Woolmill History

Mill Workers c.1910

1784 Parish records for 1784 list William Grant born to William and Ann Grant at 'Waukmill'. Waulking means cloth fulling/shrinking but their activities may also have included one or all of wool washing, dying and carding. Prepared wools would then be ready for hand spinning by 'spinsters', the difficult work done, the resulting yarn woven by local handweavers. The first carding engines were wooden and turned by hand - proximity to water was needed for washing and dying. Water for motive power could have been operative at this time or installed later as process diversified. The Grants would have made their living between mill activity and working their land, about 25 acres - a pattern continuing almost to the present. They held an agricultural tenancy from the local estate, which included a mill building.

1823 By 1823 a younger son, Charles Grant, had married and was 'head of family' at the Mill.

1829 In 1829, a carding mill at 'Mill of Knockando' or 'Millhowe' was destroyed by flooding. This unfortunate occurrence would have left the locality short of capacity and prompted some expansion or at least re-arrangement of activity at the Waukmill, half a mile downstream.

1841 The 1841 census lists Charles and Janet Grant at 'Waukmill', occupation 'wool dyer'- there is no knowledge of the extent of of their activity or trade or whether they were also wool carders, although this is likely. There are two 'labourers' listed.


1851 The census lists Janet Grant at 'Waulkmill', plus children, but no Charles who has presumably died. Also at 'Waulkmill' but as a separate household, is Simon Fraser - 'wool carder'. He was the great grandfather of Winnie Stewart and had been a weaver at Upper Knockans until at least 1846. There was an original house on the site of the Woolmill House, demolished prior to 1896. Perhaps the Frasers lived in that house and the Grants in the old bothy. Janet Grant is listed as 'knitting and spinning', likely hand spinning the carded product of the mill. As Simon Fraser had started as a weaver, he probably brought the trade to the Woolmill, his son John is listed as 'weaver'.

1861 The listings are as 1851. It may well be that the mill incorporated a spinning 'billy' about this time. A fore-runner of the mule, this was a device to spin perhaps 20 threads at once, partly powered and partly operated by brute force, it's output was a considerable improvement over a single spinning wheel. Simon Fraser and family moved sometime about now to Leakin Cottage. I believe he was unwell and retired early - he died in 1886, age 76.

1865-1902 The census shows Alexander Smith as resident - he founded A. Smith & Son, the company name until 1975. The Smiths had come from Premnay, Aberdeenshire, about 1865. Janet Grant does not appear at the mills, but I believe she had moved over the burn to Willowbank with her daughter, also Janet, who was still resident about 1895.

The mule
(Photo: Fay Godwin)

Mechanisation was now commonplace further south and the Smiths took the Mill from its previously 'simple' technology to more or less that which exists today. They did this in the usual way - when it could be afforded, build space and add machine.

1870 The spinning mule is dated 1870 and fits the space it occupies perfectly - it has not been shortened. This implies that it came new to the mills - one mark on it, 'S1', may well be the original maker's identification: S for Smith and 1 as it was just 1 machine in the order. Platt of Oldham, the makers, used this form of ID. The mule was a revolutionary machine which had already transformed the English trade. Spinning 120 threads at once, its speed caught up with and probably outstripped the rather older carding machinery.

The OS map of 1870 shows an 'L' shaped mill building - this would be the original 'cottage' plus a larger extension built in stone. At some point up to 1900, the existing carding scribbler and intermediate would have been installed with an original condenser subsequently replaced with one thought to have come from Robert Laidlaw when that company moved from Rothiemay to Keith. This upgrade to larger machinery, whenever it happened, necessitated the removal of the internal walls of the 'L' and their replacement with the existing prop and beam arrangement and the extended wood frontage.

The 1870 map does not show the weaving workshop, this first appears on the 1903 revision. Mechanised weaving was relatively late in machine development - it is probably safe to assume that the Mill would have employed or put out yarn to handlooms until 1870 and probably later. The map also shows a simple lade which by 1903 incorporates an embankment and, presumably, piping - the surviving arrangement.

Price List 1931

Duncan Stewart told me that there were originally two waterwheels - most probably an overshot on the site of the existing wheel, plus an undershot driven by its outflow. We have an old photograph of an early 'dobby' loom in the weaving shop and the shafting arrangement does imply that there was a wheel on the outer wall. He also said that the surviving wheel came from the Mill of Pitchroy, 3 miles up the Spey. When he started at the Mill in 1919, the old loom was still in situ, together with the existing (window) Dobcross loom. The old loom was replaced c.1920 with a second Dobcross, bought second hand, perhaps from Laidlaws, Keith.

These changes illustrate the change to mechanisation which the Smiths undertook. Later than the English and Border trades, larger machines and the 'factory' setting were inevitably the way forward for even the smallest mills. This was catered for by adapting the existing Mill by stages.

1902 Alexander Smith died in 1902 and his son James succeeded as head of household. The Mill would by now have had a relatively large output for a small family concern. Its main trade was in blankets, which were manufactured on site from greasy wool to finished cloth. The scouring house had a 'copper' water boiler plus a washing / milling machine driven from the main mill by transfer shafting. The tenter frame allowed drying of full pieces of cloth, at least in Summer, while the drying shed incorporating a solid fuel heater to aid drying in Winter. On the outside wall of the spinning shop was a small shed in which blanket cloth was sulphur smoked to whiten it from the natural cream colour. The teazle gig raised the washed cloth to a soft finish, this was then cut to lengths and the borders 'whipped' on a machine located in the shop - ready for sale. Spun yarn was also twisted 2 or 3 ply for knitting wools on the twisting frame in the attic - this was good trade as everybody wore knitted wool.

Duncan Stewart

Duncan Stewart was a nephew of Emma Smith, wife of James. He was born and raised into farming at Upper Knockans, Knockando. He was badly injured in the Great War and on returning, went to work at the mill, marrying Winnie in 1930. Winnie was the great grandaughter of Simon Fraser. James Smith died in 1937 and Duncan became partner in the Mill to his Aunt Emma. She lived at the Mills until 1971, age 100.

Through this time, Mill and croft were worked using the existing tools - machinery was not changed, but maintained - electricity arrived in 1948, horse plough was superseded by a 'grey Fergie' tractor - the balance of mill and farm work remained. That the Mill and croft continued and the machinery and craft skills survived is testimony to the work and determination of Duncan Stewart. In 1947, the burn flooded the Mill completely, destroying the outer wall of the weaving shop. Graeme Stewart, then age 13, remembers weaving in the open air for some time!

Farming activity on about 18 acres of arable land was primarily feed and grazing production for a small herd of cows - I don't think there have ever been sheep at the Mill. The field layouts from the early OS maps remained the same until the early 1980's when Duncan retired from farming. In 1976 and 77 I harvested feed barley with him, using a reaper / binder, making stukes and when dry, round stacks which fed a small threshing machine in the barn. He kept about 8 cows plus calves and a Guernsey for milk, chickens for eggs.

When I took over the Mill from Duncan, very different generations and experience met. He was very kind and patient with me and as he eased off and let go his trade, I was able to pick it up and carry it on. Duncan Stewart died in 1991, age 94. Winnie Stewart died in 2001, age 92.


Hugh Jones

By Hugh Jones