Hand-Mill," Scottish Women Grinding Meal.
The art of reducing grain to meal for human food is coeval
with the first practice of agriculture. The corn productions of
the earth were ground by manual labour, the simple method of using
a Hand-mill being common to all people in the early stages of
civilization, and it is still in practice among those whose primitive
circumstances have not estranged them from the artless manners
of their fathers. Baking and boiling were the only preparations
in ancient use, and Sarah is the first on record who kneaded meal,
and she has left, says the quaint and honest Thomas Fuller, in
"The Holie State," the prints of her knuckles in the
leaven to this day.
The circumstances recorded in Holy Writ of Esau having parted
with his birthright for a mess of porridge, is a proof of the
early use of meal in the state so generally served up in the north;
and although the people in that part of the kingdom may be jeered
on the subject of their roughish fare, as the Sybarites of old
were on their black broth, it is now fairly proved by analysis,
that oatmeal contains more nutritious substance than the flour
of wheat, or that of any other grain.
The Hand-mill is called in Gaelic, Muillean-bra', which will
strike one as being a term very similar to the French Moulin a
bras; in the Irish idiom it is Bronn, and in the Lowland Scots
it is named Quern. The stones are eighteen to thirty inches in
diameter, the undermost being rather larger than the upper, and
having a spike in the centre as a pivot on which the other is
turned. The women, when at work, seat themselves on the ground,
beside the Muillean, and with a stick, which is fixed into a hole
in the margin of the stone, turn it round while they pour in the
grain by a central opening. There are generally two females employed,
who sit opposite to each other, and as usual in almost all their
avocations, they lighten their labours by appropriate songs. In
this employment we are reminded of the Scriptural passage, Matthew
xxiv. 41: "Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one
shall be taken and the other left;" and we are told by Dr.
Shaw, that the Arabs at this day use two small grindstones, the
uppermost turned by a handle of wood placed in its edge, and when
expedition is required, then two persons, who are generally women,
sit at it.
When water and windmills were introduced, the lairds very strictly
prohibited the use of the hand-stone, by which they were deprived
of their thirlage dues, and the miller of his lawful multure;
consequently, wherever found they were broken up. In 1284, it
was enacted by King Alexander III., that "na man sail presume
to grind Quheit, Maishlach, or Rye, with a Hand Mylne, except
he be compellit be storm, or be in lack of mylnes quhilk suld
grind the samen;" if he was found to do so, he was muicted
of the thirteenth measure, or multure, and by a repetition of
the offence, he was to "tyne," or lose, "his hand-mylne
perpetuallie." The exception permitted their very general
use in remote parts, where they cannot yet be laid aside, and
in caves and beside the ruins of ancient houses these stones are
The conversion of grain into bread, or other food, was an operation
which did not occupy much of the time of a Highland goodwife,
as will be seen from the following account, among many others
that could be given. It is furnished by Ian fada, or long John,
of Ben Nevis, a much respected gentleman and true-hearted Celt.
He verges on the patriarchal age of fourscore, and recollects
when a boy having been sent by his grand-father, Ian du', or dark
John of Aberarder, on a message to a distant part of the country,
and when he reached the end of his journey, he found there was
no bread, or other eatables, where he was to take up his quarters
for the night. The woman of the house, however, speedily supplied
this want; for taking a reaping-hook, she went to the field, cut
a sufficient quantity of corn, and quickly separating the grain
from the straw, winnowed it in the open air, dried it in an iron
pot, ground it by the Quern, and presented it in well-baked Bonaich-cloich,
or cakes prepared on a stone before the turf fire; the time occupied
in these various operations not exceeding half an hour! Long John
is a Mac Donald of the braes of Lochaber, and adds to his other
qualifications that of being one of the best and most extensive
distillers of the native Uisge-bea', or Whiskey.
The corn and meal prepared in this ancient manner is called
Graddan, from grad, quick, speedy, and the operation after reaping
is thus performed :-A woman sitting down takes a handful of corn,
and holding it by the stems in her left hand, she sets fire to
the ears, which immediately flame up; but to prevent them being
burnt, with a small stick held in her right hand, she dextrously
beats the grain off the straw, the moment when it is sufficiently
done. For sifting the meal from the husks, a sheep's skin, perforated
by a small hot iron, is stretched on a hoop.
It is maintained all over the Highlands, that the meal thus
manufactured is more pleasant to the palate and is more wholesome
than what is dried and ground by the aid of machinery, and the
graddan meal is preferred for bannocks, brose, brochan, lite,
or porridge, fuarag, a mixture of meal with cream, or water, and
other culinary preparations of the Celtic housewives.
The practice of burning corn in the straw prevailed among the
Irish; but as they performed it so recklessly as to destroy most
part of the straw, an Act of Parliament was passed in 1635, which
declared it illegal.
Oats and rye, we find, were raised by the Britons before the
introduction of wheat and barley, and in the barbarous ages acorns
were ground for bread, hence, by the Welsh laws, the oak tree
is declared to be common property.
Artist: Robert Ronald McIan, Famous Scottish Painter,
Born 1803 ~ Died 1856
Robert Ronald McIan was born in Scotland 1803. His initial passion
was for acting and in his late teens moved to London to join the
Covent Garden Theatre. His extrovert character fitted in well
with the stage and London life in the 1830s and it was during
this period that he explored and developed his second passion
- painting. His first work to be submitted to the Royal Academy
of Painting in London was in 1835 and was followed by a series
of paintings depicting events and scenes of drama and conflict
from Scotland's history - The Battle of Culloden, A Highland Feud
and many others. In the early 1840s, encouraged by the favourable
reception of his work, he left the stage to concentrate on painting.
McIan was happily married to Fanny - an accomplished artist in
her own right and continued to paint until his death in 1856 -
the result of a wasting disease. He leaves as a legacy some of
the most enduring images of Scotland ever produced - recognised
Size: 7 inches x 4.5 inches.
Date of Print: 1900.
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