Touring Knockando Mill

Guest post by Emma Gibb

Having been brought up in Moray and lived in Speyside for four years I have explored many of the tourist attractions in the area and I am always keen to find new places to visit.  With two young children (4 and 2) I am particularly on the look-out for family-friendly attractions (and it helps if there’s a nice cafe, as I pretty much live on coffee).  For these reasons, a tour at Knockando Woolmill was at the top of my list of things to do during our recent summer break in Moray.

Knockando Woolmill is nestled in idyllic surroundings, tucked just below the B9102 in the Spey Valley and it is a lovely journey along the winding, scenic road.

“Does it have a wheel that goes round?”, asked my 4 year old on the way there.  We were explaining ‘woolmill’ to him and that he was going to learn how the wool from sheep was turned into blankets and scarves.  In fact, Knockando Woolmill is the oldest working rural mill in the UK, having been manufacturing textiles since 1784.  As a district mill, all of the textile processes were undertaken here – from the washing of the fleeces in the Knockando Burn to the finished blankets.

The mill is open Tuesday to Sunday.  There are different options for guided tours – a self-guided tour is free (and there is an app you can download), a standard tour is £5 and a bespoke tour £7.  We choose the standard tour and were met by the lovely Stella (and her granddaughter, who very kindly helped Isaac hunt for little animal plaques throughout the tour).  Luckily I had my mum on hand to keep an eye on my 2 year old daughter, who was in her element toddling around the grounds (when I asked her what she liked the most about the woolmill she replied, ‘the bridge’).

We started our tour outside the Visitor Centre, learning some facts about the woolmill, its history and its owners.  District mills started to disappear between the 1st and 2nd World Wars, and so Knockando Woolmill offers a unique glimpse into the 18th century.  The site and its machinery were restored in 2010 to 2013 by the Knockando Woolmill Trust (you can see photographs of the site before its restoration in the Visitor Centre).

There is a mention of a Waulk Mill in the parish records of 1784, although there were buildings there in 1749.  I was pleased to put my Outlander knowledge to use when Stella asked if we knew what waulking was (soaking and beating cloth by hand in a rhythmic fashion, by groups of women who sang ‘waulking songs’ whilst they worked).

We walked to The Cottage, which is said to be one of the oldest buildings.  Now with a lovely red roof, it was originally thatched.  It was fascinating to see original sections of wallpaper (there were 14 layers in total!) – and even more interesting to learn that these layers were applied over a period of only 20 years.  Stella told us about the Grants, the Frasers and the Smiths, and brought the stories about the cottage, and its inhabitants, to life.

We then moved next door to The Mill House (now used for offices and a design studio) which was converted from an old building into a house in 1903 for owners James and Emma Smith.  One of my favourite buildings was the Old Shop, which has a large sign to make sure it was visible from the road.  This charming green building was also used as an office and currently houses the machine that was used to edge the blankets, an old till and some examples of the textiles.

Other than the bright red roofs and the waterwheel, one of the first things I noted when we arrived was the beautiful garden.  I was really interested to learn that it was redesigned by Beechgrove Garden after being ruined in the restoration period.

With Isaac still looking for animals (I love it when there is some sort of hunt for the kids at visitor attractions), we walked past the Winter Drying Shed (for drying blankets that were to be sent to soldiers in WW1) and under the mill lade, with its wonderful ‘Mind your heid’ sign, to the mill itself.

As it was a Thursday we were able to see the machinery in action, which was the highlight of the visit for my son.  We enjoyed learning about the various stages – teasing, carding and spinning the wool – and saw the carding set in action.  Most of the machinery here is pre-1900 and we loved watching the spinning mule thundering back and forth.  It is thought that this spinning mule is the oldest working one in the UK (1870).

Teasel Gig

Our tour moved from the mill to the Conservation Training Workshop which is the only new building on the site.  It was originally used to restore the historic machinery, and now houses a warping mill and two rapier looms.  I was glad I had my long lens with me to take some snaps of the brightly coloured cloth being woven.

We walked around the back of the woolmill past Flora’s beloved bridge and round to view the Weaving Shed.  The Dobcross looms here date back to 1896 and 1899, which makes them two of the oldest looms still working in Scotland today.

Other than the machinery in the mill flying back and forth, the other thing that held the children’s attention for a considerable amount of time was the waterwheel (which to Isaac’s delight was also in action).  And we discovered a family connection to the Woolmill, with my husband’s great, great-grandfather’s name – James Brodie – on the wheel.

By this time the children were ready for lunch (and I, a coffee) and we thanked Stella for the tour and headed to the Visitor Centre cafe (in the Old Byre, originally a home for the cows and a horse).  We loved our lunch – a huge slab of quiche, a smoked salmon platter for the children to share, and a delicious BLT for me.  We even had a choice of three different types of coffee.

We wandered around the grounds, taking photos and letting the kids explore the pond.  The setting is so peaceful and I always love attractions that have ample space (particularly such idyllic surroundings) for the little ones to discover.  I also loved the wooden Knockando knot outside the woolmill, with a line from a poem called The Weaving of the Tartan: “Woof well the strong threads that bind their hearts to thine”.

After having been on the tour, I looked at the items for sale in the gift shop and thought about the various stages that the products had been through to end up there – and the history that is woven into each and every one.


To book your mill tour or for more information on the Woolmill visit www.knockandowoolmill.org.uk/.

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