Orkney Mills

By Bernie Bell

It occurred to me, that there are a lot of mills on Orkney.   Maybe a bit of a niche interest, but …here goes.

Orkney is a group of islands, and island life still means a level of  self-sufficiency.  In the past, that included folk needing to be able to take their grain to a local source to be ground into flour, to make their bread.

There’s one which is still a working mill, the Barony Mill at Birsay, as mentioned here….Didn’t we have a loverly time, the day we went to Birsay

Then there’s the Click Mill near Dounby


It isn’t exactly working – it is complete and in working order, but, mostly it’s just….there!

There are some large, renovated mills, such as Sebay, which isn’t open to the public, but is accessible, as holiday lets.

And Woodwick Mill , near Evie, is now an hotel where folk can stay in a place of beauty, and history.

It’s also near to Woodwick House hotel, with its lovely woodland walk to the bay and high teas in the summer months.

At the risk of this piece  becoming a tourist accommodation guide! – there is also the Mill of Eyrland near the Bay of Ireland in Stenness

Nothing to do with mills, but of interest in that area, the Bay of Ireland was the site of a recent discovery of a Mesolithic oaken log.

There are some renovated mills, which are domestic residences, and so not accessible, such as Costa Mill in Evie, and the mill at the end of the Oyce of Firth near Finstown

A Stenness Window, Tormiston Mill B BellBefore I move on to the ruinous mills, I must mention Tormiston Mill, in Stenness.  I remember the first time we visited Orkney, visited Maes Howe, and visited Tormiston Mill, which, at the time, was the visitor centre for Maes Howe.  It was perfect.  The mill building itself is of interest.  Not a working mill, but it is entire, including the big, internal mechanism, and, outside the mill race stream still flows by – though it no longer turns the wheel, which is still there.

There was a cafe right the top of the building, serving very good food, with a view towards Stenness. The whole experience was wonderfully relaxed.  We got our tickets, and were allowed to go across to Maes Howe and wait for the guide, having been cautioned about crossing the road, which I didn’t understand, as you could see for miles in either direction! Then we went over to the monument, walked round in the ‘ditch’, three times, clockwise ( threeeeeeee, is a magic number).  We went up on top, to see the position of Maes Howe in the landscape, and get a clear idea of its relation to the Barnhouse stone.

Then the guide arrived, and gave us the tour inside the mound.

In our own time, we then returned to the mill, for a yummy lunch in the café.  Perfect.

And now, Tormiston Mill stands empty.  The Maes Howe visitor centre has been moved to what was the old folks Day Centre in Stenness, and Tormisotn, with all its history, stands empty.  Why?  It could be a minor visitor attraction of its own accord – everything is already there, or it could be a café, or even offices for Hysterical Scotland. But, this fine old building, having recently been re-pointed and made ship-shape, was closed as a visitor centre, and remains closed. [Eds note it may now be used by HES as offices?]

I realise  that there are more and more folk visiting the Neolithic Heart of Orkney, and all those people going up on top of Maes Howe, might not  be a good idea!  But, – all of them wouldn’t want  to do so, and it does illuminate the position of Maes Howe for those who would want to, and who can manage it.

The totality of the experience of the toning event and art exhibition, as described here What The Architecture Tells Us was only possible because of the relative positions of Tormiston and Maes Howe, at that time.

I suppose we were there for the ‘glory days’ of Maes Howe as a ‘visitor experience’, and we got to visit Tormiston too, which might open to the public again  in some way?

Now I’ll move on to some of the ruinous and semi-ruinous  mills. Staying in Stenness, or rather, just as you leave Stenness village, there is a semi- ruinous mill, just back from the road, on your left as you head towards Tormiston. This mill gave its  name to a succession of houses named Millhouse, across the way.

There is an old mill at Cottascarth RSPB reserve, part of which has been renovated and turned into a very swish bird hide.

There’s an old mill, which gives it name to Mill Sands in Tankerness.

Yesnaby mill stone B BellJumping about the parishes, a bit, there’s a ruinous mill, at Yesnaby, which you can see if you stand by the half-cut millstone and look across the fields. I don’t have a picture of the mill, as it’s quite a way away, and my camera isn’t strong enough.

There’s a little mill, only semi-ruinous, and complete enough to give a good idea of how it was when working, next to the Bu at Orphir – worth a look.

A bit further afield, on North Ronaldsay, there are the remains of an old mill, with an unusual tower, which can be seen from the road.

 As you go about on Orkney, you can spot old mills, or mill-associated names.  There’s an unused mill near Greenyhill, there’s the Mill Dam O’ Rango in Sandwick – is Walkmill anything to do with a mill?  Keep your eyes peeled, and you’ll notice that there are lots of …..mills!

Barony Mill 2

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5 replies »

  1. This is brilliant Bernie, who knew there are so many Mills scattered about Orkney. I love your posts as I always learn something new. The Orkney News must be the most informative online medium around, but then I’m biased. H

  2. Thank you Helen!
    And there’s no harm in being biased, when it’s in favour of something good!
    Our revered Editor tells me that there were over 100 mills working on Orkney at one time.

  3. We were at the Barony a few weeks ago and were stunned to see a wooden structure survive in working order since 1870. The whole building and machinery moves, creaks and shudders in unison and the smell of almost 150 years of oat and bere is magic. Best mill ever – and I’ve seen lots.

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