Montgarrie’s wheel is one of the most impressive in the country: an overshot bucket wheel which measures 24 feet in diameter and is four feet broad. It has 10 spokes, it weighs 21 tons, and was made in 1886 by James Abernethy’s foundry in Aberdeen.
Mill wheel-makers use larch for the buckets, taking advantage of that timber’s natural disinfectant properties which make it rot-proof. Once it’s going, the wheel revolves at six revolutions per minute, and drives through a 15 foot sprocket on the water wheel axle, which meshes with a gearbox and chain drive, cogged to engage in turn with the five pairs of millstones through slotted pinions or stone nuts.
After use, the water of the Esset flows along a tailrace into an underground culvert 250 yards long, then debouches into the Don.
Several generations of McDonald family worked the Montgarrie Mill, from their purchase in 1894, to financial straits in 1998, when John and Carol Medlock took over. Today, the mill employs two millers, Gwen Williamson and Richie Duncan, and is the last commercial meal mill operated in the traditional way: the process has remained constant for over a century.
The mill did a brisk trade in the early decades of the 20th century, but its heyday arrived during World War 2, when 25 people worked at Montgarrie – including a night shift! The mill made 1,000 tons of oatmeal per year (compared to around 200 tons today), and large quantities were shipped out to provide servicemen with their morning porridge – but the mill also produced seed oats and bruised oats.
Today, individual farms buy their own oil-fuelled grain driers (some of them made by my extended family, at Edwards Engineering in Perth), but Montgarrie’s ‘flat’ kiln once acted as a communal grain drier for the local farmers.
Things became tougher after the war, as cereal processing was industrialised by firms like Rank and McDougall. Meal mills were an endangered species by 1970, when a Scottish industrial survey was instituted to find and record the survivors. There were only a handful of traditional mills still working at that time – Tarlan, Prettsmill, Folkerton, Barry and Craighead among them, and a watermill at Tarves had fallen by the wayside just before the survey began.
These mills often had a haze of dust in the air, the product of decades of milling, like fog on a spider’s web; yet today Montgarrie is immaculate, despite working as hard as ever. Predictably, winter is the busiest time at the mill – because porridge is in demand. Montgarrie produces 30 tons of meal each month we get cold weather, but far less in summer.
Yet there is always work to do here: the mill machinery has over 3,000 grease nipples to attend to, a laborious process of filling up little tubs with grease, then adjusting screws to deliver it to the bearings. Just as the machinery hasn’t changed, the process has remained the same, too. The fresh oats are raked over the floor of the kiln, using a long-handled wooden ‘sheeler’, where perforated cast iron plates allow heat from the furnace below to rise up and dry them. The furnace is built of stone, with a vaulted brick lining and iron hearth doors: a couple of electric fans provide the extra draught which once came from a set of bellows. The revolving ridge ventilator on top of the kiln assists the drying process, and gives the mill its distinctive silhouette. The oats dry in the kiln over the course of four hours, during which their moisture level drops to four percent.
Afterwards, once they have cooled down, the oats are screened – then the sluice gates are opened, and the gearbox engaged.
The shelling stones begin turning, and the oats are fed in – one stone opens the longer grains, and another opens the shorter husks. They are then ground into four cuts: fine, medium, rough and pinhead (which is a kernel cut in half). In the past, Montgarrie concentrated on the Matra variety of oats for its light shell and substantial kernel; now the mill uses several varieties known generically as ‘milling oats’, and the main distinction is between organic and conventionally-grown crops.
Millstones are traditionally made from French burr (freshwater quartz from La Ferté-sous-Jouarre), an expensive stone which had to be specially imported. Latterly, millers have dressed the worn faces of their stones with emery: but the unique pattern of furrows on the face of the stone, arranged in a series of ‘harps’ remains the same. Today, Montgarrie’s stones are refaced by the miller himself, using a mixture of emery, rock salt and Portland cement.
The dried oats pass through riddles, and are then lifted up to the head of the mill, transferred into a grain hopper from which the oats are fed into the first pair of stones, known as the groating stones, where the husks are removed from the kernels. The oats fall by gravity from the millstones into a winnowing machine where the chaff is separated; then the cleaned groats are returned to the loft by an elevator – a series of metal buckets attached to an endless belt – and down into another hopper.
This time, it’s fed into a set of finishing stones, after which the ground meal falls into a sieving machine, then the meal finally reaches the ground floor, and is sorted and bagged. Some grades of oatmeal may pass through the stones for a third time, for extra refining. The whole process of drying, cooling, screening and milling takes around 20 days.
There are many mill legends – and some have more than a grain of truth to them. One tale has it that the mill boy was paid a week’s wages to crawl along the tailrace culvert’s 250 metres, cleaning it out as he went. Having walked along damp culverts myself, wearing waders and crouching all the way, this can’t have been an enjoyable task!
Other urban myths tell of spawning salmon that leapt up the wheel and into the mill lade; and of a woman who travelled in the other direction – she went over the top of wheel, but survived to tell the tale.
Perhaps the most nostalgic story relates to the ice skate left behind by an emigrating miller – possibly even Mr Wilson! He was skating on a nearby pond the day before he was due to leave, but when he packed his bags and took the train to Aberdeen, he left one skate behind. It still hangs from its strap beside the kiln, like a talisman.
And the end product? Now packaged in polythene sacks rather than hessian bags, it’s called the Oatmeal of Alford rather than Montgarrie oatmeal because Alford was the closest railway station, hence a better-known departure point. From Alford, the oatmeal travelled out into the wider world: today it’s stocked by dozens of outlets in the North-East; rather fewer once you reach the Central Belt; but almost none south of the Border. There is an export trade, though, largely due to expatriate Scots who cling on to tradition.
Like them, and like my grandfather, I’ve become partial to the Oatmeal of Alford’s nutty taste, so I have it for breakfast each morning …
Mark Chalmers travels through the North-East every day, courtesy of Scotrail. He’s an architect and writer who has designed theatres, a giant wheel, and a whisky distillery – but his current preoccupation is a famous old granite quarry.