Baronial Mills

This article owes much to the work of John Reid who charted the early history of the water mills in two papers published in Calatria in 2004-5.  Those papers also covered later mills associated with industry, starting with the fulling and waulk mills and continuing with char, paper, wood flour, flint, silk and other industrial mills.  Here we will only be looking at the early corn mills associated with the owners of baronies and large estates, though some of these were latterly converted to industrial use.

The Early Mills

Roman water mills are known along Hadrian’s Wall and it is probable that there was at least one in the vicinity of the Antonine Wall.  There have certainly been water mills in the Falkirk district since at least the 12th century.  However, the first recorded mills appear in royal charters issued to the religious houses in the area.  Some of the mills must have been built as part of the royal estate, whilst others were erected de novo by the abbeys.  Included in the founding charter of the Abbey of Holyrood in 1128 was the gift of the church at Airth.  A confirmation charter by Robert II provides the detail that the gift included a saltpan, 26 acres, and “freedom to construct a mill in that land” showing that the mill was new.  Just how long a mill existed before it is first mentioned in surviving records is, of course, impossible to determine.   Dunipace Mill is first mentioned in the Cambuskenneth Cartularies in 1200 but the lade was there at such an early date that the east end of it was used to demarcate the boundary between the parishes of Dunipace and Larbert.  Despite being in constant use, as far as we can tell, the mill only reappears in the written record in the 1740s.

The nunnery and priory of St Mary at Manuel was founded between 1156 and 1164 by King Malcolm IV and received various gifts over the following decades.  In 1196 William the Lion presented the nunnery with his mills in the sheriffdom of Linlithgow.  It is important to note that these mills were already in existence by this date.  Although not specified in the surviving document there is evidence from the sixteenth century that they were the Burgh Mill and Little Mill which were then set in feu by the prioress.  These were on the east side of the River Avon and thus just outside of the Falkirk district.  By that latter date the nunnery also had possession of Mungal Mill which the prioress feued in 1568.

In 1234 the existing mill at Polmont is mentioned in a grant by King Alexander II to the Abbey of Newbattle.  It was surrounded by the vast estate of Holyrood Abbey and was probably included in the lands rented by that abbey from Newbattle.  In 1237 the mill was sold to Holyrood.  Newbattle also held the mill at Stenhouse.  In describing its location in 1293 the charter pointed to a local landmark – Arthur’s O’on.  This mill too was already in existence when handed over to the abbey.

The King had the ability to invest in this technology, which although simple by later standards was then advanced mechanical engineering.  The Abbeys had this capability too and as the greatest land improvers of the time had more need for them than the general agricultural community.  Even as late as 1502 the lands of Compston with the mill were granted to Trinity Collegiate Church in Edinburgh.  

It is not surprising to find that two of the largest secular landholdings in the area were also in possession of mills by the end of the 13th century.  These were Kinneil and Callendar.  Kinneil had been owned by a powerful Lancashire family – the Lindseys.  The lands of Larbert were annexed to the important barony of Kinneil and feudal rights emanated from that association; which is why an early corn mill is recorded there.  In the aftermath of the Battle of Bannockburn many land holdings were forfeited to the Scottish Crown and reallocated to those who had rendered faithful service.  This was the case with Larbert Mill and sometime between 1313 and 1321 King Robert granted it to Robert Lauder.  The evidence for Callendar is more tenuous but in 1244 a charter by Alexander II to the Abbey of Holyrood mentions “ponds and mills” which appear to have previously formed part of the thanedom of Kalentyr.

From these small beginnings the number of mills gradually grew.  That many of the royal or ecclesiastical mills disappear from the records only to re-emerge in the sixteenth century indicates that there is a gap in the records.  However, it was precisely because at that later date the number of mills increased considerably that the record keeping had to be improved.  It was during the sixteenth century that the nunnery of Manuel feued its mills at the Little Mill and the Burgh Mill to the Burgh of Linlithgow, and Mungal Mill to John Livingston in Dalderse.  As well as the mill, Livingston was granted “the thirle multures of the lands of over and nether Mungallis pertaining to the said mill, with sucken.

Here it might be useful to explain such terms which were characteristic of baronial mills.  The tenants living in a barony were thirled to the estate’s mill, that is to say they were bound to take their corn to be ground to their landlord’s mill and to no other.  The tenants so thirled were known as suckeners and the area over which the mill held this power was the sucken.  In the higher courts the word astricted was more often used than thirled.  The tenants’ thirlage to the mill bound them to perform certain services for the miller and to pay multures and sequelsMulture, pronounced ‘mooter,’ was a fixed proportion of the tenant’s grain paid to the miller, who was also known as the multererInsucken multures were paid by the thirled tenants.  Outsucken multures had to be paid by those who, living outside the sucken and so not bound to the mill, nevertheless took their grain to the mill for grinding.  As the system developed some estates introduced dry multures, meaning that tenants had to pay a proportion of all the grain that they grew – whether it was ground or not.  It thus included the seed corn and that used as animal feed.  When tenants failed to take their corn to the appropriate mill they could be sued for abstracted multures or for abstractionSequels were the small amounts of meal paid to the miller’s servants over and above the amount paid to the miller.  These were also known as knaveship or bannock.

Thirlage originated in feudal principles and had the twin purpose of raising revenue and exerting control over the tenants.  By extending the system to baronies it essentially acted as a form of taxation.  The benefit to the landlord who built the mill was the rent he received from the miller which was set higher in the knowledge that the miller would have a guaranteed customer base.  The ownership of a mill also became perceived as a status symbol – every barony should have one!  Some baronies such as Callendar were so large that there was more than one mill.  In this instance there was one in the west at Carmuirs (later called Lord Alexander’s Mill or Larbert Mill), one in the south called Jaw Mill, and one in the east called Lady’s Mill.  This latter also served the town of Falkirk and grew in importance as the population of the town increased.  For much of its existence the town was small and the mill relied upon its agricultural hinterland and the milling of oatmeal.  As the number of bakers in Falkirk grew the addition of white flour production made another branch of the business there rather than completely replacing the old trade.

Oatmeal, along with barley corn and pulses provided the main element of most people’s diets in Scotland until the end of the eighteenth century and for over two centuries almost every mouthful of food consumed in the Falkirk area had been processed in the baronial mills.  Oats made a rent-paying crop and quite often it was bere that provided the staple food.  Bere, a primitive indigenous form of one-sided barley, was preferred because its yield on poor soil was higher and its straw was longer and stronger making it more suitable for thatching.  The mills are usually referred to as corn mills – corn being the seeds of plants such as wheat, oats and barley.  Grist is grain that has been separated from its chaff in preparation for grinding. It can also mean grain that has been ground at a grist mill.  A grain is a small, hard, dry seed – with or without an attached hull or fruit layer – harvested for human or animal consumption.  The two main types of commercial grain crops were cereals and legumes. 

The grinding of grain into meal was a complex process.  Firstly the corn had to be dried to a proper state in a kiln.  Then the millstones were set with a wide gap and the grain run through them to break the husks from the kernel.  The husks were known as “shill” or “sheel” and were originally removed by hand.  Every corn mill had a “shilling hill” – a small eminence where the husks were sifted from the grain (not to be confused with winnowing where the chaff was separated from the ears of grain).  In 1613, for example, we have a reference at Dalquhairn to

the freedom of ane schilling-hill from the said mill… for the purpose of dichting schilling thairuponn”. 

Another example occurs at the Linn Mill in Avonbridge in 1624.  Shilling hills were also occasionally used as the sites for local courts where disputes concerning the mill were resolved – echoing the use of mottes or court hills.  After the grain was “dichted,” that is cleaned of husks, the millstones were reset to run close to each other and the grain was run through them again.  This allowed the radial grooves in the stones to crack the grain into oatmeal.

Prior to the establishment of baronial mills most subsistence families ground their corn for their own use using hand querns.  When baronial mills were installed the baron court often enforced the use of the mill by ordering the breaking of the old querns.  Amazingly few of these have survived in the archaeological record, showing what a thorough job was done and how crude they must have been to make recognition difficult.

Mills became a vital part of the economy of the baronies.  At Kinneil, Bo’ness, they were included in a list of the prime elements of the estate in a charter of 1693:

“all and whole the Lands and Barony of Kinneil, with Castles, Towers, Fortalices, Manor Places, Houses, Biggings, Yards, Orchards, Parks, Woods, Inclosures, Forests, Fishings, Corn Mills, Waulk Mills, Multures and Sequels  thereof, Lands within the Sea Flood, win and to be win, Salt Pans built or to be built, Coals, Coal Heighs, Tenants, tenantries and Services of Free tenants, Annexis, Connexis, Dependencies, Parts, Pendicles, and whol Peretinents thereof”

By the late 18th century the landlords were trying to maximise the return on their mills and the tenancies changed hands more frequently.  Whereas before it had not been unusual for a family to occupy a mill for generations this now became an exception.  Thirlage continued to be applied and the mills had to be kept up to date.  This often meant adding an extra set of stones to deal with wheat, or extra storage in order to increase the capacity of the mill.  The larger mills were more efficient.

An example of the kind of bargaining that took place when the tenancy of a mill came up for renewal can be seen at Jinkabout Mill belonging to the Duke of Hamilton.  His factor, Burrell, kept a diary:

24 Feb 1772

John and Alexander Walkers tenants in Mofat hills came this day and made offer of £30 str, yearly rent for Jinkabout Mill and the suken thereto belonging and £58-7-10d for the land thereto belonging Extending to £88 7 10d st, and that for 19 years lease after the Term of Marts next – and in Regard they Cannot for this year plow the 21 acres of neu Mill land.  They offer for this Cropt of grass £23 str. on condition that the Mill and other machineary the Kills and the whole houses thereto Belonging to be put in Sufficient repair at their Entry they oblegeing themselves to keep good and uphold the same during the Currency of the Tack and to leave them in the like good condition at their End or sooner determineation thereof – which offer is £5 1 10 str above Mr McKells rent and £1 5 7 ½ above Mr McKells rent for the land making in whole – above his rents £6 17 6 2/12 Str which offer I should advise to be accepted off were I certain of thir two Ladis Circumstances.  But that not being the Case shall suspend Judgement till such time as I am thoroughly satisfied as to that point.

26 Feb 1772

John Hill tenant of Caldor Crook Milln Came this day and Brought with him Alexander Johnston and James Thomson both our tenants hire And made off of £90 Str of yearly rent for a 19 years lease of Jinkabout Mill and land after Marts 1772. And of £25l , Str for the new Mill land for this present Croft 1772.  On Condition of his being allowed 400 Bolls of Lime for the Summer fallow.  That he shall have a new barn 40 feet long 16 feet broad and 8 foot heigh in the side walls  That the walls of the mill shall be raised, New rooffd and floord.  And that a new Kill shall be built from the foundation.  His Grace to furnich all materials and workmanship and he to furnich all Carriages.

The two Potters Leius Potter and Brother from Stenhouse Mill came also this day and Brought with them Henry Nimmo of Battack who after a long Commoning were almost persuaded to bid £92. . Str for the same Mill and land upon the very same Conditions with John Hill Except as to the Lime But begd I woud not set it to any other body till after Saturday that they took a better look of the land and advised with their friends.

18 Mar 1772

This morning John Oswald Came here and I gave him my Acceptance to his offer for a 19 years lease of Jinkabout Mill and whole land after Marts 1772 at £95. . yearly and £26 Str for this present Cropt 1772 of Kinneil Mill…

The figures show that the farm lands attached to the mill were more valuable than the use of the mill itself and this was typical of the period.

Illus : Plan of the area around Castlecary Mill in the 1770s showing how it dominated the local area. The mill was located at the bridge over the Water of Bonny and surrounded by mill lands.

Wheat was grown on the carselands from an early period but this was essentially a commercial crop for use elsewhere.  Flour made from wheat was being made and sold in Falkirk in the seventeenth century (Reid 2004, 62), but it was a luxury item.  According to Shaw there had been only one pot barley mill in Scotland in 1730 and less than a handful of flour mills (Shaw 1984, 131).  At that time only 200 bolls of wheat per annum was made into flour at Falkirk using the old corn mills.  Flour mills appear in the Falkirk district in the late-eighteenth century and by the 1790s there were seven flour mills grinding 7,000 bolls per annum.  This helped to feed the growing urban centres and the demand encouraged the planting of wheat which in rural areas, having not been grown before, was free of multure.  The Statistical Account of the 1790s also states that in 1730 Falkirk and its neighbourhood were supplied with wheaten bread from Edinburgh and Linlithgow. There were then only 3 bakers in Falkirk, and they were but occasionally employed.  In 1794 there were 18 bakers in the town and 6 in the different villages within the parish.

The technology of flour mills differed little from that of common corn mills.  The main difference was the type of millstone used.  The traditional corn millstone was simply roughened to tear and bruise the grain into coarse meal.  To grind flour the stones had to be carefully furrowed to cut the grain finer and these begin to appear around 1750 onwards.  Whereas previously the millstones had been obtained from local quarries, those for the flour mills were made from French burrstones from the Paris basin, greystones from the Peak District, or Cullen stones from the Rhineland.  The French stones tended to be made up from small pieces.  During the Napoleonic Wars their price rose substantially and local substitutes were found.  In our area this might mean Inverteil stone from Fife or Abbey Craig stone from Stirling.  Those from Stirling were also built up from small pieces and over three hundred pairs were sold, but with the return of peace the customers went back to the French ones.

The progress of the agricultural improvements in the 18th century led to a diversification in the crops grown and hence to a decline in the proportion taken as multure.  There was no equivalent tax on such crops as flax, potatoes, turnips, and so on.  Conversely, improved strain of oats led to greater yields.  Landlords faced a dilemma.  The system of thirlage acted as a disincentive to productivity and to the extension of the area of land used in agriculture – taking in such areas as mosses, coastal reclamations and common land.  Baron courts were falling into abeyance and the alternative of sheriff courts and courts of session were slow, cumbersome and very expensive.  Landlords and tenants looked towards England where thirlage was not used and where the standard of living was higher.  In some instances Scottish landlords reduced the amount taken as multure and correspondingly increased monetary rents.  A few tenants bought the rights of thirlage outright or voluntarily agreed to higher rents in commutation.  Thirlage was seen for what it was – an additional tax – and it became increasingly disliked and difficult to enforce.  Even the government recognised this and in 1799 an act was passed which made legal provision for the abolition of thirlage.  Without any form of compensation it was ineffectual.

Even as late as 1905 the owner of Manuel Mill near Whitecross, Ainslie Brown, raised an action in the Court of Session against William Forbes of Callendar House, Thomas Livingstone Learmonth of Parkhall, Carron Company and others.  The object of this action was to have it declared that the old Barony of Almond was thirled to the Mill of Manuel, and that all the farmers in the barony were bound to take the grain they required to be ground to that mill.  It was a case of national interest and was closely followed.  Two years later the judgement found that any right of thirlage had been extinguished by prescription.  It was particularly stressed that the phrase “with the astricted multures” had been dropped from the lease of the mill decades before and, whether through intent or neglect, that spelled the end of the system throughout lowland Scotland.

With a more open market many of the rural corn mills closed, though some farm mills were set up in their place.  Happily this time coincided with increased demands from industry and many found a second life milling a variety of materials from coal to sawdust.  The more remote and inefficient mills ceased to operate. 

The increased output of local agriculture and changing consumer trends led to the opening of the Falkirk Grain Market in Newmarket Street in 1830.  The opening announcement stated that “The Market will commence at half-past Ten o’clock forenoon for the sale of Beans, Oats, Meal, etc, and at 12 o’clock midday for the sale of Wheat and Barley.”  Prices reached at the market were quoted in local newspapers.  This further promoted an increase in the number of bakers and encouraged millers to become grain merchants.  This is reflected in the names of those who signed a petition in 1855 requesting all beans to be weighed in the same way as grain when sold at the Falkirk Corn Exchange.  It was signed by John Neilson, farmer and grain merchant; David Higgins, farmer; Thomas Wood, farmer; William Menzies, miller, Larbert Mill; Alexander Shearer, farmer and miller, Dunipace Mill; Thomas Callander, baker and grain dealer; Thomas Murphy, vintner and grain dealer; John Ronald, grain dealer; Gillespie, miller, Lady’s Mill; Joseph Gartshore, grain merchant, Falkirk; James Aitken, grain merchant Falkirk; Joseph Baillie, Denny Mill; John Hay, grain merchant, Denny; John Morrison, grain merchant, Denny; William Bain, grain merchant, Denny; James Shanks, grain dealer, Denny; William Blackadder, baker Carronshore; Michael Smith, baker, Falkirk; James Allan, farmer, Camelon; and David Simpson, grain merchant, Glasgow.

The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 opened the way to large quantities of imported grain.  Slowly the Falkirk Corn Exchange began to lose its relevance.  A proposal in 1861 to save money in the operation of the Exchange by closing it at midday met with some opposition.  The millers’ carts from the more distant parts, such as Jinkabout and the west, it was pointed out, could not collect their grain until after 2pm.  It was the 1870s before the full impact of Repeal became evident with the flooding of the market by huge quantities of industrially produced wheat from America and from Eastern Europe where labour was cheap.  This material came in through the ports and was then taken inland via the railway network.  Inevitably the proportion of processed material increased and from the 1880s flour was imported in bags closed with lead seals which are frequently found by metal detectorists.  These seals show that the material was coming from Hungary, France, Germany, Denmark and Russia (an item about the bag seals will appear in due course).  It was being processed in steam mills abroad.

Initially, steam engines were only introduced into the Falkirk mills as a backup for when there was insufficient water.  Gradually their use became more prolonged.  The New Statistical Account for Falkirk states that in the 1840s there were six corn mills in the parish of which two “go by steam-engines of twenty and thirty-six horse-power.”

It was not only the quantity of water that was a problem for the mills but also its quality.  By the 1870s huge quantities of human sewage were being pumped into the water courses surrounding the town of Falkirk.  The West Burn, the Bainsford Burn, and the East Burn were all culverted in the vicinity of the town and where possible any obstacles to the flow of water, such as sluices or dams, were removed.  It was hardly surprising that Lady’s Mill was not rebuilt after the fire of 1861.  At Mungal Mill local residents complained in 1895 about the “nuisance” arising from the filthy condition of the dam which had not been cleaned out for some time.  By then Falkirk Town Council had done much to clean up its act and denied that it was the source of the pollution.  It was only in 1897 that the mill finally came to an end. 

By their very nature the mills were prone to suffer from the twin evils of fire and flood and numerous examples of each of these will be found in the case studies for the individual mills.  The mills lay close to the rivers which were prone to sudden rises in level.  One of the worst instances occurred in June 1733 when a terrific shower of hail fell in various parts of the country, but perhaps at no place was greater damage done than at Denny.  The hailstones are said to have been pieces of ice, some of them measuring four inches.  According to one account, many of these lay on the ground three days before melting.  Glass windows were broken, crows and doves were killed, and wherever these hailstones lighted the fruits of the earth were entirely destroyed.  So suddenly did the storm begin that the Carron rose to such a height that two bridges were destroyed, and a great number of horses, cows, and sheep were violently carried away with the force of the stream; scarcely any mill escaped, and in one the miller and his daughter were drowned (Love 1928).

The dry dusty environment inside the mills meant that embers could fester for hours and then suddenly burst into flames.  They might be caused by friction as a result of badly fitting or maintained moving parts – as occurred at Lady’s Mill in Falkirk in 1861; or more commonly by the kiln being left unattended.  The fuel used in these kilns was peat and the early mills were given rights to procure peat on the common lands of the baronies.  This right is specifically mentioned for Airth Mill, Ballenbreich/Haining Mill, Polmont Mill and Stenhouse Mill.  In the case of Ballenbreich Mill a bitter dispute arose with a neighbour over the source.  Insurance policies were essential for millers.

Airth MillAirth1128Airth
Elphinston Mill
(New Mill)
Elpinstone (Dunmore)1609Airth
Letham MillLetham1569Airth
Pocknave Mill1723Pocknave Airth
Newton MillNewton1670Bothkennar
Bankier Mill1472BankierDenny
Denny MillDenny1577Denny
Dunipace MillDunipace1200Denny
Auchincloch MillHerbertshire1542Denny
Herbertshire MillHerbertshire1622Dunipace
Jaw MillCallendar1642Falkirk
Castlecary MillCastlecary1588Falkirk
Langton MillWest Kerse1598Falkirk
Carmuirs Mill
(Larbert) Mill
Lady’s MillCallendar1546Falkirk
Mungall MillWest Kerse1552Falkirk
Bonny MillSeabegs1506Falkirk
Mumrills Mill
(Bowhouse Mill)
Kinneil MillKinneil1580sBo’ness
Jinkabout MillKinneil1737Bo’ness
Tod’s MillKinneil17th CenturyBo’ness
Grange MillGrange1615Bo’ness
Skaithmuir MillSkaithmuir 1588Larbert
Stenhousemuir MillHerbertshire, then Stenhousemuir1293Larbert
Compston Mill1502CompstonMuiravonside
Ballenbreich MillBallenbreich 1604Muiravonside
Manuel MillHaining1424Muiravonside
Muiravonside MillMuiravonside1508Muiravonside
Millhall MillAbbotskerse1234MillhallPolmont
Balcastle Mill1585Slamannan WSlamannan
Linn Mill1570Slamannan ESlamannan
Elrig MillAbbotskerse1721ElrigSlamannan
New Mill (Lady Ann’s)1755Slamannan ESlamannan
Dalquhairn Mill1613Slamannan ESlamannan
Table: List of Baronial Mills and their Estates or Sucken.

Not all baronies had mills and in some cases the baronial mill for an area lay in the adjacent barony – as occurred with the original Larbert Mill which served Falkirk despite being in the Barony of Kinneil.  In the sixteenth century the Mill for Carriden was at Linlithgow: — “The Mill of the Barony of Carriden called the Lochmill with the water gang of the King’s loch of Linlithgow.” About two centuries later it was conveyed to James Glen of Longcroft (Salmon 1913).  Nor has any mill been traced for the smaller neighbouring barony of Bonhard.  At first glance the obvious candidate is a dwelling known as “Old Bonhard Mill” (SMR 1302 at NT 0169 7951); the “Old” element only added after 1942.  Yet according to the Ordnance Surveyers in the 1850s Bonhard Mill was “A farmsteading and thrashing mill on the farm of Wester Bonhard.   Occupied by Alexander Learmonth.  Its from the circumstance of a thrashing mill being attached that it has derived it name.”  The thrashing mill would have been powered by horses.


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G.B. Bailey, 2022