Introducting the new Miller!

I’d like to properly introduce the new miller at Barony Mill. I first met up with him in October 2017 and he told me a bit about himself.

Ali Harcus lives in the West Mainland currently. He is originally from Eday in the Northern Isles and has lived away from Orkney during a part of his working life but for the most part has been here in Orkney. He was very excited to begin working at the mill via a Historic Scotland scheme. Under the careful guidance of the very skilled and knowledgeable Rae Phillips, the retired miller, he had been undertaking that season’s first batch of beremeal. The malting had been due to start when we met and during that period the mill was due to be out of action as the sacks were placed in the mill race itself. There is a great interest at the moment in the bere malt for distilling and brewing however the Barony Mill continue to produce it using traditional processes.

We wished Ali every success with his new position. It was early days but he was very keen to encourage people to visit the mill during the summer months as he felt that in these times of enhanced technology many people aren’t as aware of water power and the associated mechanics and handling of grain to flour/meal.

UPDATE February 2018

I met up with Ali on a bitterly cold, sleeting day. The mill was dry but possibly even slightly colder inside than out. Ali must have been working hard as he claimed not to feel the cold.

He told me about what he had been doing since having started on 12th September. It seemed to me that he has really got into his stride with the milling while the mill has been closed to the public. So far he has, with the help of Rae and other friends and volunteers, milled a total of 18 tonnes of bere. 75% of that is beremeal and 1/2 tonne of malt produced by hand in the traditional manner. He tells me that he has about 13 1/2 tonnes to go before the opening in May and felt confident that it was doable.

Ali related proudly that the mill has been “working sweetly” and the production has been great. Rae had originally told him that if he managed three bags an hour “he would have been doing well” but he has often managed four or four and a half, so it sounds as if Ali has a good method going there! Long may it last. I was curious to find out whether the beer barley that was being milled towards the end of the season was any different from that at the beginning as this might explain why production levels could vary so much. Ali explained that when the bere is harvested, the farmer has it at 14 percent moisture but after it has been dried on the kiln floor at Barony Mill (heat provided by the burning of the scrubs) it has 9 percent water content which means it can be stored without preservatives and that keeps it stable through the period until it is milled. Bang goes that theory but the facts are interesting nonetheless!

He told me that there have as yet been no maintenance issues but there is talk of lifting the wheel to carry out checks for good measure. He will need some help with that. Ali is generally alone in the mill and due to the noise levels he doesn’t listen to music or the radio when he is working the machinery. He starts work by 9am Monday to Friday and says that he doesn’t know where the time goes as it flies by and the working day is over. I was curious as to whether he found his brain was “freewheeling” and therefore more creative without conversation or distraction but he just laughed at the question. (Another theory bites the dust.)

There was an impressive amount of beremeal in the mill (see photographs) which needed to be put into storage away from site. I was concerned that I hadn’t seen Cedric the cat recently (or was he hidden behind piles of sacks?) but Ali assured me that he was fit as a fiddle and very much around and about. Visitors might like to watch out for Cedric as well as Ali of course during the summer months.

The mill reopens for tours on 1st May and if you have never had the opportunity to visit the mill I can’t encourage you enough. Who knows it may be your chance to switch on the water wheel in 2018 in Orkney’s last remaining working watermill.

We also need volunteer tour guides. Please message me or email Sue Tyzack for more information.