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2 Nov 2023

Caring for industrial collections, part 2: moving with the times

Written by Lesley Scott ACR, Regional Conservator (Edinburgh & East)
An upper floor inside an old mill, with sacks of wheat standing on the wooden floorboards. Various cogs and pulleys can be seen in the background.
Inside Preston Mill
In the second of our industrial heritage series, we examine the retention of specialist heritage skills, focusing on Preston Mill. This is one of the oldest water-driven meal mills in Scotland, and the first industrial property the Trust acquired.

Industrial heritage covers all collections relating to past industrial processes but can also encompass the architectural elements of historic industrial sites and the buildings that house the collections, along with their bespoke infrastructure and location. A heritage standard for the ongoing care and preservation of static museum collections, such as fine art and furniture, is to create stable environments for these composite collections and ensure they are protected from physical damage. However, a more pragmatic approach needs to be taken for industrial collections, as they are not always housed within controllable environments – sometimes they are outside, or they may still be operational and moving. In some cases, the collection item is intrinsic to the building structure, such as a waterwheel on a mill building.

Two of the National Trust for Scotland’s industrial properties include water-driven wheel grain mills: Preston Mill and Barry Mill. They both retain an operational waterwheel, controlled by sluice gates, allowing water to pass through the wooden paddles. You can experience the mechanisms during a visit, with the internal cogs, gears, pulleys and shafts running as designed.

Cogs and gears in motion at Preston Mill

Knowing the processes, manufacture and intended use of industrial collections means we can make informed decisions to be able to best care for them. We understand that they are essentially part of the historic building; outwith the context of their intended industrial processes, their relevance would not be as significant.

The maintenance and preservation of our industrial properties becomes even more complex as the skills and knowledge for the ongoing operation of the machinery and building fabric are in decline; we are gradually losing living knowledge of the historical processes.

Both mills were still operating in the 20th century before we took on the care of Preston Mill in 1950 and Barry Mill in 1988. Staff and volunteers working at the sites brought their knowledge of the apparatus and how it functioned, and of how people worked there. When these types of mills were operational and more widespread in industrial Scotland, artisan skills were more readily available. In many instances, skills were passed from one generation to the next of how to repair and maintain working machinery, as well as the building fabric.

It now takes a multi-faceted team to be able to look after our industrial heritage sites. Property managers, staff and volunteers care daily for the industrial materials and buildings, and bring their past experience or engineering skills to work alongside our Collections, Buildings, Curatorial, Archaeological, Nature, Footpaths, Gardens, Learning, Heritage Planning and Heath & Safety teams. They ensure that considered maintenance and repair is part of the conservation process through research, recording and planning. We also use the knowledge and skills of external industrial conservators, or conservators with crossover specialisms such as metalwork or carpentry or limewashing. We greatly benefit from skilled artisans and engineers, who use like-for-like or similar historically appropriate materials to ensure continued authenticity.

At Preston Mill, we have recently repaired the pantile roof, added a fish ladder to control the flow of water to the mill lade, as well as made repairs to the wheel, including replacing the slats of the paddles and replacing the timber bearing and metal bushes. Even when closed, we turn the wheel regularly to make sure the wooden paddles are evenly saturated, and nothing is left too long underwater.

Whilst we continue to operate some of our industrial property collections, we understand that wear and tear is the most obvious factor to consider with moving parts, such as the waterwheel at Preston Mill, a loom at Weaver’s Cottage or a printing press at Robert Smail’s. Operating the machinery is arguably of benefit as moving parts are kept free or lubricated and run as designed. We also understand that visual functionality as well as maintenance affords regular consistent care. Machinery is less likely to seize up or become damaged through a lack of knowledge of how it works if staff are used to how something should sound, look or feel – industrial machinery maintenance is often very intuitive.

“We undertake regular maintenance to ensure the machinery and wheel is kept in a working condition. Rather than being reactive to things as they fail, we look to work preventively to minimise the need for any larger scale works.
Traditionally, local joiners would come from the nearby village to repair or change a wheel paddle, as they knew how the mill and its wheel functioned. With no remaining wheelwrights in Scotland, finding people with the necessary experience and knowledge is becoming increasingly more complicated.”
Fraser Macdonald
Visitor Services Supervisor at Preston Mill
A head and shoulders photo of a man with a beard and glasses, wearing a blue National Trust for Scotland jacket.

At Preston Mill, the property staff and volunteers transport you back to the active days of stone milling, describing the workers’ lives and how these mills provided food for communities. Although our mills have been superseded and no longer operate commercially, they still offer present-day understanding of the lives of past millers and their ‘daily grind’ through the preservation of key parts of the milling machinery.

The heritage sector throughout the UK is working towards solutions for how we can safeguard and grow industrial heritage conservation and retain those artisan skills and knowledge. We need to ensure we can understand the material specialisms within the profession and what skills will be required to be able to preserve and develop a workforce for future generations. The National Trust for Scotland is supporting this important work, working in partnership with Icon and other leading heritage bodies, whilst enabling opportunities for learning at our places.

Find out more about the Industrial Heritage Skills Report published by Icon

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