The noise of mill machinery grinding grain, of water from the River Almond swooshing over a huge waterwheel and of the periodic tap-tapping of the millstone dresser's pick......these are some of the sounds that would have been familiar at old Livingston Mill until just a few decades ago.
Now home to Almond Valley Museum, Farm and Discovery Centre, our popular local family attraction with animal farm and shale oil museum, today it rings with the sound of families having a great day out. But for centuries it was an important working mill and farm.
The well-preserved mill buildings that we can visit today date from 1770, although there is evidence that there has been a mill on this site for six or seven hundred years, as indeed there have in the past been many mills along the Almond. The Livingston Mill was used primarily for shelling and grinding oats and for grinding corn and peas. Grain was brought here from farms in Bellsquarry, Grange, Alderstone, Ladywell and West Calder. From 1880 the site also incorporated a kiln for drying oats. The grain was hoisted to the top floor then poured down onto the kiln floor which consisted of hot plates which were heated from a furnace below. The grain was spread in a layer two to three inches thick, and it took around eight hours to dry, being turned regularly with a wooden rake and spade. It was then shovelled into sacks and hoisted up to the top floor ready for the milling process.
The millstones themselves were turned by the 16' (4.9m) waterwheel, which was powered from the Almond. A lade from the river, starting approximately half a mile upstream at the weir, fed into the mill pond which acted as a reservoir for starting the wheel in dry weather, then the flow of water from the mill pond to the wheel was controlled by a sluice immediately in front of the wheel. The power from this was directed off to different parts machinery for the working of the mill, including hoists, millstones and the threshing machine.
The waterwheel you can see today has been rebuilt in recent decades, but retains the original iron axle from 1790. You can also see the large millstones, lying pretty much as they were left when the mill ceased production. They represent a part of the laborious and complicated process involved in getting the grain from the field to the table – and which we nowadays take for granted when tucking into our porridge oats. The millstones also represent a craft that is all but lost : selecting the right type of stone, dressing the millstones, fine-tuning the machinery so that there is maximum power and minimum vibration, and so on.
In flour mills this was particularly important as the tiniest spark from incorrectly tuned millstones could ignite the flour and cause an explosion. Mill stones had to be “dressed” regularly – the carefully designed series of grooves in the stones had to be re-cut to keep them sharp. Millstone dressers were itinerant workers who travelled from mill to mill offering their services to the mill owners.
Nowadays grinding is usually done by steel rollers, but stonegound meal is often considered to have superior flavour and nutritional qualities.
Livingston Mill has some unique features. It includes a small buttery and creamery which was added in 1880 and was housed in a small separate building opposite the waterwheel. The butter churns were turned by a small waterwheel powered from a separate sluice fed from the mill pond and produced up to 25kgs of butter at a time. There was a weekly butter and buttermilk round from the farm, which delivered as far as Pumpherston. The buttery ceased production in 1928.
Livingston Mill worked up to the 1940s, then was left to fall derelict until restoration work began in the 1960s by local volunteers, later supported by the Livingston Development Corporation. The aim of the Livingston Development Corporation was to retain original farm steadings around the area and that would form the nucleus of new communities. Livingston Mill was one such steading. The community farm was added later, and the shale oil museum housed in one of the farm buildings. Eventually all the community projects on the site were amalgamated into the Almond Valley Heritage Trust in 1990. The Trust receives some revenue from the Council for the museum, but mainly funds itself via the visitor farm.
Mills are rare nowadays, especially one that can actually be started up with a working waterwheel, so this is a rare treasure we have on our doorstep. The millpond is now enjoyed by ducks and geese, and there is a host of other animals for children to get close up to. In addition several playgrounds, a narrow-gauge railway, tractor rides, the museum and tearoom all means that it is a perfect day out for the whole family.
Published in Konect August 2011. Reviewed/updated December 2018
Author: Helen-Jane Shearer