Review of Finlay MacLeod's The Norse Mills of Lewis
Book Review of Muilnean Beaga Leòdhais / The Norse Mills of Lewis by Fionnlagh MacLeòid / Finlay MacLeod
Published in the Stornoway Gazette, 16 July 2009
by Alastair McIntosh
This lovingly crafted book in both Gaelic and English editions is destined to become a classic of island life. Previously the author has documented Hebridean healing wells, ancient chapels and early maps. Now he has turned his scholarship to water powered corn mills.
Sources range from official documents to the bardic tradition and first-hand interviews with the old people. Indeed, taking his work in its entirety, it might be no exaggeration to describe “Dr Finlay” as today’s Alexander Carmichael of material culture.
As is suggested by the book’s full colour plates of Indian and Persian paintings, the “Norse” mill is found right across Europe and into Asia and even China. It probably developed some 2,000 years ago. It is an open question whether the Hebridean variety came from Scandinavia or is more home-grown.
Whatever their origin, the heyday of the mills was between the second half of the 18th century and first half of the 19th century, before the potato took root. Lochs were dammed and in some places, extensive lades or raceways were dug to carry water to where it could be used by clusters of families.
The force of the water entering the lower millhouse drove round a wooden paddle. This was attached by a wooden pole to the upper millhouse, where the top stone rotated against the stationary bottom one.
By raising the top stone up or down, the meal could be ground fine (for baking) or coarse (for brewing). No wonder whisky was so valued given the effort distilled into its making!
Most Lewis millstones were probably hewn on the island – many from a quarry at Dail Beag. Some may have come from Scandinavia where shipwrecks, containing up to 505 stones, have been found along the Norwegian coast. This suggests an export industry.
Sadly, the potential for future scholarship on the stones’ provenance and methods of manufacture is diminished wherever they have been taken away from their original sites.
It was the Seaforths who first saw the opportunity to relieve their debts by authorising the construction of large mills driven by vertical waterwheels. The right to “thirl” tenants to these and extract “multure” was sold off at auction. The buyers were usually tacksmen or church ministers of that pre-Disruption era.
An example drawn from estate records is that in 1735 a miller in league with the Lochs minister purchased the right to put up a mill at Bayhead. With this came authorisation “that the Querns in about Starnaway is to be broke” so that the people would have no option but to become thirled.
Similarly, John M. of Bail’ Ailein told Dr Finlay that, according to tradition, “Coinneach Bàn … charged the people too much for milling their grain and so they reverted to using their querns. He went round with his cart and collected all the upper quernstones [and] took the cart down to the mouth of Abhainn Lacasaigh to the Poll Gorm [and] threw the quernstones into the pool. To this day it is called Sloc nam Brà, the Pool of the Querns.”
The last of Lewis’s “Norse” mills continued in use up until 1945. Dr Finlay’s map references allow their ruins to be rediscovered. “And they stand and ask themselves,” he suggests to us, “Where from, and when, and who, and why – and what now …?”
“What now?” … indeed … in an era where the supermarkets sell out of bread within hours of the ferry not sailing. And so, who knows. History tells about our past and vision tells us about our future. Perhaps we need both to keep our options open and maintain cultural resilience.
As if this book did not have grace enough, nearly every page is vibrant with John Love’s exquisite ink drawings. The inside covers carry sketches of an almost three-dimensional quality by Seonaid Crawford whose father, James, is renowned as the builder of crofter cairns, war memorials and traditional buildings.
Beautifully crafted in a hardback coffee-table format, these books from Acair retail at only £15. Taken individually, or together as a Gaelic and English pair, they could make the perfect gift. Indeed, they are Dr Finlay’s gift back to his own people.
16 July 2009