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Page 8

Newsletter 96, Spring 2012  © Hampshire Mills Group


Knockando  Woolmill,  Speyside



Almost hidden in a valley in the rural parish of Knockando on Speyside is one of the oldest surviving vertically integrated district wool mills in Europe, with fully operating 19th century textile machinery in-situ. Its location and size belies its importance as an Historic Scotland Category A listed site, including the machinery.

Evidence of a wool mill on the site dates back to at least 1784.  At that time it was known as a ‘waulkmill’ and together with land of about 20 acres it was an agricultural tenancy from the local estate. The tenants made their living between working the land and running the mill, a pattern which continued almost to the present day.

Waulking means fulling/shrinking cloth but other processes would have been added especially washing, some dyeing and carding. Wool carding involves an arrangement of rotating drums clothed with fine spikes (cards) which ‘open’ the wool sufficiently to hand spin, and this process was also added in the early part of the 19th century.  It was essential to have access to constant flowing water, especially for washing and dyeing, and as machinery was added, the water source was harnessed for motive power too.

Up to 1865 the mill was run by the Grant and Fraser families.  Alexander Smith from Premnay in Aberdeenshire then took over and set up the firm of A. Smith and Son, Knockando Woolmill. At this time weaving and spinning in the home was widespread.  Across the country home spinners numbered about a quarter of a million, and expanding commercial operations such as the mill at Knockando were seen as a threat to their livelihoods.  Further south the development of spinning machines like the ‘jenny’ and Samuel Crompton’s ‘mule’ were commonplace, and Alexander Smith kept abreast at Knockando by building space and adding machinery, usually second hand, as and when it could be afforded.

For Knockando Woolmill the Smith tenure was probably the most significant, producing some notable expansion. One of Alexander’s first additions was the installation of a cast-iron overshot water wheel. It was brought from a former meal mill at Pitchroy, three miles away.  With an overall diameter of fourteen feet, and consisting of eight radial spokes, forty buckets and an octagonal axle shaft, luckily it was possible to dismantle the wheel and transport it in sections.

The original mill building was a small single-storey rectangular plan waulkmill, with an attic. Alexander Smith expanded this into a two-storey carding and spinning mill, by adding a sizable weather boarded lean-to, creating a new L-shaped building, the purpose for which was to accommodate larger machinery. Second hand carding and spinning machines were acquired in the late 19th century. A weaving shed was also added and now houses two Dobcross looms manufactured in 1896 and 1899 respectively. With these, the mill must have been at almost full mechanisation, meaning that production would have greatly increased.  A weir to the west of the mill fed the lade from the Knockando burn. Tenter posts were located in a field to the west of the mill, allowing cloth to be stretched out for drying.


At Knockando the complete process was carried out from greasy wool to the finished cloth, its main trade being in blankets and tweeds. On the outside wall of the spinning shop there was a small shed in which blanket cloth was sulphur smoked to whiten it from its natural cream colour. A teazle gig raised the washed cloth to a soft finish. The blanket cloth was cut to lengths and the ends ‘whipped’ by a machine in the shop, ready for sale. Spun yarn was also twisted on the twisting frame in the attic to 2 or 3 ply for knitting wools. As everyone wore knitted wool at the time, demand for Knockando’s products was brisk.  At one time, socks were also produced on an early knitting machine.  With the outbreak of World War I the War Office contracted Knockando Woolmill to supply blankets.  In 1919, an automatic wool feed for the carding machinery was added.  

Emma Smith’s nephew, Duncan Stewart, returned from the war but was wounded and was not fit for the farm work he had previously done.  He joined his aunt and uncle at the Woolmill and took over the running of the mill when James Smith died in 1938.  It is largely due to Duncan’s preservation of the mill that it survives as such an important example of its type. Duncan installed electricity from the grid in 1949 resulting in the water wheel and associated power systems being shut down when the line shafts became powered by electric motors.  The carding and spinning operations are powered by a 15HP motor and the looms by a separate 3HP motor.  The separation of the driving system resulted in a very long drive belt becoming obsolete. It is significant that these motors are still in operation today; the only maintenance necessary has been the greasing of the bearings.

Londoner Hugh Jones arrived at Knockando in 1976 and, mentored by Duncan Stewart, he learned the traditional processes and the skills necessary to sustain the machinery. Finally, the firm of A. Smith and Son was wound up, after over a century of business, and since then Hugh Jones has single-handedly run Knockando Woolmill, determined to ensure that it remains the most complete working district mill in the country.

The national profile of the Woolmill was raised when it won the Scottish final of the BBC Two series ‘Restoration’ in 2004.  Although the Trust received no money from the programme, it gave the trustees the impetus to develop a whole range of plans for the restoration and future running of the mill. We raised £3.55 million (not bad for a tiny rural outfit!) and work began on site in the spring of 2010. Restoration is now nearly completed and we shall open to the public. We shall be selling what we make: tweed, tartan, rugs, throws and other made up goods. The new Conservation Training Workshop was used to refurbish the old machinery while the mill building was being repaired; this will now house more modern machinery so we can increase production. The old machinery, now repaired by Hugh Jones and others, is being moved back into the mill. We are bound to be left with a box of metal bits!

Restoration of the whole site is now almost complete and we are excitedly preparing for our opening on 1 June 2012.

To view the progress and read about the mill in much more detail, to support Knockando Woolmill Trust or to visit the online store, please visit www.knockandowoolmill.org.uk or call 0131 3397718.

The Editor gratefully acknowledges the permissions given to use this article and photographs which are in the copyright of the Knockando Woolmill Trust.  Special thanks to Graeme Stewart and with thanks also to Alison Hamilton, Andrew P K Wright and Hugh Jones


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