The Miller’s Tale

Fresh from the sourdough workshop, the Troubadour and I headed south to IMG_1138Dumfries and Galloway for a look around some museums that had been tickling our fancies. This wide, green, rolling corner of Scotland is often overlooked by travellers heading north to south or the other way round – and yet it holds some magnificent rural and coastal scenery, great gardens, and a host of cultural interest.

On the way down we stopped for coffee at Biggar and found, quite unexpectedly, a great wee local museum, run by volunteers, with an amazing collection of artefacts dating from prehistoric times to the 20th century. We especially liked a series of beautifully-crafted models showing cross-sections of local historic buildings like towers and mills and castles. There was also a huge reconstruction of old shops and businesses from Biggar’s main street in years gone by. Well worth the £4 entry fee us bus-pass-holders get to enjoy! And only £5 for the rest of you.

Above righIMG_1162 (2)t is a picture of Sweetheart Abbey, in the village of New Abbey where we were staying. It’s run by Historic Scotland and currently being renovated for safety reasons but dates from the 12th century and has a story about Queen Devorgilla who carried around her dead husband’s heart in a box tied to her waistband. This was seen as an act of great romance and devotion hence the name  given to the Abbey. I don’t get it. I mean – why??? Anyway it’s a picturesque visit with a nice tea shop and great cream scones.

Left is a picture of the 19th century foundations of the stills at Annandale Distillery. It’s a great piece of excavation work, carried out by Glasgow University – you can see very clearly the hearths from the two stills, with the chimney intact at the back. Like many distilleries, it closed in 1918 and then had a number of decades changing hands. The new owners started distilling in 2014 and the newmake spirit and 3 year old, both peated and unpeated, are a delight. ‘Man o’ Words’, the unpeated, invokes our bard Burns who lived and worked in Dumfries for a while, as an exciseman no less; and ‘Man o’ Swords’ invokes Robert the Bruce. In my heart I’m a woman o’words, not o’swords; but I have to confess I preferred the latter in a glass.

Our main intention when booking the break was to visit ‘The Devil’s Porridge’, a museum in Eastriggs near Annan which commemorates the massive armaments factory which was created there to produce cordite for the first world war. Apparently it was the biggest producer of cordite in the world at the time, and whole towns were built to accommodate the 9,000 staff who were needed to run it – 75% of whom were women, under 21, and working class – coming from jobs on farms and in service or other low-paid work. The collection of photos, uniforms, machinery and other artefacts is excellent and there’s a lot of really helpful interpretive information. There are lots of photos of young women delving into vats of cotton fibre, bare hands and up to their oxters in explosive materials. And yet apparently the workers were delighted to be there, earning two to three times their previous wages, enjoying a great social life, and freed from the servitude and lack of opportunity which had been their previous lot. I regret to say that I didn’t take any photos when we were there – partly because it was a bit cramped and the exhibits too big to get a proper viewpoint. But mainly because I had just come from my tasting session at the distillery and wasn’t entirely sober! Great museum though and I thoroughly recommend it.

And finally to the Corn Mill, also at New Abbey. This is run by HiIMG_1165 (2)storic Scotland, and we were shown round by a really enthusiastic local woman who brought its entire history to life for us. Originally it was built to grind oats for the monks at nearby Sweetheart Abbey; but the mediaeval origins are lost and the mill was rebuilt in the 18th century. It only closed for business in 1948. The interior of the mill shows how successive millers innovated and redesigned to ease the back-breaking burden of hauling sacks of oats around. You have to take your hat off to those informal engineers – the skill and dedication it must have taken to devise ways of, for example, hauling those 200lb sacks of oats from the bottom of the mill to the top. And you also have to spare a thought for the children employed in a lot of the heavy, boring, repetitive and dangerous work of the mill. Phew, phew, so lucky to have been born a century later! IMG_1175 (2)

I found the milling story fascinating in the context of my wider familiarity with barley-milling. At my place of work we use a modern mill which deals with half a ton at a time, yet you could only call it dinky in comparison to the massive millstones used at New Abbey for oatmeal. Also, from the sourdough workshop I was well convinced of the benefits of stoneground flour for breadmaking, and aware that there are very few stone-grinding mills left in Scotland. Now I can see why. The picture below shows a millstone imported from France in the height of the French Revolution – apparently it cost the equivalent of £15,000 at the time, and was shipped in segments; so that the miller had to reassemble it in situ. Otherwise it would have been impossible to shift. It seems that Napoleon put trade embargoes on hold in order to clinch this deal! (Please feel free to insert your own Brexit analogies here, I can’t bear to!)

And so my commitment to stoneground flour is renewed – thank you, Historic Scotland – and today’s tasks include cleaning out the fridge and feeding my little sourdough starters. And sorting out the rest of my Dumfries and Galloway photos; and maybe having a wee nip of Man O’Swords!

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