The mill sits nestled in a flat-bottomed valley edged along one side by the Knockando Burn, and on the other by a steep tree-clad incline. The landscape clings to frost and snow during winter, untroubled by wind. In summer long sunny days illuminate a rare treasure, a remote rural district mill that for well over two centuries has been continuously involved in the manufacture of woollen textiles in Moray.
The burn and its banks provided opportunity for early tenants to combine agriculture with wool-processing activities, such as scouring fleeces, dyeing cloth, and the finishing of woven textiles and blankets through processes such as waulking. Advances in technology spurred by the Industrial Revolution saw the introduction of machinery to the mill for carding, spinning and, eventually, power loom weaving during the Victorian era, all powered (up until the 1940s and the introduction of mains electricity to Knockando) by the most efficient type of waterwheel, an iron-cast overshot wheel, manufactured in1863 by the Elgin foundry, Rhind and Sutter.
A leaflet from the 1930s describes the type of products that were the mainstay of the mill enterprise at that time – tweeds for ladies’ and gents’ clothing, yarns for knitting, and of course blankets (the latter being manufactured in large quantities during the First World War but also in more peaceful times considered a traditional and useful wedding gift until the introduction of ‘doonies’ in the 1960s). More recent product additions include a range of limited edition laptop briefcases.
During the major part of the 20th century there were little further improvements or upgrades made to the mill and the machinery it contained, apart from simple and thrifty repairs that kept the mill in production, and the mill’s ongoing use must have gone some way towards preventing the mill building (in particular its sagging roof) from total collapse.
In 2011, the mill was a building site, and its machinery seemingly a disassembled sprawl of TippEx-numbered parts. This was due to a major £3.5 million restoration project carried out between 2010 and 2012. The money for the project was raised by the Knockando Woolmill Trust, established in 2000 with the purpose of repairing the mill’s buildings and machinery and preparing the site for the careful and sensitive development necessary to ensure its continuing survival into the future as a working mill, and NOT a museum. The whole community have taken part in this massive fundraising effort, but the woman driving the project throughout this process is the Trust’s Chair, Dr Jana Hutt (now MBE) and we are all delighted that her efforts have been given this well deserved recognition.
Today the main mill structure (comprising weave-shed, scouring shed, and the carding and spinning workshops), the mill cottage, the wooden shop and mill house have all been carefully restored. The old byre too has been sensitively transformed into a Visitor Centre, with a shop, café and interpretation area. The site was made open to the public from 1 June 2012, and the combination of free entry, outstanding and significant heritage AND a café offering a delicious range of food and home-bakes is making the mill a popular destination with locals and visitors alike.
Key mill highlights are the carding set and self-acting spinning mule, both manufactured by Platt Brothers of Oldham and dated 1872 and 1870 respectively. These were literally taken to pieces, moved to the Conservation Training Workshop (the only new permanent structure on site) and painstakingly cleaned and repaired before being returned and carefully re-assembled in the mill. The weave shed houses two Dobcross Looms dating from 1896 and 1899. These beautiful examples of Victorian engineering will serve to produce smaller bespoke runs of fabric, whilst the newer second hand machinery that is currently being installed into the new workshop (CTW), will act as a work horse to increase levels of production and allow the mill to continue into the future as a commercially viable and sustainable community enterprise.
Summer has brought glorious sunshine, the odd thunderous downpour and the green light to go ahead with restoration and further development of the mill garden. We have been selected to feature on the Beechgrove Community Garden’s TV series (to be filmed and broadcast in September). When I began this article, diggers were carefully sifting through soil for stones. Now the building of drystane dyking to support paths and plant beds is well under way, and you can follow progress of this and other aspects of the mill’s continuing development on our blog or Facebook page. Photographs from nearly a century before show a well-kept, tidy and productive garden that also included delicate and decorative borders of flowers, but the recent building restoration that required frequent and unavoidable use of heavy machinery left the garden in ruins.
By the time I am on my way to visit Orkney for the very first time, to take part in the Orkney International Science Festival, working with schools and providing ‘woolly’ family activities, the mill garden should be completely restored to its former glory and ready for the small screen! The garden has huge educational potential going into the future, from growing plants for natural dyestuffs to environmental art projects. Discussions are afoot with artist Mary Bourne to involve her and the Young Mill Friends in wood carving garden structures that explore the language(s) of textiles and dye plants.
This is but one of many upcoming activities that will take place as part of the Young Mill Friends project throughout the next year at the mill, leading to our own mini-festival for (and partly delivered by) young people, the mill’s Youth Activity Day 2014. Last year was our first event of this type and saw 90 young people participate in a whole range of amazing activities that drew on the unique cultural and natural heritage of the site (including trout habitat mapping of the Knockando Burn, creating thread palettes for woven textile design from colours drawn from the surrounding landscape, felt making, designing, building and testing waterwheels in the Waterwheel Challenge… far too many to mention, but I must include the amazing contribution of the T-Exchange with the organic piano and the Jacquard punch card exercise connecting the technology of manufacturing textiles with the birth of modern computing).
Hugh Jones, the mill weaver (pictured above – the one on the right) had the wisdom to see a viable future for the mill, and the courage to put the mill into Trust in order to achieve this. His laidback demeanour belies a strong character that continues to put every chance in place for the mill to succeed into the long term. Hugh’s constant yet unobtrusive presence on site every day, working hard, fixing machinery, and continuing the almost endless task to restore the mill to a commercially feasible enterprise serves to continually inspire those around him. This week’s task is the teasel gig currently being re-instated to the mill.
The Woolmill, the treasures it contains, and the surrounding landscape, provide much for the visitor to enjoy, being situated just off the Speyside Way. The road to Knockando offers delights at every turn, the gallant peak of Ben Rinnes, the neighbouring Convals, and on through the gentle splendour of scenic Moray, as the land rises into the foothills of the Cairngorms. Here the visitor can discover and explore an abundance of distilleries, woodland, and picture perfect views of the Spey all tucked into the southern tip of Moray. You can find out more and plan your visit from our website.
You can try out some carding, spinning and other wool activities with Elidh at the Family Day in this year's Orkney Science Festival, on Saturday 7 September 2013, and she will also be visiting primary schools around Orkney through the period of the Festival.