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Shawbost Norse Mill and Kiln (Isle of Lewis)

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The Norse mill and kiln at Shawbost on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland

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      23.01.2010 10:05
      Very helpful



      An example of an ancient mill and kiln

      There are so many different interesting attractions to see on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides that there isn't actually room to fit some of them onto the map or to even mention them in a guidebook. The Norse Mill and Kiln at Shawbost is an example of such a place. I only discovered it because I was staying in Shawbost and I saw it referred to on a brown tourist information sign at the side of the road.

      The Norse Mill and Kiln is only accessible by foot. There is a small car parking area at the side of the A858, which is the main coastal road that runs along the top northern coast of the island. This car parking area is adjacent to Loch Roinavat and is in a very tranquil setting but the mill and kiln are not actually visible from here.

      A good quality footpath constructed in 2003 leads to these two ancient buildings. It's about a quarter of a mile walk from the car park and they don't come into view until you are right upon them. Both the mill and the kiln here were in operation until the late 1930's. The mill was powered by the Allt nam Breac (which literally means "trout stream"), which is a small river that flows out of Loch Roinavat.

      The two buildings are constructed from local stone and have traditional thatched roofs. There are houses and other buildings similar in design to this all over Lewis and Harris but if you haven't come across this style of building before then it will come as quite a surprise.

      The Norse Mill and Kiln provides an insight into the unique way of life of the people that live here and would have been used to grind barley grain into meal. There were once over 200 of these types of mill all over Lewis and the last of these ceased operating in 1945. The design of these mills date back to the Vikings, hence their name, but this particular example was probably built around 1800. This particular mill is still in full working order and was brought back to life briefly in the 1990's by the local schoolchildren from Shawbost School as part of a school project.

      The mill and kiln at Shawbost were first renovated during the 1960's when the thatched roof was repaired and again more recently in 1995 by the local school. It is an example of a horizontal wheel type mill.

      As you approach the building to your right is the kiln, whilst the building to your left is the mill. Both buildings look very similar in design from a distance and are unusual with their quaint thatched roofs. The interior of both buildings is quite dark, as there are no windows so I would suggest that a torch would be useful, which is something that I didn't have.

      The doors to these buildings were not locked and they are kept open at all times. There is no admission charge and they are unmanned so access is possible 24 hours a day. The first building that I went inside was the kiln. A raised platform takes up the majority of the floor inside the kiln and in the middle of this floor there is a circular hollow cut into the stone base. This is where a fire would have been lit. This fire would heat and dry the grain before it went to the mill next door. There's not a lot to actually see inside the kiln and it was very dark and a bit dusty but it is interesting nonetheless. The mill however looked more interesting so I headed off to check that out.

      To understand how the mill worked it is necessary to walk all around its circumference, taking care not to fall down the banking into the river. It is only when you do this that you will notice that there is a trench that channels water from the river into the bottom of the mill. This trench has been dug to divert the water from the river and channel it at speed into the mill. This water powers a set of paddles beneath the mill floor that is visible through a gap in the wall and these paddles turn the millstone that grinds the grain, it's very simple but also quite ingenious.

      The location of these buildings is rather remote but I realise that the stream determines this spot. I imagine that the grain would have been carried to and from the mill by horses and that the finished product would have been distributed to the local communities at Shawbost, Carloway and Bragar. A local map of the area from the late 19th century shows that the Allt nam Breac powered another similar mill just a few miles further downstream although nothing remains of this today.

      I thought the Norse Mill and Kiln were very interesting and very worthy of a visit. They are the sort of place that would be a major tourist attraction in rural England but here in one the remotest corners of the British Isles they do not get as much recognition as they deserve.


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