When built in the 18th century at the instigation of the Duke of Argyll, the mill was a single storey building with an 11 foot diameter water wheel, the marks of this wheel are evident on the wall. The building was enlarged in the 1830s, in line with agricultural improvements of the time, to provide a second storey with a drying kiln set at right angles to the main building. The water wheel was also increased to 14 feet in diameter. A lade was cut to give a 20 foot head of water from the burn. The lade, now overgrown but still traceable, runs upstream for about half a mile to 'Linne a Dhuais', just at the Assapol road end. A system of sluice gates would control the flow of water carried. When the mill was required sluice gates would have been used to build up a head of water in Linne a Dhuais which, when released, would power the water wheel.
On milling days the farmer/crofter was expected to work as a labourer for the miller and opening and closing these gates, under instruction, would have been one of the tasks, as well as being general 'gofers'. It is likely that several crofters would combine to have the milling done, both to share the workload and to make it worthwhile for the miller.
Three mill wheels remain on the site. These wheels would have been imported from Brittany, French quartz being the hardest stone required to be dressed less frequently. The stones are grooved on their grinding surfaces both to feed the grain across the stone from the centre to the outer edge and to act as cutting agents to ensure the grain is ground. The grooves needed to be regularly recut (dressed). There would have been two sets of stones, the first to remove the outer shell from the grain and the second for grinding. The gap between the second set could be adjusted to vary the fineness of the oatmeal. The shelled grains would then be spread in a layer of about 4 inches thick on the floor of the drying kiln. This floor would have been made from perforated sheets of iron, which would allow the heat from the fire below to slowly permeate the grains.
After toasting the final process of grinding would take place. Attie remembered his mother recalling the lovely flavour that the oats had as a result of being toasted over the peat. No doubt shop bought oatmeal would not have this fresh taste. Unfortunately the water wheel was removed during the Second World War for scrap. The mill stopped production in 1914 when Calum McPherson went off to be a piper in the Scots Guards in WW1. The building is particularly interesting from a historic view point as it has remained unaltered since its use as a mill.
While we believe Bunessan Mill may have enjoyed a resurgence during the time of 'Factor Mor' due to the improvements made to the farms of Ardfenaig and Ardalanish, improved transport (easier and more reliable), access to a more varied diet, the rise of the large industrial mills of the lowlands, the First World War: all of those factors contributed to the demise of most rural mills of this type around the beginning of the 20th century. The last person reputed to have still used a hand quern on the Ross of Mull was a Mr Cameron in Uisken who placed the quern on his bed covers; presumably the grain was so precious that he would not want to lose any of it. What Mrs Cameron thought of this is not recorded!
The first known miller at Bunessan Mill was a Donald McIntyre in 1744. Unfortunately we can't fill the gap until 1779 when we learn from the Argyll Census that Duncan Graham, his son Donald and his 84 year old father were living at the Mill. The Graham family were skilled joiners. Of course a mill required constant maintenance and those joinery skills would have been essential. The miller was also a skilled engineer responsible for designing and maintaining systems to regulate and control the flow of water.
By 1881 Neil McPherson and his family had taken over the tenancy of the Mill and when milling ceased they used the building as a joinery workshop. Calum McPherson, Neil's son, was the last miller but when he joined the Scots Guards in 1914 the mill ceased to be operational. Calum was later awarded the M B E in recognition of his work, as foreman joiner, in restoring the Abbey on Iona.
In common with the poor world-wide, even in the present day, if you lived on the Ross of Mull in the 18th century your diet would have consisted of a kind of bread and porridge made from whatever type of grain was grown locally. On the Ross of Mull that was bere meal, a mixture of a primitive type of barley, and peas. This would have been made into a flat bannock cooked over an open fire or made into porridge, perhaps mixed with kale. This would be supplemented with fish, shellfish, seaweed and, very rarely, meat.
Oats were grown but they were generally considered to have been a "rent-paying" crop. Of the oats harvested by the tenant on average 30% would be used to pay the rent, 25% kept as seed for the next year. If you were lucky, that left 45% for eating. It was not unknown for landlords to have to forego rent in order to leave sufficient seed to plant in the following spring.
It would be a daily task of the house wife to grind grain, they say a good housewife could have the bannocks on the table within an hour of threshing a sheaf of oats - that is stripping the grain from the stalk, removing the husk and chaff, drying the oats in a small pot over the fire, grinding them in a hand quern then shaping and cooking the bannocks.
The earliest, prehistoric, method of grinding was by a saddle quern; a bowl shaped stone in which another, stone held in the palm of your hand, rubbed off the husk. This was in turn replaced by the circular quern, Brath in Gaelic, introduced to Britain by the Romans. This consisted of two flat round stones with a hole in the middle of the upper one into which the grain was poured. A wooden peg would then be fitted into another hole that would be used to turn it. This hole could either be on the edge or on top of the stone; some would have two turning pegs. These variations would be regional.
Archaeologists can determine the environment a person came from by the way their teeth were worn: those from an area of hard stones would have well worn teeth while those from an area with softer stone would not be worn down quite so far. This happened because it was impossible to remove every small piece of stone from the meal and pieces would inevitably end up in your porridge. As late as 1876 it is reported that 'thousands' of these querns were still in use in the Highlands.
One of the earliest mechanised mills, thought to have been Scandinavian in origin, was the Click Mill. The small mill wheel was placed flat in the water so that the force of the current would turn it and from this a perpendicular spindle passed through a hole in the lower millstone. The grain was poured into a hole in the upper stone through a wooden hopper. Such a mill is mentioned in Kintyre in the "Instructions by the 5th Duke of Argyll to his Chamberlain" c. 1775. The click mill did not survive much past the 18th century, however there is one that is still in working order in Orkney. It is in the care of Historic Scotland.
The Ross of Mull is an extraordinary microcosm of all that draws visitors to the Hebridean Islands. The scenery, as you travel along the single-track road from the ferry at Craignure is breath-taking. You experience in the many walks in the area a true sense of wilderness; the secret bays with their beaches of silvery sand, the abundance of wildlife and the innumerable marks on the landscape of the lives of past generations and communities long gone. The Ross of Mull is a compelling place for anyone fascinated by history and the ancient way of life of the Gaelic people.
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