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Huxter Water Mills including stone millraces, footbridges and dam, Huxter, Sandness

A Category A Listed Building in Shetland West, Shetland Islands

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Coordinates

Latitude: 60.298 / 60°17'52"N

Longitude: -1.6893 / 1°41'21"W

OS Eastings: 417274

OS Northings: 1157130

OS Grid: HU172571

Mapcode National: GBR Q15J.BQ3

Mapcode Global: XHBVN.DF18

Entry Name: Huxter Water Mills including stone millraces, footbridges and dam, Huxter, Sandness

Listing Date: 13 August 1971

Last Amended: 12 April 2019

Category: A

Source: Historic Scotland

Source ID: 352717

Historic Scotland Designation Reference: LB18631

Building Class: Cultural

Location: Walls and Sandness

County: Shetland Islands

Electoral Ward: Shetland West

Parish: Walls And Sandness

Traditional County: Shetland

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Sandness

Description

A group of three horizontal water mills and associated millraces, footbridges and dam, dating to the mid-19th century or earlier. It is located near Sandness on the west coast of Shetland Mainland, overlooking the island of Papa Stour to the north. The mills have drystone rubble walls and each has an upper and lower chamber. They are located on a steep-sided 250m long stream running from Loch of Huxter to the south into the sea.

The northernmost mill, closest to the sea, has been restored with a thatched roof, secured by a fishing net, ropes (simmens) and stone weights (linkstanes). In the east gable a small window has been added to provide extra light above the timber door.

The interior was seen in 2017. The internal mill mechanism has been restored. There is a pair of 70cm millstones and a timber grain hopper in the upper chamber, and timber nine-paddle wheel or 'tirl' in the lower chamber. The concrete tirl currently sits beside the outer north wall of the mill (2018).

The two upper mills to the south are complete to wallhead. The timber roof structure has been replaced and they are not currently thatched (2018). The remains of some mill machinery, including a concrete-centred tirl, can be seen within the lower chamber of the southernmost mill.

Largely intact stone-lined millraces lead into the lower chamber of each of the mills. There are three stone slab footbridges crossing the stream. They are located between each mill at the head of each millrace.

A stone dam with a sluice gate opening is located at the head of the Loch of Huxter, beside the remains of Huxter Broch (scheduled monument SM2076). It consists of a low stone wall across the north end of the loch with a narrow central channel containing the sluice opening. A large stone slab forms a bridge over the channel.

Statement of Interest

Huxter Water Mills are an important and largely intact survival of a group of three pre-industrial horizontal water mills in Shetland. Grouped horizontal water mills such as this are a distinctive Shetland building type but remaining examples that retain their a significant amount of historic fabric, plan form and machinery are now very rare.

These water mills have been partially restored to show how they would have been used. The level of survival of the historic fabric, which includes functionally related components such as the stone-lined dam and mill races, are important in showing traditional building methods and materials. Collectively the group shows the communal tradition of milling in Shetland, which endured from the 15th century until the 20th century.

The thatched mill is one of only five buildings or groups of buildings on Shetland that are known to retain an intact thatched roof, and is among a relatively small number of thatched buildings across Scotland.

Age and Rarity

The exact date of the Huxter Water Mills is unknown. This group of three water mills is shown on the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey map, surveyed in 1877. It is not currently known when watermills of this kind were first used at this site, but possibly much earlier, as this type of mill was in use in Shetland during the 15th century. They would have been repaired or rebuilt as required.

The Huxter mills fell out of use during the 1940s and were recorded in 1977 as 'a very fine group of three mills' (Hume, p.306). Some restoration work was carried out in the 1980s by the Sandness Conservation and Heritage Group. Further work was undertaken by members of the Sandness History Group in 2009. The mill mechanism in the north mill was restored with a traditional timber tirl and grain hopper, typical of the type that would have been used throughout Shetland during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Typical Shetland horizontal watermills, also known as a clack mills or click mills due to the sound they made when working, are small buildings on two levels. Water is channelled into the lower chamber of the building to apply force to a horizontally-rotating paddle wheel. The wheel is connected by a simple vertical axle to two millstones on the upper level. Several mills were often placed close together on a single watercourse, as seen at Huxter, and these groups are a notable characteristic of Shetland mills. The siting of multiple mills tended to be for pragmatic reasons rather than due to any functional relationship, with each mill typically looked after by two or three families. Where several mills were located on the same watercourse, collaboration between operators was necessary. Water from the dam was restricted using a timber boarded gate, until there was sufficient water pressure to turn the water wheels in the lower chambers.

Horizontal mills may have first originated in Greece (Tait, p.397). Excavations have shown that this type of mill was in use in Shetland and the north of Scotland during the 15th century or the 'Late Norse period'. Similar mills can be found in Norway and the Faroe Isles indicating a shared ancestry. Many hundreds were known to exist throughout Shetland by the end of the 19th century, before falling out of use by the later 20th century.

Intact examples are now exceptionally rare, although the ruinous remains of a number of horizontal mills exist throughout Shetland. The restored mill at Huxter is one of only two operational examples of a horizontal watermill in Shetland. The other is part of a watermill group on the Burn of Wiltrow (LB5414) which is part of the Shetland Crofthouse Museum (LB5413). A ruinous horizontal mill complex at Troswick, to the north of Dunrossness, is a scheduled monument (SM2859), notable for the visible remains of nine horizontal watermills dispersed along a single short stream.

The horizontal design of the paddle mechanism attracted derisive comments from travel writers and antiquarians during the 18th and 19th century. The mechanism was referred to as 'truly an awkward piece of machinery' (Neill, p.74), which was inferior to that of vertical mills 'whose architects have rightly estimated the force of gravity' (Cowie, p.159). More recent reappraisals have stressed that the horizontal wheel was relatively simple to build and maintain. They used fewer materials than the large vertical waterwheels common during the 19th century in towns and cities of mainland Scotland. The construction of larger, more productive mills in Shetland, such as the mid-19th century Quendale Mill, Dundrossness (LB5417), encouraged tenanted families to pay to use the landowners' mills to grind their grain more quickly and rely less on the smaller mills.

The Huxter mill also shows traditional building methods. The use of thatch as a roofing material has a long tradition in Scotland. Thatched buildings are often traditionally built, reflecting pre-industrial construction methods and materials. The survival of thatched buildings into the 21st century is extremely rare. A Survey of Thatched Buildings in Scotland, published in 2016 by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), found that were only around 200 buildings with thatched roofs in Scotland. Those which retain their traditional vernacular character, including plan forms and construction techniques may be of special interest in listing terms. The restored northernmost mill at Huxter is one of only five buildings or groups of buildings in Shetland that are known to retain an intact thatched roof (SPAB, p.384-398).

Grouped horizontal water mills are a distinctive Shetland building type which was once a common feature of farming life across Shetland. Restored and working mills that retain their traditional character, plan form and historic setting are extremely rare. The three upstanding mills at Huxter and the substantial remains of the associated dam, footbridges and millrace infrastructure shows traditional Shetland building methods.

Architectural or Historic Interest

Interior

The interiors of this type of traditional watermill were simple with hand-crafted milling mechanisms and workings. Refurbished examples are exceptionally rare. The upper chamber of the restored northernmost mill contains a restored working water mill mechanism that follows the 19th century process with a reclaimed timber grain hopper and 19th century mill stones. The lower chamber has a renewed timber trough and a nine-paddled water wheel. The restored mill mechanism is illustrative of Shetland agricultural and domestic crofting practices from the 15th century through to the early 20th.

Plan form

The three mills with associated mill races and bridges show a traditional 19th century arrangement of multiple mills on a single watercourse. This makes efficient and controlled use of the stored water, when released from the dam on higher ground and directed down through the various mills (Tait, p.397). A wooden trough would direct the water onto the paddles of the wheel. The individual millraces could also be dammed to allow the water to flow into one or two mills only.

The survival of the millraces and dam components help to show how the mills worked and add significantly to the plan form interest. The upper and lower chambers of the mills, with square openings to the inlets and outlets, is also characteristic of pre-improvement Shetland mills.

Technological excellence or innovation, material or design quality

The Huxter Water Mills are constructed and repaired using materials and methods that are characteristic of this part of Scotland. The interest of these vernacular buildings is discussed in the Regional Variations section below.

While authenticity of material can be an important factor in assessing the significance of thatched buildings, buildings which have been repaired over time (perhaps with new roofing material or rethatched) can also be listed. The retention of the traditional character of the mill buildings is important in determining special architectural or historic interest.

The small window above the door of the northernmost mill, which allowed more light into the upper chamber, was noted as an unusual feature by John Hume in 1977 (Hume, p.306). The concrete tirls that survive in situ at the site are interesting in showing the modified use of the mills into the 20th century.

The watermills were partly restored during the 1980s (see Age and Rarity) with further work carried out in 2009. A pair of 70cm millstones and a timber grain hopper in the upper chamber, and timber nine-paddle wheel or 'tirl' in the lower chamber were installed so that the mill could work. The roof of the lower north mill has been restored using a straw and turf underlay construction using locally sourced materials where possible and traditional methods of construction appropriate to this part of Scotland. A significant proportion of the mill race and upper dam survive intact.

Setting

Water mills were built beside fast-flowing streams or burns. The stream would start from a loch that was dammed in order to gain control of the quantity of water passing through the mills (Tait, p.397). The group of mills at Huxter have a dramatic coastal setting overlooking the island of Papa Stour. The three mills are set low in the landscape within a steeply-sided and meandering ravine between Huxter Loch and the sea. This sheltered location helps protect the buildings from the extreme weather.

The immediate setting survives largely unaltered from that shown on the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey map. A small farm located around 150 metres to the east, and also shown on the Ordnance Survey map, is obscured from views to and from the mill group by the gently rising ground.

Regional variations

The design and construction of the building, the method of thatching and the thatching material used was a distinctly localised practice. The best examples of local vernacular buildings will normally be listed because together they illustrate the importance of distinctive local and regional traditions.

Horizontal water mill buildings are a simple building type. The examples that survive on Shetland were largely constructed with stone, driftwood and other locally sourced materials. The Huxter Water Mills are among the very best examples of this traditional building type on Mainland Shetland. The level of survival of the buildings, mill machinery, mill races and dam help us understand about the construction and use of horizontal water mills by earlier crofting communities in Shetland, as well as Shetland building traditions.

The geology and climate of Shetland has had a significant impact on the construction of Shetland buildings during the 18th and 19th centuries. The construction of horizontal water mills is similar to those known to survive in the Na h-Eileanan Siar and in Orkney, as well as the Faroe Isles in the North Atlantic Ocean.

The thatch at Huxter Water Mill does not overhang the wallhead and follows a low-profile curving shape set flush with the rubble wallhead. This is a typical feature of thatched buildings in Shetland as it limits the effects of extreme weather conditions, by allowing wind to pass over the structure and reducing the risk of damage. The turf squares, or poens, have been cut from moorland grass and topped with a layer of straw and then covered with fishing net and rope weighed down with stones. The renewal of the thatch, using traditional Shetland methods and materials where possible, adds to the traditional character of the mill group.

Close Historical Associations

There are no known associations with a person or event of national importance at present (2018).

Statutory address, category of listing changed from B to A and listed building record revised in 2019. Previously listed as 'Huxter, Huxter Mills, including Footbridges and Dam'.

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