History and Millers
The present Mill was built in 1873, and has changed little since. Remains of older mills are adjacent awaiting restoration. Like most northern mills of this period, a kiln for drying the grain is integral with the building. Unusually however, the grain, or corn, ground here is bere, an ancient form of barley which is tolerant of the cool temperatures and short growing season of Orkney. Barony Mill is the only mill in the UK that deals with bere, probably the only one in the world. The flour produced by grinding is called beremeal. Grinding is done in the winter; during summer, the Mill is open to the public and the running of the machinery is demonstrated by the miller. Beremeal is available for sale for home use and for commercial bakers.
The “Barony” is an area of good farmland in the northwest corner of Birsay near the Earl’s Palace. The land here has been a prime estate of the rulers of Orkney since medieval times, and probably Viking times and earlier. The original name of the Mill was Barony; in the 1980s the Mill was called Boardhouse, a name that still occurs in the older guide books.
Rae Phillips – whose father and grandfather were millers at the Barony Mills from 1910-1972 – worked with his father at the Mill from 1957 to 1963 and returned to be the miller for the Birsay Heritage Trust which has operated the Mill since 1998. Rae retired from milling but passed on his knowledge and skills to our Mill Fellow (apprentice) Ali Harcus. The mill is supported by Historic Environment Scotland in providing this miller apprenticeship. On a wall of the Mill are the names of millers who have worked here:
- Wm. Hepburn 1873-1886
- Malcolm Firth 1887-1909
- John Phillips 1910-1940
- Wm. Phillips 1941-1972
- Olive Flett 1972-1982
- Fergus Morrison 1982-1993
The Mill is stone-built, three storeys high, about 19 x 7.4 metres in plan including the kiln. The overshot waterwheel, about 4.1m diameter, turns at some 12 rpm and requires 110,000 gallons/hr of water when the Mill is running under full load. The water comes from the nearby Boardhouse Loch. The waterwheel powers all the machinery in the mill: the grindstones, elevator, bag hoist, fanners, and sieves.
Grain received on the ground floor is hoisted to the top floor for drying in the kiln- about a tonne at a time. In comparison with oats, the drying temperature is lower, and the duration only about The drying takes between 4 to 6 hours. A unique wooden shovel powered by the hoist aids in removing the grain from the kiln floor.
There are three pairs of stones on the first floor. Grain is sent to the first pair, the “shelling stones”, to crack the husk, thus freeing the kernel. From here the grain and husk drops to a “fanner” – a wind machine that blows away the husks (locally called “scrubs”) which are burnt to heat the kiln. An elevator lifts the grain to a second fanner, after which the grain is delivered to a pair of French burr stones to be ground into a coarse meal (locally, “grap”) which is bagged, hoisted, and re-ground by the beremeal stones made from millstone grit. In former times they would have come from the Orkney quarry at Yesnaby, a remarkably scenic sea cliff.