Commercial Watermills

With the loosening in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of the feudal ties that formed the basis of the old baronial mills a small number of commercial mills were established to process grain and particularly the wheat now arriving from abroad.  A few farmers also set up water powered machinery to thresh their own crops in order to add value before taking it to the market.  Examples of these may be found at Burnhouse near Denny, Gilston east of Polmont and Middlerig near Reddingmuirhead.  There were undoubtedly more but as these small mills did not advertise they are harder to trace.  Nor do they appear as “mill” on the Ordnance Survey maps, though their ponds and sluices are depicted.  However, the presence of a pond does not always signify the presence of a mill as water was also required for irrigation and cleaning.  Large ponds and sluices on farms are relatively numerous and it is probable that those shown at Haining Valley, Stacks, Burnshot and so on, were also for working light machinery.

Writing about Stirlingshire in 1812 Graham noted that:

great improvements have lately taken place in those necessary appendages of rural economy, the kilns and mills of this county.  Formerly kilns for drying victual were miserable hovels covered with thatch; every farmer had his own kiln; the grain was placed upon rafters covered with straw, and innumerable accidents happened by fire.  It must be acknowledged that kilns of this kind are still frequently to be met with, especially in the western district; but in general they are substantially built, covered with slate, furnished with a bottom or flooring of cast iron, and, in many instances, connected with the mill, and under the same roof.  The mills are generally furnished with the proper apparatus for grinding every kind of grain; for rolling malt, and for making pot barley of every degree of fineness.”

(Graham 1812, 117).

The incidence of mills on farms can be judged by an example given by Graham.  In the Stirlingshire valuation roll of his time there were just over 140 landed properties belonging to Lord Zetland; but the great majority of them were comparatively small holdings at Grangemouth, and hardly more than twenty of them were farms.  Of these three or four had corn mills attached.

Most of the farm mills were connected with threshing rather than grinding and at the Planting Mill in Dunipace it appears that a corn mill was converted to this process.  They became more common as the nineteenth century progressed:

In farm economy thrashing and winnowing machines have long been regarded as essential; but more than two-thirds of the crop, especially wheat and barley, are now prepared for the market by travelling machines.  Still, most farm steadings have a thrashing mill, driven by water where that is possible—in other cases by steam or horse power. Mr Simpson, Westmains, Grangemouth, has a thrashing machine with a high-speed drum, driven with six horses, and with this the whole crop has been thrashed during the past twelve years.  He finds it useful for giving the horses needful exercise at times when work on the land is impracticable.  At Gallamuir Mr Edmond has a machine driven by steam, with which nearly all his crop is thrashed; and steam appears now to be the favourite motive power.”

(Tait 1884).

Amongst the earliest industrial water mills in Scotland were those used in fulling – that is the beating of woollen textiles to mat the warp and weft fibres together.  In the mill this was done by wooden blocks or hammers which imitated the earlier practice of women walking on the cloth – it is from this that the Scottish mills were known as waulk mills.  The medieval textile industry formed a significant part of the national economy.  Waulk mills in the Falkirk area were established by the fifteenth century and continued to operate into the early 18th century.  They were built by landlords as an investment which attracted cash payments at a time when most of the economy worked on credit.  They were isolated units in the manufacturing process, taking in cloth which had been produced elsewhere.  There were at least five waulk mills in the Falkirk district – at Carmuirs, Clerkston, Compston, Waulkmilton and Woodside.  However, towards the end of the seventeenth century there was a move to a more integrated approach with the fulling work being undertaken close to the point of manufacture of the cloth.  Some of the old rural waulk mills were converted to other uses but most closed down.

Another form of waulk mill was re-introduced in the mid-eighteenth century with the advent of industrial bleachfields.  These used water-powered mechanical devices to clean and finish cloth as part of the bleaching process.  Water was needed throughout the work which started with boiling and progressed to soaking in alkali, wringing and mangling, soaking in acid, a second wash, drying and beating.  The beating mechanism was similar to that used in the waulk mills and the use of rotating rubbers similar to that used in paper mills.  Indeed, given the scale that some of the bleachfields reached, many see them as the first true factories in Scotland.  They were widely distributed and in our area are represented by the huge concern at Denovan which was established in the 1750s and continued into the 1840s.  Just down the River Carron was the Headswood Bleachfield.  They should not be confused with the primitive bleachfields  found at most post-medieval towns, including Falkirk, and many smaller villages such as Slamannan and Camelon, which used sun bleaching.  The industrial bleachfields required significant investment and were supported by the Board of Trustees for Manufactures.

In the sixteenth century coal took over from peat as the main fuel used in Scotland and mining operations became more extensive.  A windmill pumped water from mines in Airth (see windmills) and in the following century there are references to a water mill connected with the coalworks, coal-houses, saltpans, saltcoats and salt girnals.  It could have been used to pump salt water from the Forth into the salt pans or, more probably, to pump water from the mines.  The water wheel seen on Grosart’s map of 1817 near Balcastle in Slamannan was also for raising water from the coal pits.  South-west of Brightons, water was raised from the Polmont Burn in the 1880s to provide water to the private school at Blair Lodge – for drinking, cleaning and even a swimming pool.

Flax was dressed by hand until the 1720s when producers began to experiment with water power.  From 1727 the Board of Trustees for Manufactures encouraged this work.  Rollers were used to break the outer rind of the plant in order to free the fibres.  To weaken the outer skin the stems were soaked in water and ponds are usually found adjacent to the mills.  It was 1750 before the milling technology could be considered efficient, and they continued to improve.  Skilled labour was still required – both from the miller and those preparing the material.  A large increase in the number of lint mills occurred in Scotland from 1759 onwards due to the Board of Trustees providing grant aid.  Flax-growing premiums were provided in Stirlingshire from 1763.  By 1772 there were nearly 350 lint mills in the country.  At first the mills were built by landowners, but from c1760 they were advanced by farmers and mill tenants.  In the Falkirk area the lint mills tended to be located in rural area near the areas producing the flax.  This meant Slamannan and Denny/Bonnybridge – with mills at Ballenbriech, Thornton, Burnhouse, Garth, Stripeside (Custonhall), Glen, Hill, North Bankhead, Rashiehill, Hollandbush, Walton Burn, and Skipperton.  Between 1800 and 1830 the building of new mills and the cultivation of flax declined rapidly.  This was in part due to the shift on the farms to growing food as a result of the Napoleonic Wars.  Cotton also became more dominant in this period.  There was a great decline in growing flax after 1830 and many mills closed whilst those remaining used imported material.  For these mills access to ports was important.

There was one flax spinning mill in the Falkirk district located at the extreme western edge of Slamannan Parish at Westfield.  Flax spinning mills were introduced into Scotland in the late 1780s but the machinery of that period was still in its infancy.  In 1825 a process for wet spinning flax was patented and resulted in more mills being established – though by 1830 there had been only about ninety in the whole country.  Most such mills were on rivers that offered a copious supply of water and were often near ports where raw material could be imported.  Westfield is unusual in being located on a minor stream in a relatively isolated area.  Flax was grown in the vicinity and the mill was presumably set up to process it around 1830.  Not surprisingly, the mill was short-lived and seems to have gone out of use around 1870.

There was also at least one mill making linseed oil – Skipperton Oil Mill.  The main product seems to have been linseed cake for feed.  Lint seed, generally that unsuitable for propagation, was ripped or separated from the flax plant and crushed to produce an oil which found a ready market in the treatment of wood, and in making varnish and paints.

From a very early date Scotland imported much of its squared timber from the Baltic and as a consequence there were few water-powered mills exploiting the home-grown timber.  One of the few to do so in the Falkirk district was the Bonny Water Mill.  Following the repeal of the Corn Laws huge quantities of imported grain made this corn mill economically unviable and so its tenant, John Wilson, decided to use the water power there to process timber.  He set up in business as a home timber merchant and acquired the rights for trees in large estates in Fife.  There he established temporary sawmills but some of the felled and partially worked timber was taken by canal to Bonnybank for finishing.  It became one of the largest such firms in the country.  His son, James Wilson, assisted his father and subsequently succeeded him in the firm which became known as J. Wilson and Sons, Bonnybank, Bonnybridge.

The early sawmills had used frame saws set vertically.  Such was probably the case at Airth in 1723 where a windmill provided the power for a local shipbuilder.  The introduction of the circular saw made the process far more efficient and reliable.  Several mills augmented their other work by having dedicated structures to house such sawmills.  The sawmill at Castlecary was employing sixteen men in 1841.  A & G Paterson, timber merchants, set up a water-powered circular saw at the Barley Mill, Thornton, before 1860.  At the Ford Mill in Bonnybridge the corn mill had an attached sawmill from its foundation in the early 19th century, though it also had a steam engine to maintain the necessary power.  North Bankhead lint mill had gone out of business around 1820-30 and was converted to use as a sawmill.  Part of the reason for importing foreign timber had been the denudation of native stocks in the post-medieval period.  The extensive plantations created in the eighteenth century by estate owners came on tap in the following century.  Estate sawmills were then at Carriden, Muiravonside and Callendar, though the latter of these was steam powered.  The mill at Muiravonside re-used an existing mill building but that at Carriden was set up de novo around 1850. 

Amongst the most widely used sources of colouring for textiles in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was logwood or dyewood derived from American timber.  One of the earliest Scottish chipping and rasping mills for this process was built on the River Kelvin in 1760 and the number grew slowly thereafter.  Such mills tended to be located near to the dyeworks and so the main concentration was in Glasgow and the Vale of Leven.  In all there were only around 25 of these mills in Scotland between 1730 and 1830 (Shaw 1984, 350).  A scrogg mill is recorded at Denny on the River Carron as early as 1793 on an estate map, with a chip mill just upstream from it.  Presumably the raw materials were originally derived from local sources – scrog meaning brushwood.  By the 1850s we know that South American wood was being imported for use there, presumably via the railway network, because in 1861 it was reported that an alien venomous insect had been found in a delivery of logwood received by John Gray & Son (Falkirk Herald 24 October 1861, 7).

Airth Mill (coal)pump16661717
Airth Millcorn1391c1900
Auchincloch Millcorn1542c1976
Auchincloch Black Millcharc1840c1895
Balcastle Millcorn, lint1580sc1900
Ballenbreich Millcorn, lint16041935
Ballenbreich Lint Milllint1749c1880
Bankier Millcorn14721828
Barley Mill (Gateside or Thornton)lint, then barley & timber1752c1864
Black Mill (Carron)char1763c1880
Blackness Millcornc1600c1700
Bonny Millcorn1506c1950
Bonnybank Millcorn, then timberc17501931
Bridgend Millwool18731911
Burnhouse Mill (Bonnybridge)lintc1770c1880
Burnhouse Mill (Denny)farm19th century
Carmuirs Waulkmillwaulkmill1642c1750
Carriden Estate Sawmilltimber1850sc1950
Carronvale Black Millchar18841895
Castlecary Millcorn, timber1588c1940
Compston Millwaulk, corn1502c1800
Custonhall (Stripeside)lint, chemical, & charpre-18361945
Dalquhairn Millcorn1613c1830
Dalderse Millcorn1764c1880
Denny Millcorn1577c1900
Denovan Millcorn, bleachfield, printfield17281860
Dunipace Millcorn1200c1960
Dunipace Black Millcharc1862c1890
Elrig Millcorn1721c1830
Ford Millcorn, flour, timber17541940s
Garth Milllint, printfield, dyewood, timber1793c1910
Garvald Upper Millchar, dyewood1653c1885
Garvald Lower Millcorn, char, paperc1800c1910
Gateside Millwool1806c1819
Gilston Burnfarm19th century
Glen Milllint?pre-1789c1783
Grange Millcorn1615c1750
Gunnershaw Millcorn1608c1850
Headswood Chemical Worksdye, laundry1850s1902
Herbertshire Millcorn1510c1785
Herbertshire Printfieldprintfield, lithography & dyewood17851883
Hill Mill (Avon Steel Works)lint, then steel works18001890
Hollandbush Milllint1787c1800
Jaw Millcorn, distillery, brewery, lint, corn16421890
Jinkabout Millcorn17371916
Kinneil Millcorn1580sc1900
Kirkland Millcorn, char1621c1860
Knowhead Mill (Seamore)lint, barley, spade17521903
Lady’s Millcorn15461861
Langton Millcorn1598c1820
Larbert Millcorn1320c1770
Larbert Mill (Carmuirs)corn1527c1950
Larbert Black Millchar1850s1890s
Larbert Grinding Millwaulk, paper, grinding17541881
Larbert Waulk Millwaulk mill1687c1760
Letham Millcorn1569c1650
Linkumbank Milllint1796c1850
Linn Millcorn1570c1950
Manuel Millcorn, wood flour1424c1906
Middlerig Millfarm19th century
Millhall Millcorn12341892
Muiravonside Millcorn, timber1508c1900
Mumrills Millcorn1625c1800
Mungal Millcorn1552c1890
New Linn Millcorn1806
New Millcorn1750s1920s
New Millscorn1601c1830
Newton Millcorn1670c1780
North Bankhead Milllint, then timber1793?1872
Planting Millcorn18131913
Planting Lint Milllint1780s?c1865
Pocknave Millcorn1618c1850
Quarter Mill (Low)corn, wood turning17891910
Quarter Mill (High)wool1814c1863
Randolph Hill Woollen Millwool18011867
Rashiehill Milllint?1806c1820
Scrogg Millwood vinegar1830s1837
Skaithmuir Millcorn1588c1890
Skipperton Milllint, farm1793c1900
Stenhousemuir Millcorn, forge1293c1770
Stoneywood Milldyewood18351878
Stoneywood Woollen Millwool1808c1820
Tamaree MillCorn, flour1801c1870
Tod’s MillCorn, flint, wood flour1735c1910
Walton Burnlint1758c1920
Waulkmill of Clerkstonwaulk mill1671c1800
Waulkmill of Compstonwaulk mill1496c1650
Waulkmill of Waulkmiltonwaulk mill1496c1800
Westfield Flax Mill (W. Greenrig)flax1776c1870
Woodside Mill (Muiravonside)waulk mill, dyewood1685c1850
Woodside Mill (Glenbervie)corn1711c1820
Table: List of the mills found below arranged in alphabetical order by name.  Those in bold blue type are hyperlinked to their explanatory pages and were baronial corn mills.

Perhaps the most conspicuous of the water–powered mills associated with industry were those at Carron Iron Works for providing blast to the furnaces, boring cannon, making blacking and grinding clay.  As these have been largely dealt with by Watters (2010), they will not be examined in detail here.  The black mills, however, are worth examining as several firms were established outside of the Carron Works to provide this material to other foundries.  Black or char mills were to be found at Garvald (two), Custonhall, Auchencloch, Carronvale, Kirkland, Dunipace, Larbert and Carronshore.  In the late nineteenth century these started to give way to steam-driven mills at places like the Spring Park Acid Works or the Sunnyside Blacking Mill – both in Camelon.  Similarly, the black mill at Falkirk Iron Works was presumably steam powered. 

The preparation of ground carbon or blacking was for sprinkling over moulds to provide a smooth finish to castings.  In 1770 the eminent water mill engineer John Smeaton was asked to upgrade the black mill at Carron and this was described by Faujas de St Fond on his visit in 1784:

“…it consists of a kind of mortar of cast iron, several feet in diameter, closely shut with a wooden cover, perforated in the middle to admit the passage of a vertical cylinder, which forms the principal mechanical power of the machine, being turned round on its own axis by a wheel, which is moved by water.  Two iron bars pass horizontally through the bottom of the vertical axis, in the manner of a cross, and they may be raised or lowered at pleasure, by means of several holes, at different distances, in the axis.  The cross divides the area or capacity of the mortar into four portions, two of which are occupied by two iron balls, nearly as large as ordinary bombs, but entirely solid, and of a polished surface.  The moment the axis is put in motion, the balls begin to roll round after each other, and this speedily bruises the charcoal… The other spokes are furnished with teeth in the manner of a rake, which stir up the charcoal from the bottom of the mortar and turn it on every side.”

Carron Company’s black mill was unusual in its workings and it was more common to used edge stones.  These needed to be periodically dressed.  In a confined space, with moving machinery, this could be dangerous.  In May 1883 John Aitken was dressing the grinding stones in the blacking mill shop at the Falkirk Iron Works when part of his clothing was caught by a revolving shaft, dashing him against an iron cylinder.  He died of his injuries (Falkirk Herald 19 May 1883, 2).

Latterly, coal dust was also used as the raw material.  The combination of fine carbon dust and iron machinery created a significant risk of fires and even of explosions.  Friction in the machinery could produce heat leading to “spontaneous” combustion and any grit in the charcoal could lead to a spark.  The record of incidents of fire shows that this was far greater than at mills used to produce other material:

Larbert10 November 1882Destroyed.  £250.
Carronvale8 September 1887Destroyed.
Dunipace31 December 1889Destroyed.  £350.
Dunipace26 September 1890Destroyed for fourth time.
Carronvale5 November 1893Destroyed.
Carronvale25 March 1895Damaged.
Sunnyside2 July 1900Roof collapsed.
Table: Fires at black mills.

In 1897 the largest blacking mill in the country was constructed at Sunnyside in Camelon for James Cumming.  It had concrete foundations, steel beams and joists, and cast iron plates for the floors, making it “fireproof.”  Three years later is caught fire and the roof collapsed but the three-storey building was largely intact.  It was, of course, steam powered.

In 1828 Bankier Mill was converted by Daniel Macfarlane into a whisky distillery known as Bankier Distillery.  Distilleries and paper mills will be dealt with separately.

The increased number and complexity of water mills led to an increase in the workforce required to maintain and update them.  These ranged from those undertaking the deliveries, to the miller and the millwright.  Perhaps the best known of the local firms of millwrights and engineers was T & J Oliphant of Denny.  Thomas and James appear to have gone into business as millwrights in the early 1840s.  Thomas served his apprenticeship under the famous agricultural engineer James Smith of Deanston (who has already been mentioned in connection with the 1839 earthquake which caused the Earlsburn Dam to collapse).  T & J Oliphant oversaw the massive expansion of thrashing mill ownership that occurred in the south-western part of Stirlingshire in the middle of the century.  Not only did they build these machines but they also designed their own models for use with either horse, water or steam power according to the situation.  At the time that the company was formed there was a transition from horse-powered mills to steam-powered ones.  They also dealt with second-hand models or those requiring modification.  Major projects on water mills were undertaken by the firm on Jaw Mill (1868), Bonnybridge Paper Mill (1872), and Dunipace Mills (1873).  Thomas died in 1866 but James continued the company until 1885 when it was acquired by Scott and Graham.  Scott had held the appointment of chief engineer on foreign service in China and Japan, and Graham had been the head foreman with G & W Bertram, paper-making engineers, Edinburgh.  The new firm continued the old trade and specialised in paper-making machinery.

Other millwright and engineering companies in the Falkirk district included Blackadder Brothers of Falkirk, Peter Anderson of Falkirk, Alexander Cuthill of Falkirk, William Cuthill of Denny, James and William Fletcher of Denny, and William Mowat of Denny.  Each of these took on apprentices who often ended up working in the large industries of the area such as the paper mills.

Click the appropriate link to read about each mill :

Airth Mill (Coal)

Auchincloch Black Mill

Ballenbriech Lint Mill

Barley Mill

Black Mill, Carron

Bonny Water Mill

Burnhouse Mill

Burnhouse Farm Mill

Carmuirs Waulkmill

Carriden Estate Sawmill

Carronvale Black Mill


Dalderse Mill

Denovan Bleachfield & Printfield

Dunipace Black Mill

Ford Mill

Garth Mill

Garvald Mill

Gateside Woollen Mill

Gilston Farm Mill

Glen Mill

Gunnershaw Mill

Haining Valley Mill

Headswood Chemical Works

Herbertshire Print Works

Hill Mill

Hollandbush Mill

Kirkland Mill & Bleachfield

Knowhead Mill

Larbert Black Mill

Larbert Grinding Mill (Larbert Waulk Mill)

Larbert Waulk Mill

Linkumbank Lint Mill

Middlerig Mill

New Linn Mill

North Bankhead Mill

Planting Mill

Planting Lint Mill

Quarter Mill :

  • Low Quarter Mill
  • High Quarter Mill

Randolph Hill Woollen Mill

Rashiehill Mill

Scrogg Mill

Skipperton Mill

Stoneywood Mill

Stoneywood Woollen Mills

Tamaree Mill

Walton Burn Mills

Waulkmill of Clerkston

Waulkmill of Compston

Waulkmill of Waulkmilton

Wester Greenrig Lint Mill

Woodside Mill

Woodside Mill (Lantounmill)


Gillespie, R.1868Round about Falkirk.
Graham, J.1812General view of the Agriculture of Stirlingshire.
Graham, J.E.1895The Grahams of Tamrawer: A short account of their history
Inveresk plc2000Carrongrove: 200 Years of Papermaking.
Reid, J.2004‘East Stirlingshire Mills: Part 1,’ Calatria 21, 61-89.
Reid, J.2005‘East Stirlingshire Mills: Part 2,’ Calatria 22, 33-58.
RHPRegister House Plan.
Tait, J.1884‘The Agriculture of the County of Stirling,’ Transactions of the Highlands and Agricultural Society of Scotland, 16.
Waugh, J.1977Slamannan Parish through the Changing Years.
Waugh, J.1981The Vale of Bonny.

G.B. Bailey, 2022