Sandness mill being painstakingly restored by committed volunteers

Captain Gordon Walterson (left) and Laurie Moncrieff in front of the partially-restored mill. Click on image to enlarge.
Captain Gordon Walterson (left) and Laurie Moncrieff in front of the partially-restored mill. Click on image to enlarge.

A mill that used to grind corn for scores of people is being brought back into working order thanks to the enthusiasm of volunteers.

The mill is one of three which remain at Huxter, Sandness, and could soon prove a worthwhile tourist attraction.

Moves to restore the dilapidated mills, which had not been used since the 1940s, had been made some time ago by the Sandness Conservation and Heritage Group.

But recently the initiative was taken over by members of the Sandness History Group Gordon Walterson and Laurie Moncrieff, who were saddened that the mills, hundreds of years old, had fallen into disrepair. The roofs on the small house-like structures had disintegrated, leaving only the rafters, and only one mill still had its grinding stones.

The mills are advertised on a sign at the end of the Sandness road, but Mr Moncrieff said: “Quite a lot of folk come to see the mills, but it had got to the stage that if folk wanted to see a working mill they couldn’t see it. Everybody would have been disappointed if they had not been restored. They are part of Shetland’s heritage and should be preserved.”

Work started about 18 months ago and will continue for another six. It has been funded by Shetland Amenity Trust, which is also supplying labour and expertise, and by the Sandness and Walls Community Council.

The decision was taken to restore one mill (the most complete example, still having its stones) before deciding on the fate of the other two. All three mills stand in a line along a burn which flows from the Loch of Easter to Papa Sound and the Baas of Huxter.

Captain Walterson said of the partially-refurbished mill, the one nearest the sea: “We’re restoring it to what it was and it will be a tourist attraction at the same time.”

Work could only be sporadic, however, as the men had to wait for the times when the amenity trust workers would be free to come to the site to help. Mr Moncrieff said: “We’re going for one mill just now and see how it goes.”

The roof is now complete and the mill stones – comprising a fixed lower stone and an upper turning stone – are intact although the top one has yet to be put back into position.

The wooden paddle, which is turned by water from the burn and which itself turns the mill stone, is in place and is once again complete after the insertion of a piece of wood by Mr Moncrieff. The paddle can be raised or lowered to alter the weight of the stone by means of a piece of metal or “lifting tree”.

The roof has been restored to the original turf and straw construction and has been more work than the natural materials would suggest.

The turf squares, known as poens, placed on the rafters had to be cut from specific areas of short moorland grass growing on peaty soil, or “poen earth”. John Alec Jamieson of Bridge of Walls helped with this work.

Octogenarian Capt Walterson said: “It’s a dying art. I remember it as a child.”

The poens then had to be dried (a neighbour’s shed was offered for this purpose) and then transported by quad to the site.

Once in place the poens were covered by straw (traditionally oat straw, although straw from outwith Shetland was used in the restoration) and then covered with rope (in the past a herring net would be used) weighted down with stones, known as link stones.

A wooden scaffolding was constructed for the roofing, which was carried out by Mr Walterson and Mr Moncrieff, Tommy Isbister from Trondra and Frank Brown and Lowrie Smith, both from the amenity trust.

The work has been painstaking. Capt Walterson said: “It’s a lot of detail.”

And Mr Moncrieff does not know if the same amount of attention could be given to the other mills: “It’s a lot of work with the straw and poens and a lot of upkeep.”

More than a dozen mills throughout the area – which was more highly populated than now, with more than 30 people in the Huxter area alone – would have been in steady use through the 1930s and early 1940s. Each mill was looked after by three families who also took in grain from other people to grind.

The grain would be placed in a hopper and slowly fed into the stones, which by being slightly convex and concave enable the coarser corn to drop down into a container (and would be used for animal feed) while the finer meal, for human consumption, would come out of the sides.

The mill would be powered by water from the burn, which was dammed when required by means of a board to channel water flow. Further downstream a wooden chute would also be used to direct the water, to force it into a narrower and faster stream as it would hit the paddle.

The loch above could also be dammed and grooves in the sides of stones to house a board can still be seen where water leaves the loch and flows into the burn. After a while the water level would rise and the whole weight of the loch would press against the board, which could be released to increase pressure as required.

Gradually the mills fell into disuse, with the last corn being ground around 1944 although the practice of bruising oats for animal consumption continued after that. It is hoped that oats, barley and bere may once again be used at the mill.


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