  The revolving ridge ventilator on top of the kiln assists the drying process, and gives the mill its distinctive silhouette.  The oats dry in the kiln over the course of four hours, during which their moisture level drops to four percent.  Afterwards, once they have cooled down, the oats are screened – then the sluice gates are opened, and the gearbox engaged.  

The shelling stones begin turning, and the oats are fed in – one stone opens the longer grains, and another opens the shorter husks.  They are then ground into four cuts: fine, medium, rough and pinhead (which is a kernel cut in half).  In the past, Montgarrie concentrated on the Matra variety of oats for its light shell and substantial kernel; now the mill uses several varieties known generically as ‘milling oats’, and the main distinction is between organic and conventionally-grown crops.  Millstones are traditionally made from French burr (freshwater quartz from La Ferté-sous-Jouarre), an expensive stone which had to be specially imported.  Latterly, millers have dressed the worn faces of their stones with emery: but the unique pattern of furrows on the face of the stone, arranged in a series of ‘harps’ remains the same.  Today, Montgarrie’s stones are refaced by the miller himself, using a mixture of emery, rock salt and Portland Cement.

Jake Balfour at Montgarrie Meal MillThe dried oats pass through riddles, and are then lifted up to the head of the mill, transferred into a grain hopper from which the oats are fed into the first pair of stones, known as the groating stones, where the husks are removed from the kernels.  The oats fall by gravity from the millstones into a winnowing machine where the chaff is separated; then the cleaned groats are returned to the loft by an elevator – a series of metal buckets attached to an endless belt – and down into another hopper.  This time, it’s fed into a set of finishing stones, after which the ground meal falls into a sieving machine, then the meal finally reaches the ground floor, and is sorted and bagged.  Some grades of oatmeal may pass through the stones for a third time, for extra refining.  The whole process of drying, cooling, screening and milling takes around 20 days

There are many mill legends – and some have more than a grain of truth to them. One tale has it that the mill boy was paid a week’s wages to crawl along the tailrace culvert’s 250 metres, cleaning it out as he went.  Having walked along damp culverts myself, wearing waders and crouching all the way, this can’t have been an enjoyable task!  Other urban myths tell of spawning salmon that leapt up the wheel and into the mill lade; and of a woman who travelled in the other direction – she went over the top of wheel, but survived to tell the tale.  Perhaps the most nostalgic story relates to the ice skate left behind by an emigrating miller – possibly even Mr Wilson!  He was skating on a nearby pond the day before he was due to leave, but when he packed his bags and took the train to Aberdeen, he left one skate behind. It still hangs from its strap beside the kiln, like a talisman.

The end product?  Now packaged in polythene sacks rather than hessian bags, it’s called the Oatmeal of Alford rather than Montgarrie oatmeal because Alford was the closest railway station, hence a better-known departure point.  From Alford, the oatmeal travelled out into the wider world: today it’s stocked by dozens of outlets in the North-East; rather fewer once you reach the Central Belt; but almost none south of the Border except Waitrose. There is an export trade, though, largely due to expatriate Scots who cling on to tradition.  Mark Chalmers

At five o’clock we quickly rise 
An hurry doon the stair; 
It’s there to corn oor horses, 
Likewise tae straik their hair. 
Syne, efter workin half-an-hour, 
Each tae the kitchie goes, 
It’s there tae get oor brakfest 
Which generally is Brose

Oatmeal Brose was the true foundation of an expedition, and the correct method of making it must be put on record. A quantity of coarse oatmeal - with salt 'to taste' as they say - is placed in a bowl and boiling water poured over it. The water must be boiling hard as it pours and there should be enough of it to just cover the oatmeal. A plate is immediately placed over the bowl like a lid. You now sit by for a few minutes, gloating. This is your brose cooking in its own steam. During this pause, slip a nut of butter under the plate and into the brose. In four or five minutes whip off the lid, stir the mass violently together, splash in some milk and eat. You will never again be happy with the wersh and fushionless silky slop which passes for porridge. This was the food whose devotees staggered the Legions of Rome; broke the Norsemen; held the Border for five hundred years; and are standing fast on borders still. It is a dish for men. It also happens to taste superbly. We ate it twice a day, frequently without milk, although such a simplification demands what an Ayrshire farmer once described to me as a 'guid-gaun stomach'. He is a happy traveller who has with him a bag of oatmeal and a poke of salt. He will travel fast and far.'


A MERK is an old Scots coin equal to 13/4 Scots. A merkland is land valued in auld extent at that sum. A ploughgate being a forty-shilling land of Auld Extent and being calculated at about 104 aces, a merkland would be on an average 34 acres, the exact size however depending rather on its productive capacity than on its superficial area.

Knavepen - A small proportion of the grain ground at a mill given to the servant who does the actual grinding: one of the sequels of Thirlage.

Gowpen - A double handful. Lock - A single handful. Two of the perquisites in grain or meal of the mill-servants, payable by those in the sucken of a mill.

Sucken - The lands of an estate on which there was an obligation to grind corn at a certain mill. Proprietors or tenants of such lands were called suckeners.

Thirlage - The servitude or obligation on occupiers of certain lands to take their grain to a particular mill to be ground for payment of certain duties (in kind) specified in the conveyance. See Multure, Sequels, Sucken.

Maille - Strictly, rental paid in money. Sometimes called silver-maill. Grass-maill was the rent payable for grazing cattle on some other’s pasture.


1815 - The Corn Laws were passed to protect British wheat growers. The duty on imported wheat was raised and price controls on bread lifted. Bread prices rose sharply.

1822 - In London standard weights for loaves were abolished. Bakers had to weigh each loaf in the customer's presence.

1826 - Wholemeal bread, eaten by the military, was recommended as being healthier than the white bread eaten by the aristocracy.

1834 - Rollermills were invented in Switzerland. Whereas stonegrinding crushed the grain, distributing the vitamins and nutrients evenly, the rollermill broke open the wheat berry and allowed easy separation of the wheat germ and bran. This process greatly eased the production of white flour but it was not until the 1870s that it became economic. Steel rollermills gradually replaced the old windmills and watermills.

1846 - With large groups of the population near to starvation the Corn Laws were repealed and the duty on imported grain was removed. Importing good quality North American wheat enabled white bread to be made at a reasonable cost. Together with the introduction of the rollermill this led to the increase in the general consumption of white bread - for so long the privilege of the upper classes.

Millers everywhere continued to use the ancient methods of wind and watermills, except for a few progressive men who strove to free themselves from the restraints of waiting on the wind and water to drive the mill machinery. In the middle of the 19th century, a Swiss Engineer invented a new type of mill; abandoning the use of the stone mill-wheels, he designed rollers made of steel which operated one above the other. It was called the reduction roller-milling system, and these machines soon became accepted all over Europe and in Britain. They were driven by steam-engines, which had by now much improved, and the new method proved a great success. So popular did they become, that within about 30 years from their introduction into Britain in 1880, more than 3/4 of the Windmills and Watermills which had served so faithfully (if sometimes erratically) for 100s of years, were demolished, or left to rot. Meanwhile, the development of the North American prairies, ideally suited to grow wheat, provided ample grain for the fast-growing population of Great Britain at the time of the Industrial Revolution (which in turn reduced the farm acreage here). This, together with the invention of the roller-milling system, meant that for the 1st time in history, whiter flour (and therefore bread) could be produced at a price which brought it within the reach of everyone - not just the rich.


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Last modified: 01/09/2013