Volunteer uncovers history of Bobbin Mills in the North of Scotland
Joanna Gilliatt, one of our Ancient Woodland Restoration volunteers in the north of Scotland, carried out some fascinating work into the history of Bobbin Mills in the north of Scotland and their important relationship with woodlands. She has written a summary article, which you can see here. She’s also produced a book of her findings. Please let us know if you’d like a copy. You can also download a copy of her report here: https://whittle.woodlandtrust.org.uk/library/#71-wpfd-ancient-woodland-restoration
Enjoy the article; it’s long but really interesting, so get a cuppa and enjoy the read!
Bobbin Mills in he North of Scotland
The Ancient Woodland Restoration project came to an end in Scotland at the end of March 2018, after nearly four years of activity. As a result, my role as a volunteer researcher for the project has also come to an end, so this seems like a good time to report back on the research I’ve been doing.
The Ancient Woodland Restoration project
Ancient woodlands are areas which are shown as having woodland cover on the earliest maps (1750 in Scotland, 1600 in England) and have had woodland cover continuously ever since. As a result of their longevity, these woodlands tend to have a strong natural and cultural heritage and they provide a home for a complex range of wildlife, including rare species of both flora and fauna, with some of these species found exclusively on ancient woodland sites.
Ancient Woodland is increasingly under threat, and the aim of the Ancient Woodland Restoration project was to work to restore areas of ancient woodland which were planted with non-native conifers in the period after the 2nd World War – areas known as PAWS (Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites).
In ten priority areas across the UK, including two in Scotland, Project Officers worked to advise owners and managers about the special characteristics of their woodland, discussed the need for restoration and how to undertake it, and then supported the landowners and managers through the process of restoration.
Volunteer researchers were also involved, as part of the Woodland Heritage strand of the project, with the aim of contributing towards the body of knowledge about the history and cultural significance of our ancient woodlands.
In Scotland ancient woodland is normally considered to consist of remnants of the Caledonian pine forest, with the predominant species being Scots pine. However, upland birch woods contribute 29% of native woodlands in Scotland and many of these upland sites are ancient birch woods.
So that’s where my research came in – contributing to knowledge about the history and cultural significance of the birch woods.
I became a volunteer researcher in July 2014 and attended a training day in Drumnadrochit that August. That was when I first heard of bobbin mills, since a local woodland expert mentioned that there used to be a bobbin mill near Drumnadrochit. At the time I thought no more about it, but my interest was piqued a few days later, when I saw a bobbin mill on the 1st edition Ordnance Survey (OS) map, at South Kinrara, just 8 miles from where I live.
I decided to investigate this bobbin mill, and had to start from scratch, since I knew nothing at all about bobbins or bobbin mills. In no time, however, my research focus expanded, and I was investigating evidence of bobbin mills which used to exist throughout the north of Scotland.
Three and a half years later, I now know that South Kinrara was just one of 88 bobbin mills – and other turning mills which made bobbins – which used to operate in the north of Scotland (loosely defined as north of Perth) at some point over the 150 years between 1830 and 1980.
Typology of Bobbin Mills
There is evidence in primary sources (including the census, valuation roll and early OS maps) for 73 of the 88 mills which I have identified, and from secondary sources and personal recollections for 15 more.
The mills can be divided into 6 groups, on the basis of geography and the date they were established.
Turning Mills in Perthshire and the North East of Scotland
The bobbin mills, and bobbin-making mills, in the north of Scotland supplied bobbins to the major textile industries, with the 50 mills in Perthshire and the north east principally supplying the flax and jute mills of Dundee.
Some of these mills may have also supplied cotton spinning and weaving mills in Scotland and England or woollen mills in the Borders, though this remains uncertain.
There were bobbin-making mills in urban settings, including in Perth, Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness. These were often called Turning Works and were usually stone or brick buildings and powered by steam. The largest was McGregor and Balfour Ltd, in Dundee.
However, most of the mills were in rural locations, in wooded areas, which provided their raw
materials – principally birch wood, but in some cases other hardwoods, including beech.
The rural turning mills in Perthshire and Angus were usually set up by rivers and streams which
provided water power, and often involved use of elaborate infrastructure including weirs, mill
lades and sluices. Rather than being purpose-built, the mills typically occupied an existing
stone-built mill building, such as an old corn mill, lint mill, waulkmill or oil mill. These mills
were probably converted into bobbin mills by the landowners, but they were usually run by
NLS Ordnance Survey http://maps.nls.uk/view/74957130 Mill of Ross View from West © Canmore
The Mill of Ross, near Comrie, was originally a corn mill, but was operated as a bobbin mill
between 1864 and 1910. The Glamis Turning Premises was originally a waulkmill, but was
operated as a bobbin mill between 1861 and 1895.
While some of the mills only operated as bobbin mills for just a few years (and closed down
due to fire, bankruptcy, retirement, death or other unknown reasons), some were family run
mills which continued in operation for many decades. Brunty Mill (originally a corn mill) was
operated by members of the Carr family for 74 years (1861 to 1935), making bobbins and
The Cambus O’May Bobbin Mill was operated by 3 generations of the Pithie family, from 1851
through to 1952. Like other mills in Aberdeenshire, Cambus O’May was a timber building, with stone footings,
and water-powered, though a steam engine was later added. The mill was shown on the 1st edition OS map as a saw mill, but on the 2nd edition OS map as a Bobbin Turning Mill.
Bobbin Mills in the Highlands
The bobbin mills in the Highlands supplied the cotton thread mills of Paisley and Glasgow in the 19th century. However, towards the end of the century the demand for bobbins dried up due to the mills importing higher quality birch wood from Scandinavia and North America. In the 20th century, bobbin mills in the Highlands supplied the jute industry, in both Dundee and India.
In the period from 1835 to 1855 bobbin mills in the Highlands were usually set up by Paisley thread manufacturers themselves. Perhaps the most well known of these mills was the Pirn Mill on Arran, rather than any of the mills in the north of Scotland.
This occupied a substantial stone-built building and was water-powered; it operated from approximately 1830 through to 1840, when all the local birch woodland had been exhausted.
Messrs. Clark of Paisley also used a store room in the Corpach Engine House as a bobbin mill in the 1840s and 1850s. This mill was powered by steam, overlooked by Ben Nevis, and the bobbins were transported by steamer.
However, the other bobbin mills set up by the thread manufacturers were probably timber buildings and no physical evidence of them remains. Indeed, there may have been many more bobbin mills in the Highlands, which have not been identified since they came and went within the space of a decade, leaving no trace at all.
After the 1850s most of the bobbin mills in the Highlands were set up by independent entrepreneurs who were often men from outside the area. Indeed, many of the men and boys who worked in the mills came from elsewhere, following the work from mill to mill, though the mills did also employ some local workers. There is no evidence of any women being employed in the bobbin mills at all.
From the 1860s most of the bobbin mills in the Highlands are known to have relied on steam, rather than water power, and evidence suggests that these were generally timber buildings, and may have only been intended to have a relatively short working life.
Few photographs of timber bobbin mills exist, but there are photographs of the South Kinrara Bobbin Mill, taken in 1893, a couple of years after it closed down. The mill had been established some 30 years earlier, by William and Andrew Taylor, who set it up shortly after the railway line through Badenoch and Strathspey was opened, in 1863, thereby providing a ready means of transporting the bobbins they produced.
William and Andrew Taylor
Born in Dunnottar, near Stonehaven, in 1830 and 1832 respectively, William and Andrew Taylor were nephews of Andrew Paterson, who ran the Glasslaw Den Turning Mill, near Stonehaven, from 1841 until his death in 1864; they were also the sons of George Taylor who operated the Mills of Inchmarlo in Banchory during the 1840s. The Mills of Inchmarlo consisted of a saw mill and wood turning mill, which had previously been meal and barley mills.
In 1851 William Taylor was a ‘wood turner’ and Andrew a ‘sawmill labourer’ in Banchory, and in 1861 Andrew was ‘wood turner’ at the Bridge of Canny Bobbin Mill, again in Banchory.
By 1865, however, the two brothers had set up the South Kinrara Bobbin Mill 75 miles away, on the other side of the Cairngorms. Unfortunately, nothing is known about how this came about, or the relationship between the Taylor brothers and the landowner, Mackintosh of Mackintosh. In the 1881 census, William Taylor was listed as a ‘bobbin maker employing 13 men & 2 boys’.
After the South Kinrara Bobbin Mill was closed, in 1891, William Taylor moved to Pitlochry and set up another bobbin mill there, which continued in operation until 1926. For a while he employed his cousin, Andrew Paterson (junior), as a ‘wood turner’.
William Taylor may also have had a bobbin mill near Aviemore since, according to a memoire, at one time there was a bobbin mill “at the west of Croftmore belonging to Taylor of Pitlochry”.
In addition to South Kinrara, Andrew Taylor had several other bobbin mills: one beside Carron Station, near Knockando, one in Kincraig, another up Glentromie, and possibly two or three more in other locations. In the 1881 census he was listed as a ‘bobbin maker and wood merchant employing 23 men and 3 boys’ in Kincraig.
Finally, Andrew Taylor set up a bobbin mill in Forres, which was bought by Andrew Merchant, the mill manager, shortly before Andrew Taylor’s death in 1896 and continued in operation until 1949. By this time the demand for bobbins from the jute industry had collapsed due to India banning the import of bobbins.
A photograph taken in 1921, shows 14 Forres bobbin mill workers, alongside a pile of birch poles, one of the mill’s circular saws and some examples of the bobbins they made.
Andrew Merchant’s son, also Andrew Merchant, set up the bobbin mill near Drumnadrochit in 1938, located in an old corn mill and powered by diesel. This mill only closed down in 1954, having diversified into the production of pit props, fence posts and chocs. This was the last of the Highland bobbin mills to close down, though a few mills in the north east remained in operation into the 1970s.
Bobbins made in the north of Scotland
During the 19th century, the Highland bobbin mills probably made spools, to hold the finished thread made by the thread mills, rather than making bobbins for use during the thread production process. These were made from a single piece of birch wood. Meanwhile, some of the bobbins used by the jute industry were called “solid spinning bobbins” and these were also made from a single piece of birch wood.
In both cases, the process for making the bobbins involved sawing a block of wood to size, a hole being bored down the centre of the block, and a lathe being used to create the rough shape of the bobbin. The rough bobbins were then dried, a finishing lathe was used to produce the final shape, and the bobbins were polished.
The bobbin mills in towns and cities probably made a range of different types of bobbins, including both bobbins made from a single piece of birch wood, and those made up from three pieces of beech wood.
During the 20th century the city bobbin mills are known to have imported a lot of the timber they used, from Sweden and the Baltic states. In the case of the birch wood bobbins, this timber was purchased in the form of bobbin blocks, that is bobbins which had been turned once on a lathe to create the rough shape, but not finished.
Indeed, it was just this sort of bobbin block, or rough-cut bobbin, which the rural bobbin mills made during the 20th century. They supplied these bobbins to the city bobbin mills, for finishing, rather than supplying them directly to the jute manufacturers.
As far as is known, the rural bobbins mills, especially in the Highlands, only ever made simple bobbins, from a single piece of birch wood, relying on local timber for their raw materials. However, it is not known whether, during the 19th century, the rural bobbin mills made finished bobbins and spools, ready for use, or whether they only ever made the rough-cut bobbins.
The impact of the bobbin mills
While the bobbin making industry clearly had an enormous impact on the lives of some individuals and families, it is less clear how much of an impact it had on the communities where the mills were based.
The number of men and boys employed by the mills seems to have varied from a small handful up to 30 or more workers. In some cases, the mills were mostly, or entirely, staffed by family members, in others there were considerable numbers of employees, including teenage apprentices.
These workers were not always local to the area, and particularly in the Highland mills often came from the central belt or from Angus, Aberdeenshire or Perthshire. Many of the mills only operated for a relatively short period of time, and the men who worked in them travelled around, often being found in a number of different mills around the north of Scotland during their working life.
The impact on the local communities is therefore unclear. The presence of a bobbin mill may have affected the community more through providing jobs for wood cutters, sawyers and carters than by providing jobs for those directly involved in making the bobbins: the wood turners and bobbin makers. On the other hand, there seems little doubt that the bobbin mills in the north of Scotland must have had a considerable impact on the local birch woodland.
The quantity of birch wood used by each bobbin mill was clearly quite significant, perhaps in the region of 1,500 tons of birch wood each year, yet there is little evidence of birch woodland being actively managed for bobbin making or of coppicing being used.
Contemporaneous reports refer to the beauty of Glenurquhart being “materially impaired by the ruthless sacrifice of the greater part of its fine birch woods” (1850), to “scarcely a birch tree of any size left standing in Rothiemurchus” (1869) and to the consumption of birch wood for bobbin making being enormous and at one time threatening “the practical deforestation of Scotland” (1907). Yet in Deeside it was said that “not withstanding the doings of the [bobbin] mill, the banks and braes still show a considerable growth of natural birch” (1899).
Hence, it is hard to know just how much of an impact the bobbin mills really had on local birch woodland and to what extent this impact was sometimes exaggerated. Perhaps the most appropriate conclusion is that the impact of bobbin mills on the birch woodland was probably considerable, at least in some places and in the short term.
The bobbin mills in the north of Scotland made bobbins in their millions, were often substantial enterprises in their own right, provided employment for a considerable number of men and boys, consumed huge amounts of birch and other hardwoods, and had a noticeable impact on local woodland and landscapes, at least in the short term.
For 150 years, bobbin making was a significant industry in the north of Scotland. Yet nowadays there is often little or no trace of the bobbin mills which once operated, or the impact they had, and many people are unaware that this industry ever existed.
Woodland Heritage Researcher
Ancient Woodland Restoration Project