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4 Dec 2018

The writing is on the wall

Written by Sandy Chudek (Volunteer)
Pencil marks at Barry Mill
Pencil marks at Barry Mill
What do you do when moths start eating your mill? We fight back!

Barry Mill is a working water mill, which was rebuilt in 1814 to replace an earlier mill. It’s a three-storey stone building but most of the internal structure is wooden, as are the fittings and some of the machinery. Over the last 150 years, many of the wooden surfaces have been covered with pencil scribblings. Recent conservation work at Barry Mill has uncovered these traditional contracts, records of transactions and signatures, which introduce us to people from the mill’s history.

John Duncan (miller at Barry Mill) and his wife
John Duncan, miller (c1901-11) whose signature can be found in the mill

Signatures of millworkers such as Robert Mackie, who went ‘through the mill’ in 1881, have been found. There are names with dates, addresses and job descriptions. Millwrights who worked on the mill repairs carefully inscribed their names and addresses on the wall of the cupboard housing the gears; farmers’ deals and other trades were represented around the office door. Millers, assistants, carters and other workers not only left their names scattered throughout the mill but also included construction drawings and calculations. There’s even a bunch of flowers and a musical score!

The name Bella, found on the wall by the grain chute at Barry Mill
Bella written in pencil behind the grain chute

Bella is the only female name found in Barry Mill, hidden under a grain chute. Who was Bella and why had she written her name in such an inaccessible place? There are many theories but no definite answers. One possibility is that she was one of the millers’ little sister. Bella is now famous as she appears as a character in a novel inspired by Barry Mill called Bone Deep, and visitors often ask to see her mark. We don’t want to lose her inscription or those of others from over the centuries.

A white-shouldered moth sitting on some grain
White-shouldered moth (copyright CSL / DBP Entomology)

Moths are endemic to meal mills and have happily been in residence at Barry Mill for a long, long time. However, during their reproductive cycle they damage the surface of the timber on which the writing is inscribed. These pencil marks are irreplaceable. We remove the moths at their pupal stage but it’s a detailed and tricky process. We have successfully countered their spread in the areas with the earliest inscriptions, but work is still ongoing to remove them from the mill completely.

Barry Mill as it is now
Barry Mill today

For centuries local communities depended on the oatmeal produced in mills like this, which used to be found roughly every 4 miles across the countryside. Mills were often the foundation point around which villages grew, evidenced by the common ‘mill’ in street names next to a bridge near the centre of most towns. Now only a handful of people work in these traditional mills; Barry Mill is one of less than a dozen working water mills remaining in Scotland. Our conservation programme hopes to protect the mill and its irreplaceable writings – the personal face of the mill’s history.

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