History of horse mills in Angus

These buildings are important remnants of farming archaeology.
These buildings are important remnants of farming archaeology.

This time I want to think about horse mills.

They are a silent witness to the use of horsepower, but many of these fine buildings still stand around the countryside. Tourists passing through Perthshire and Angus may notice these circular conical buildings (often on the north or cooler side of a farm steading) and wonder what they are. The equivalent in Fife is easily recognised as they tended to be octagonal and had pantiled roofs.

We have some very distinctive horse mills here in Angus such as those by the roadsides at Garlowbank, near Kirriemuir and up Glenisla at the Doonies and across the Isla at Folda.

Most of the horse mills I can think of survive as either an abandoned part of the farm steading or are converted to another use such as part of a house. A good example is in Lintrathen which was until recently used as a restaurant, as was the one at Lochlands, Forfar.

These buildings are important remnants of farming archaeology as they housed the machinery used to drive the mill in areas where there was no ready supply of water. Water was the preferred option, but on higher ground or in the flatter areas the horse was the only alternative for power.

The mill had several openings, spanned by a circular timber ring beam with an intricate core of rafters and slated in a circular manner. Internally the horse mill was dominated by a large squared cross beam crossing the centre of the mill. The beam was used to support the central shaft of the engine or “the gin”. They often were topped by a weather vane on larger farms. The horse would be “yoked” to the engine by means of a swingle tree on chains or perhaps a “U-shaped” rig. Later engines were made of cast iron. It is thought the idea came from the development of the horse gins used in mining operations; there is one at the Scottish Mining Museum at Wanlockhead. Although machinery was mostly covered by these distinctive conical buildings, some smaller glen farms only had the bare equipment of the gin mill and the horses simply had to step over the drive shaft on the ground. Few of these survive, as the price of scrap metal caused the disappearance of the disused iron parts of the machinery.

Mills were an integral part of the farm’s economy and replaced the tedious and tiring job of threshing with the flail, allowing a smaller workforce to feed more people. The mill was nothing more than an elaborate walk for the horse, often on a cobbled path to raise the ground level over the drive shaft from the bevelled drive wheel to provide the rotary power into the barn adjoining , where the threshing would take place and the corn and straw was stored.

Yours aye,