Duncan Campbell – The Mills

Robert Mackay, Rhemusaig, writes about his grandfather, Duncan Campbell (1857-1934).

My Grandfather operated a meal mill, weaving factory plus the Post Office at Pittentrail. He was a millwright to trade – someone who could completely design and construct mills – having served his apprenticeship with William Reid’s of Forres. In 1903 he married my grandmother, Marion Mackay (1882-1957).

In 1905 Duncan suffered severe injuries while helping an aged lady, Johan Macbeath, across the railway line. He was hit by a goods train and lost his left leg below the knee and his left arm near his shoulder.

Duncan and Marion had eight of a family. The youngest, Philip William (1921-1934) fell ill and died suddenly in lodgings in Golspie where he was attending the High School. He was aged 13. This was a terrible blow to the whole family, my mother often said that he was a lovely boy. Very sad.

My Grandfather must have been quite a hardy chap despite his disabilities he would take a few rolls of tweed and catch the morning train to Ardgay where he sold his wares at the Feill Eiteachan (market) and returned on a later train.

A millwright of repute

Duncan Campbell had a reputation for making first class threshing mills, they were designed to put minimum stress on the horse that was providing the power. He installed one at Acheillach which the farmer had great praise for and offered to demonstrate it to anyone providing there was sheaves in the barn. I have a letter from the farmer expressing his satisfaction with the mill.

Duncan also manufactured wooden wheelbarrows. William Tawse a big Civil Engineering contractor from Aberdeen came in person to my Grandfather and placed an order for 12 dozen wheel barrows, all of which were made by my uncle, Jim. Uncle Jim made the mills and wheelbarrows etc to drawings made by my Grandfather whose ability to carry on his trade was affected by his accident. I still marvel at how my uncle Jim managed with such basic tools, it must have been very hard work cutting all the mortice and tenon joints by hand.

My Grandfather also designed and built a special saw (water powered) which would cut in the horizontal plane and could be swung up to the vertical plane for cutting various curved shapes. This would have saved a lot of time and hard labour. He also designed an automatic machine for weighing oats which went to Kirkton Farm, Golspie.

The Mills

Pittentrail Mills

There were two mills at Pittentrail – a meal mill and a tweed mill. Both powered by water wheels of the overshot type.  The water supply came from Loch Salachaidh and was controlled by a sluice at that point. I think my Grandfather went up on horseback to open the sluice just enough to do the job. Later my uncle Jim went up on his push bike and latterly I can remember him going up on his Francis Barnett Autocycle, a big step forward!!

The next holding point was Corrie dam where the sluice was opened as required. The water was diverted into the mill lade by a sluice just below the War Memorial, from there it continued (now under the car park) to the point where the path crosses to the Mill House. My Mother used to sail down this stretch in an old drawer.

Two sluices were situated at this point to divide the water which was carried overhead in wooden lades to just above the water wheels where it flowed into the buckets and down the front of the wheel, hence the overshot name.

The undershot wheel just had a very small section in contact with the water as it flowed past and was not near as powerful as the overshot model. The water flow over the wheel was controlled by a trapdoor in the base of the lade, the door was controlled by a mechanism which had a handle on wall inside the building. Just enough water was used to fill the wheel buckets with any surplus being channelled down the back of the wheel to the tail race.

However, due to the amount of tweeds etc that were being produced at the factory my Grandfather had to install a steam engine to provide extra power.

Meal milling

Kirkton Farm in Golspie and West Kinnauld Farm in Rogart produced the best oats for making meal and the necessary supplies were bought from them.

A very important skill that a miller had to learn was dressing the mill stones that ground the oats into meal. I can still see my uncle Jim chipping away deepening the grooves in the stones – quite a laborious task. It was done to a certain pattern so that the oats that were always fed into the centre of the stones were gradually ground and carried to the outer rim where it fell into a chute and bagged on the ground floor of the mill.

The husks of the oats were used to fuel the fire that dried the oats prior to the milling operation. I can still see Jim hand feeding the husks from a homemade long-handled scoop which rested on a lip at the kiln fire door and the handle rested on a barrel.

The barrel itself had an interesting history: it came through the mill roof, in 1903, when the fish train broke a coupling on the climb up to Lairg. The train was shunted into the siding where it hit the buffers which were just across the road from the mill.

I remember being in the mill with my uncle Jim when he was adjusting the water flow to get the millstones at the exact speed for grinding the oats.

There was a large piece of timber with lots of holes drilled in it fixed to the wall and when the sluice lever was in the correct position a steel pin was inserted in a hole to keep it in position.

Another important thing that the miller had to keep an eye on was the exact space between the millstones in order that the meal would not be too coarse or too fine, this was done by lowering or raising the upper stone. The lower stone could not be moved.

As a young boy I found the mill very interesting, from the winch that hauled the sacks of grain from the ground floor to the top one where it was spread on the kiln floor which was made of perforated cast iron plates for drying. I was warned when inside the kiln to be careful to tread on the sections that had supports underneath because the cast iron plates were by this stage becoming very weak and dangerous. To fall through would mean being burnt to death.

Even at a young age I was surprised to see the various parts of the milling machinery with their shafts running in wooden bearings. I learned later that they were made of beech and would with suitable lubrication last for many years.