Monday 22 July 2013

Objects in Focus: Querns

Quern stones were popularly used throughout Scotland, to grind and mill cereals, into the twentieth century. A complete rotary quern consists of an upper and lower quern stone that were used simultaneously. Within the Carmichael Collection there are two quern stones, not a pair, that were donated to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Carmichael's notes on one of the quern stones in the collection at the National Museums of Scotland are available to read here
X.BB 24 Upper stone from a granite disc quern

An early form of the tool was the saddle quern and comprised of a large stone to place the grain on and a rubbing stone to do the grinding. The consistent grinding created a characteristic depression on the main stone. The Romans introduced the rotary quern to Britain, This variation of the tool was less labour intensive. These rotary querns stones are disc-shape and the upper stones always has a central hole and either a hollow or smaller hole. To grind down the cereal the grain was fed in through the central hole of the upper quern stone. Rotation was done by hand with a handle that was positioned in a hollow on the upper stone while the lower stone remained stationary.  Grain was crushed between the two stones, pushed to the edge of the stone and caught on a cloth or table under the quern. The result was a mixture of flour, grains and husk that was often processed two or three times to achieve the required fineness.

A hard type of stone, for example granite, was necessary for the quern because the constant grinding would erode softer stone types. The upper face of the top stone is often decorated with concentric grooves and chiselled lines. 
X.BB 25 Rotary quern stone, underside
A definition by Dwelly of the Muileann-brà [quern]:
The quern was formerly the only mill for corn-grinding used in the Gàidhealtachd. It is still in use in many parts of northern Europe and in Asia, and the "two women finding at the mill" (quern) may be seen to-day in Nazareth exactly as they were in the days of Christ. The implement consists of two stones, the lower being about two feet in diameter, and commonly hollowed to the depth of about six inches. This hollow is of equal depth and diameter. Within this is placed horizontally, a smooth round flag about four inches thick, and so fitted to the cavity that it can just revolve with ease. Through the centre of this revolving flat there is bored a hole for conveying the grain. In the lower stone, in the centre of its cavity, there is fixed a wooden pin on which the upper stone is placed in such exact equiponderance, that, though there be some friction from their contact, a little force applied will make the upper stone revolve for several times, when there is no grain underneath. On the surface of the upper stone, and near the edge, are two or three holes, just deep enough to hold in its placed the stick by which it is turned round.  The working of the quern is left to the women, two of whom, when the grain is properly dried, sit squatting on the ground, with the quern between them and singing loudly an appropriate song, perform their work, one turning round the stone with the handle placed in one of the holes, and the other dropping the corn in through the large hole. The law of Scotland attempted in vain to discourage the use of the quern. In the year 1248 it was enacted "that no man shall presume to grind quheit, maisloch or rye, with hand mylnes, except he be compelled by storm, and be in lack of mylnes quhilk should grind the samen; and in this case, if a man grinds at hand-mylnes, he shall give the threttein measure as multer; and gif any man contravein this our prohibitions, he sall tyne his hand-mylnes perpetuallie."

X.BB 25 Rotary quern stone, upperside
As noted in the dictionary definition, women performed the task of grinding the grains and sang during the process. In the notebooks there are numerous references to quern-related songs collected by Carmichael: a quern song, a fairy quern song overheard in Berneray and a song collected from Catherine MacFarlane while she was grinding the quern. The fairies are regularly associated with querns and the spindle whorls used in spinning wool were often referred to as fairy querns. 

Dwelly, E. The Illustrated Gaelic-English Dictionary (Glasgow, 1994)
©National Museums Scotland (

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Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [©]