Text: Michael Mulcahy
Scanned By: Marc Sullivan & Eileen Fraher Sullivan
The easy availability of ineffably fine flour at the present day makes it difficult to realise the processes and developments which have made this possible. Flour mills in the cities have supplanted local water-powered mills, which in turn took over from the small hand mills. The change was never quite simple or clear cut as the water mills have had a long history and hand mills lasted well Into the 18th century, with symbolic usage in certain parts of the country, up to fifty years ago.
What one may call the earliest type of hand mill was the saddle quern, where the operator sat or knelt on one end of a long stone and rubbed the grain over it with a smaller stone held in the hands. This type is rarely met with in
It was a great leap forward when the rotary quern, better known simply as the "quern", superseded the earlier type. But that was many centuries ago and visitors to Ardmore have long admired the display of large and small rotary querns ranged in front of many houses in the village. Unfortunately, quite a few of these have been lost sight of in the recent past and the present note deals only with such as are now visible. Rotary querns fall into two main classes, the simple and the pot type, as shown in the illustrations.
List Of Hand Mills Found In The Ardmore Area
Simple Rotary Quern
The lower or nether stone in the simple type is typically a heavy circular stone with a central hole to carry a wooden spindle; its upper surface, on close Inspection, is seen to rise slightly towards the centre and is picked or pock marked.
The upper stone is the same size but lighter; it has a larger central hole with provision for a little wooden bridge which centered on the spindle beneath so as to allow the hole to act as a feed eye; on the upper surface and near the outer edge was another hole or sinking to take a peg handle sometimes a pair on opposite sides); where the sinking was shallow it was intended to take the end of a pole which was loosely fixed in the ceiling above; the under surface of the stone was a counterpart to the nether stone, that is, it was slightly hollow and picked all over.
Pot Type Rotary Quern
In this case the nether stone is again heavy and has a central hole; it differs from the simple type in that the working surface is sunk so as to accomodate the upper stone within a solid rim, pierced only by a single outlet. The upper stone is similar to that of the simple type but must be truly circular to avoid the danger of rubbing against the inner surface of the rim.
As the pot quern was the more costly to make it was sometimes arranged to fit on a wooden stand in which the spindle passing through the nether stone was extended downwards to rest on wedges. These allowed for the fine adjustment or tentering of the upper stone and so provide an easy means of regulating the fineness of the flour.
The Making Of A Quern
The first essential of a good quern was that it be made of a suitable stone, one might say hard and gritty, a combination not readily found at Ardmore. Dr Denis Collins (author of "The Rocks of Ardmore", Ardmore Journal Vol 1. p. 21 - 25) has identified all but No. 6 in the list below as being of Old Red Sandstone conglomerate from the Old Parish district; No. 6 Is of local yellow sandstone.
List Of Hand Mills Found In The Ardmore Area
Having quarried a suitable piece of rock it then required to be carved, dressed and balanced as well as being given its wooden parts. Regular maintenance or dressing of the stones was also necessary and required great sensitivity, even to the point of varying the depth of holes in the grinding surfaces from the shallowest inside to the deepest near the edge. The fine and rough stones are usually divided between flour and meal; one pair for man, one pair for beast.
The principle of grinding was twofold, shearing or bursting open the grains and grinding proper. For this reason the space between the stones was made equal to the size of the grains of wheat. Other factors affecting the fineness were - the rate of feed and the rate of rotation.
The Working Of A Quern
The working of the family quern was usually the woman's daily task though it was sometimes done by older men; it required great skill in that it needed an even or level handed motion, to both ensure good grinding and avoid mixing stone dust with the flour. For a small household quern the grain was carefully warmed and turned before the fire all day and in the evening was fed into the quern. For a simple quern a cloth had to be laid on the floor or table to collect the flour which emerged all around, while with the pot quern it flowed from a spout at one point. Picking and screening was a later optional process to make the flour whiter and smoother. In the case of larger querns, or more frequent milling, the wheat which was fed to them was dried in specially constructed grain kilns.
Referring to the list of Ardmore hand mills it is clear that we are dealing not only with querns to serve a single household but with those capable of supplying flour to several families, or collectively to a community. It is hard to say if there is any genuine pair among them or indeed whether the No. 7 upper stone was from a simple or a pot quern. The relative scarcity of upper stones may indicate a wearing out of the lighter stone through successive dressings, or simply loss through secondary usage as mooring stones.
While it is not possible to say whether any of the specimens listed are survivals from monastic times we can at least say that the identity of the stone .excludes the possibility of importation from England or France where Millstone Grit and French Burr had a reputation for superiority. That such importation was not unusual is suggested by the imposition In 1662 of an import duty of £3 per last (of 4,000 Ibs) on large quern stones, and at half the rate on small quern
In the more general context it may be mentioned that in many parts of Europe, during the Middle Ages, the lord of the manor exercised the right of "soke" which was the exclusive franchise to grind for those living on his land. An echo of this appears in the Pipe Roll of Cloyne - "The tenants of Coole and Britway are bound to clean the mill-pool, and none of them is to have a hand-mill without the lord's permission, and should any of them have a hand-mill he shall be fined."
Text by: Michael Mulcahy
Scanned by: Marc Sullivan and Eileen Fraher Sullivan
Author: Siobhán Lincoln