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 Rubbing Stones and Meal Mills
The mode of making oatmeal in the stone age was to lay a handful of oats upon a saucer-shaped stone and to rub them with another stone held in the hand. Many such stones are found in graves in the fields, inverted over the burned bones of the owners.

The oats had been previously dried or roasted upon a place where a fire had been burning, both to improve the flavour of the meal and to facilitate the grinding. The sids or shells of the oats had been sifted out after the grinding.

The stones as we find them are hollow in the centre, but originally they had been flat. By long use they would wear smooth, and they had then been roughened by striking them with a sharp-pointed quartz stone, and this had gradually hollowed them in the centre. Rubbing stones of this fashion are still in use among African tribes.

In many places there are on solid rocks or large boulders groups o( cups which had been used in pounding or bruising grain to be meal. They are commonly about two inches in diameter and resemble in shape the hollow in the shell of the top of an egg. Some had been made by means of a pointed stone, and some had been excavated by metal chisels. Sometimes a cup is seen on the underside of the cover of a stone-lined grave cist, and sometimes on one of the pillars of a stone circle round a grave. These must be very ancient.

An advance upon the rubbing stone was the quern, which was also at first a stone age machine, though it continued in use long after the introduction of metals. Querns were used within the last hundred years to grind malt for making smuggled whisky. The simplest form of quern consisted of two stones, one of them hollowed out by means of a pointed stone into the form of a small tub, and another dressed to the shape of a cheese to fit into the cavity of the other. The oats to be ground were put into the lower stone, and the upper was turned round upon them by a wooden pin let into it near the circumference. After the introduction of bronze, iron, and steel, quern stones were shaped with metal tools. The ancients did not know our way of converting malleable iron into steel; but in some countries they made steel of excellent quality, unwittingly, in smelting good iron ore with charcoal fuel' Among the Romans, Noric iron bore a high reputation, and it had all the qualities of the best steel for stone dressing. In a later and improved form of the quern the lower millstone had the upper side convex, and the under side of the upper was so concave that it rested upon the under stone only at the circumference. An upper millstone of this sort was to be seen in Marischal College Museum. To keep the upper stone in its place a spindle of iron was fixed vertically in the centre of the lower stone, and a bar of iron was let into the lower side of the upper stone. In the centre of the bar there was on the under side a small cup like a thimble. The upper stone was placed on the lower in such a way that the thimble rested on the point of the spindle. The oats to be ground were poured into a hole in the upper stone, and they filled the vacant space between the stones. The upper stone was turned round by a pin for a handle, and the meal came out at the circumference at the seam between the two stones. A quern of this style was found among the debris in the Greyfriars Church when it was demolished. Most likely the quern had been used in grinding malt to be used in making whisky in secret.

The parts of this mill were few. A chief part was a vertical shaft, which passed through the floor of the mill- house into a chamber below, formed by two stone walls three or four feet apart. Into the bottom of the shaft was inserted a cylindrical hard stone, the point of which served for a pivot on which the shaft turned. The pivot rested in another hard cup-shaped stone placed on a strong bar which could be raised a little, if necessary, by a wedge below one end. A pivot and its cup are in the museum of Marischal College. Into the shaft were inserted the ends of ten or twelve (st)aves or water-boards placed at an angle of 45 degrees, so that it resembled a wind-mill placed horizontally. A drain brought a stream of water to the mill. It entered a sloping wooden spout which discharged the water with some force upon the water boards and made the shaft revolve. On the floor of the upper chamber was laid the lower millstone, which had a hole in the centre. Through this hole the shaft passed, some stuffing being inserted between the shaft and the stone to prevent the escape of meal. The top of the shaft was square, and a bar passed across the under side of the upper stone with a square hole in the middle, by which it was made to rest on the top of the shaft. When the water struck the (st)aves the shaft revolved and caused the upper stone to revolve also. The corn was fed in at a hole in the upper stone from a hopper hung above. The millhouse was only ten or twelve feet square, and the roof was low. Such a mill ground a bushel of oats in an hour, and as the work was usually done in the evening in winter a small fire was kept burning in one corner. Mills of this sort were in use in Shetland till the middle of last century; but they were used in Aberdeenshire and other parts of Scotland in early times. It may be taken as certain that the first mills in Aberdeen had been of this sort.

Till 1903 the Denburn it was crossed by Stonyton Bridge, a little west of Prince Arthur Street, where a branch went off' on the south side to drive a meal mill between Garden Place and Osborne Place, south of Gilcomston Dam. It was given up in 1830 and removed in 1842 ; but its site is shown in "Vanishing Aberdeen."

Two possible standing stones whose site is now built over. The larger was known as the Gilcon Stone and was said to have given name to the suburb of Gilcomston. It was c.8' high and 12' in girth 'with four very unequal sides.' The other, shown at a distance of c.7 or 8m from the first was c.6' high. The site is on the crest of a fairly steep rise. Paterson shows the two stones standing on a hillock.

At South Mount Street the water-course enters on Baker Street, and there till 1902 stood another meal mill, which caused a great commotion in Aberdeen 400 years ago. When the Town Council acquired at some far-back date the right to take the water of the Denburn they did not, buy the land, and they could not prevent the proprietor of Gilcomston from using the water on its way into the town, and he erected a meal mill in 1513 at the top of the brae, at the east end of Baker Street. The mill interfered with the town's monopoly of meal-making for the citizens, and as it could not be stopped heavy penalties were imposed on those who went past the town's mills with their corn to grind; and the farmer tenant of the mill was debarred from getting any of the fulzie of the city to manure his barren, stony fields. The difficulty was solved in 1679, when the town bought the land of Gilcomston. The formation of the Dam at Gilcomston may be assigned to the time of the erection of the mill at Baker Street, because the town had a dam of its own called the Loch. The Lower Mill of Gilcomston was on the south side of Baker Street, and in connection with it there was afterwards erected Gilcomston Brewery, for which the mill ground the malt used in brewing. The mill wheel served also to pump from a deep well the water required for the brewery and a distillery attached to it. This had a prejudicial effect on the Well of Gilcomston, a strong spring on the North side of Baker Street, which had been pressed into the service of the town. It now sends water only to the Well of Spa and a watering trough at the end of the Infirmary.

In the primitive mills with a horizontal water-wheel the length of the aves was regulated by the speed required for proper grinding. To have lengthened the aves would have increased the power, but would have reduced the speed. The necessity for more power with a fair speed led to the introduction of mills driven by broad, vertical, overshot and undershot wheels yielding power enough to increase speed at pleasure. Though of the modern type, the first of these mills were very simple machines. All they did was to shell the oats and grind the shelling — the name given to the oats when the husks were removed. The farmer dried or roasted his corn on his own kiln and conveyed it on horseback to the mill. In ancient Aberdeen men called drysters had kilns for general use, where they dried oats for making meal. Barley for brewing ale had also to be dried after being steeped and malted.

When a miller was ready to take in hand a farmer's corn he sent him word to attend at the mill on a certain day, to riddle the shelled corn and sift the meal; for neither of these operations could the mill do. On the day fixed the farmer's wife and daughters or servants set out for the mill early in the morning, each carrying a riddle, a sieve, and a sheet to sift upon. Most of the meal making was done in winter, because the crop had to be thrashed to furnish straw for winter fodder for cattle. It was, besides, forbidden by Act of the Scots Parliament to cause meal to become dear by hoarding up corn into summer. The last of a farmer's crop had to be thrashed and made into meal before a fixed date in early summer. On this occasion the grain loft was swept out clean, and hence the last despatch to the mill for the season was called the dusty meldure. A century ago this epithet was facetiously given to the youngest of a large family.

When all was ready the miller started the mill and stood by with his thumbs in the armholes of his vest, watching the mill and looking on at the farmer pouring the corn into the hopper, and at his wife and daughters riddling out the sids from the shelled corn. This was done outside to let the wind blow to the side the fine hairs seen on one end of the oats when the shells are taken oft". It required skill on the miller's part to set the millstones at such a distance from one another that they shelled the corn and took off the hairs - called the dust - and yet did not take off any part of the kernel. After the shells were riddled out and the dust was separated from the shelled corn it was put through the mill again with the stones set close. This ground the corn to fine meal, and it also ground any grains which had been left unshelled. The women had therefore to pass the meal through a skin sieve pierced with small holes to take out accidental sids.

As the mill did but little work little water was required to drive it; but, when mills were provided with riddles to take out the shells, fans to winnow out the dust, and sifters to remove sids from the meal, then more water was required to drive them. In Aberdeen this, combined with the increase of population, caused the town to utilise its water power to the utmost to be able to supply the citizens with meal. After flour began to come in large quantities from America the use of oatmeal decreased, and many of the meal mills once at work in the town have ceased to exist, and their site is hardly known.

In 1616 the Town Council ordered the construction of two mills to be driven by the influx and reflux 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 illimitable 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