Why Dunrobin's Golspie commercial watermill is one of a kind
Hannah Ewan talks to the Kiwi miller operating one of Scotland’s last surviving commercial watermills
Until the early 20th century, every parish would have relied on its own water-powered mill. Now, only a handful are even partially operational in Scotland, often turned into tourist destinations to engage visitors with living history.
Golspie Mill in Sutherland is one of the last fully operational, commercial watermills, grinding peasemeal, rye, bread and plain flour. The original mill was opened nearby around 1815, and was joined by the current mill in 1863. Back then, oats and bere (an ancient type of barley) were the order of the day, but today’s limited bere production means it all heads to Barony Mill in Orkney, and Golspie’s oats are milled over in Kelso. The new mill became the only mill in 1922, and fell out of use altogether in 1953, until a renovation project was completed nearly forty years later.
‘The last miller, Fergus Morrison, is the real hero of this story,’ says Michael Shaw, who has been Golspie’s resident operator since 2001. Morrison and his wife Eleanor spent a decade restoring Barony Mill, and then turned their sights to Golspie, ensuring that the mill’s innards remain fundamentally the same today as at their first grinding.
When Shaw, a New Zealander, married his Scottish wife Becky, he thought he’d take on the milling job for a couple of years. Twelve years later and he’s considering adding a Golspie-branded bakery line to the flours and peasemeal. Running the mill is a full-time, labour-intensive job, as he explains: ‘There’s only enough water to grind a ton of wheat a week, in stints of two or three hours a day. The rest of the time is spent cleaning and maintaining the mechanics and roasting the peas, while the mill pond refills.’
Much of Golspie’s flour is sent to artisan bakeries across Scotland, and the rest is packaged up for speciality food shops – this is no mainstream, mass-produced product. Every grain is organic, and Shaw is limited in the most fundamental sense as to how much he can grind: when the water’s gone, it’s gone. Rising global grain prices have also been a problem, as they are over double what they were twelve years ago.
Shaw does, however, see one potential bonus to running machinery that operates on water: ‘When the apocalypse comes and there’s no electricity, I’ll be a very important person!’