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Knockando woollen mill

The Last Woollen Mill

At one time, the sound of heavy machinery and the distinctive scent of
wet wool being worked would have wafted from mills across the rural
landscape, but today Knockando stands alone.

BY RICHENDA MIERS

Never again shall I be able to see a length of tweed, or tartan, or any sort of woollen cloth without remembering my tour of Knockando Mill, near Aberlour in Strathspey. The mill is of international importance, being one of the only surviving woollen mills of its kind in the world with some of its original machinery still in operation; seeing it in action is to witness history and traditional craftsmanship brought to life.

I had a cloudless sunny day for my visit and chose the back route from Grantown-on-Spey, following the river on a twisting rural road with magnificent views. On the way I managed to avoid running over a red squirrel who was enjoying the sun ahead of my wheels, so I was already in a good mood when I arrived at the remote cluster of buildings that lies tucked away above the River Spey in the midst of ancient farmland.

In the old crofting days, after the sheep had been sheared and the fleeces scoured (washed), the carding, spinning and weaving were usually done at home. But the bothies were not big enough to cope with the waulking (soaking, beating and shrinking the cloth to make it thick and felted) or the drying, and so most crofting communities had a waulk mill.

There was certainly a mill at Knockando by 1784, probably earlier, and the site was worked continuously for well over 200 years. During the First World War, the mill supplied hundreds of blankets for troops on the Western Front, and, though it was still in production, the remoteness of its location probably saved its machinery from being purloined to make weapons during the Second World War.

By the end of the 20th century, the mill complex was on its last legs. And so, in 2000, the Knockando Woolmill Trust was set up and raised enough funds to restore the derelict buildings and most of the machinery, which together are listed Category A in acknowledgement of their significance to the rural industrial heritage. With the help of Historic Environment Scotland, the trust was able to employ a "craft fellow" trained in the skills required to work the carding machine, which dates back to 1870 and is the oldest of its kind still in operation, the spinning mule and the Dobcross loom.

The meticulous restoration has enabled the mill (which opened to the public in 2010) to be operated once again, using traditional methods, so that visitors can witness the whole process of spinning and weaving as it was done 150 years ago.

The full text of this article is available in the Autumn 2018 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photo © Knockando Woolmill Co Ltd