• Evidence for early milling on Tory Island, Co. Donegal

    Tory Island off the northwest coast of Donegal was once an important island monastery associated with one of Ireland’s most famous saints, St Columcille. Today, the remains of a round tower and a rare example of a Tau cross in Ireland, are the most visible reminders of that monastery.

    This summer I had the pleasure of visiting Tory Island for the first time, and I quickly stumbled across something that intrigued me.

    At the base of the round tower is a collection of stones, including some fragments of ancient stone crosses. The head of one of these crosses has broken away from its shaft, and is resting against the shaft that still sits in its original base. The shaft features the weathered remains of the figure of Christ. It is difficult to offer a precise date for this cross, though this type of representation of Christ is generally believed to date to around the middle of the 12th century.

    As I looked more closely at the shaft sitting in its base I realised that the base itself had an earlier life before it was used as a stand for the cross.

    In fact, the base was originally a mill stone. It consists of a large granite block, 80cm across and 40cm thick. What is now the top of the base was in fact the underside of the upper stone (or runner stone) of a millstone – the stone that did the actual grinding. This is clearly evident because the surface is slightly concave and very smooth. Another tell-tale sign is the pair of sunken sockets. In fact, originally there would have been four such sockets, forming a cross-shape, but the other two were removed when a hole was subsequently driven through the stone to take the shaft of the cross.

    These sockets are typical of mechanised mills, not mills stones turned by hand. Indeed, the stone in question was clearly much too large to have ever been turned by hand. Instead, the sockets, which are known as rynd-sockets, secured wooden or iron pins connected to a vertical drive shaft. Vertical drive shafts are used to power millstones in windmills, watermills and also animal powered mills.

    It should be noted, that this form of millstone is quite uncommon in Ireland. Most runner stones from this period would be considerably thinner. Not only would they weigh less, but their weight would be more even spread. In this case the sheer thickness of the stone means that the weight is very concentrated. This would certainly be a major determining factor in how it was powered, a question we will come back to in a moment.

    Examples of mill stones reused as the base of crosses are known elsewhere in Ireland, but that is a discussion for another day. What intrigues me about this one is that it is found on an island. It is of course entirely possible that it was brought here from the mainland for the purpose of providing the cross with a ready-made base. However, that this millstone was chosen as the base of the cross strongly implies that it was associated with the monastery in some way. Therefore, this stone is an important piece of evidence that prior to the 12th century (and perhaps significantly earlier) the monastery on the island had a mechanised mill. Of course, it stands to reason that an island monastery such as Tory needed to be reasonably self-sufficient when it came to supplying its own food. The presence of a mill certainly provides tantalising evidence that the monastic community were producing their own cereals.

    However, there is one question that intrigues me even more. Clearly this was a mechanised mill, but how was it powered? It seems unlikely that it was a windmill, though that is not out of the question. Water powered mills were particularly common during this period, but there is no stream on the island that could have been used to provide the water. Having said that, it is certainly possible that there was a tidal mill, powered by the tidal action of the sea, such as at Nendrum, Co. Down. Also, there are a number of small lakes on Tory Island, and it is known that the water of a lake was used to power an early watermill on High Island, Co. Galway, another island monastery. The final possibility, and it is one that I am inclined to lean towards is that it was powered by an animal, such as a pony. I suggest this, because I feel that the concentrated weight of this stone would make it very difficult to turn by a drive shaft that was being powered from below, as in the case of most watermills. However, the drive shaft of an animal-driven mill is invariably powered from above, which would be far more efficient for this form of stone.

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