The corn-drying kiln at Little Bruach-Caoruinn – ‘like a huge tobacco pipe’ by Professor Niall A. Logan..
Niall A Logan
This is an unedited version of an article written by Professor Logan in Vernacular Building 44 published in 2021 by the Scottish Vernacular Buildings Working Group ( SVBWG). Our thanks to Professor Niall A. Logan and SVBWG for permission to publish on this site. Professor Logan retains copyright for these articles.
There have been several accounts of corn-drying kilns in VB over the years, most notably Harry Gordon Slade’s and Elizabeth Beaton’s articles on the one at Rothiemay2 and Paul Newman’s review of Orkney ‘kils’,3 but all of these and other SVBWG contributions4 concerned kiln barns, and isolated, open-air kilns have not been covered. The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Stirlingshire referred to ‘a number of small settlements, the remains of which are preserved in the north-western or Highland area of the county’ (fig.1) and noted that ‘the most interesting examples are Big Bruach-caoruinn and Little Bruach-caoruinn (Nos. 379 and 380) situated in Glen Dubh on the south-eastern slopes of Ben Lomond … it is interesting to find that each community possessed its own corn-drying kiln.’5 The account of Little Bruach-Caoruinn concluded with this short sentence: ‘About 200 yds SE of the settlement there is a corn-drying kiln similar to the one at Big Bruach-caorruinn.’6 The account of the kiln at the latter site ran thus: It is built on sloping ground and comprises a circular funnel, in which the corn was placed on a wooden rack, together with a rectangular storage-chamber or barn. The funnel, which takes the form of an inverted and truncated cone, measures about 8 ft in diameter at its mouth; its entry flue, which lies 8 ft 3 in below the level of the mouth of the funnel, measures 1 ft 9 in by 1 ft 4 in at its outer end. The barn measures about 7 ft 6 in by 5 ft.’7 A footnote to that account referred to a plan and section of a kiln of this type in Richard Feachem’s short article on corn-drying kilns.8
Types of kiln
Feachem’s article was published in 19579 and focused on Scottish examples, and in its turn cited Sir Lindsay Scott’s 1951 paper, that was also entitled ‘Corn-drying Kilns’,10 but which more broadly surveyed methods of drying corn across the British Isles, Ireland and parts of Europe since early times, both with and without kilns. In a later review of grain-drying practices in Scotland, Fenton also surveyed the rich terminology of the kiln, or kill, and its regional variants. Terms include: killogie [fireplace], kiln pot [the heating chamber], kill tree [main beam of drying floor], kill ribs [cross-spars of drying floor], kill beddin [straw bed of drying floor].11 Feachem identified and described three main types of kiln among the variety covered by Scott, chiefly on the basis of the absence or presence, and length, of flues:
1) A barn, in one part of which corn is piled on a shelf or rack, the heat being provided by a fire built nearby in the barn, but without a flue for directing the flow of warmth. Scott described examples from the Faroe Islands, northern Shetland, and Wales, and a late 1st century AD site in Barra.12
2) The heat from the fire is conducted along a short flue that opens either below a rack or at the base of a low, funnel-shaped chamber, and the fire is still located within the barn – as seen in a replica constructed at the Highland Folk Museum (figs 2, 3 and 4).
Scott recorded two of this type in the Hebrides: firstly a rectangular building 25 feet (7.6 m) long and 18 feet (5.5 m) in width, with walls 3 feet (91 cm) thick, that had been excavated at Griminish, South Uist, by the author and which was given as an example of the type once used on crofts in the outer Hebrides – he attributed it to the 19th century; secondly ‘a kiln of this general type, if of rather inferior construction’ at South Galson, representing a type found ‘in backward areas of northwest Lewis’ and surviving in use to within the last ten years (i.e. 1940s). It was oval in plan, about 30 feet (9.1 m) long by 21 (6.4 m) feet wide, and probably had a blackhouse-type roof. Although Feachem described the chamber as low, he confusingly also gave the characteristic Orkney and southern Shetland kilns, noted for their tall funnels, as examples of this type. Indeed, following his accounts of Hebridean examples, Scott went on to say: ‘The Orkney kiln, which was used also in the southern Shetlands, was a much larger affair’ which was ‘built at the end the barn … with a massive chimney, as much as 15 feet high … the grain was ‘strewn on straw on a rack … some three feet above the floor of the kiln; to this rack access was given by steps and a door in the side of the kiln.’ (figs 5, 6 and 7) 13
3) Feachem’s full description is as follows: ‘The structure of the third type consists of a tall funnel across the mouth of which a rack was placed to hold stems of corn in the flow of warmth introduced through a flue, the inner mouth of which is situated in the lowest courses of the funnel. The fire was built at the remote end of the flue; and, as flues measuring up to 30 ft. in length have been recorded, it is clear that this arrangement tends to reduce the risk of the corn being burnt. In some varieties of this type there is no covering such as a barn, and only a light shelter – if any at all – was placed over the mouth of the funnel.’ Although a long flue was apparently the key character, as described these kilns formed more a loose assemblage than a coherent type, and ranged from elegant structures within or attached to barns to simple forms that were ‘like huge tobacco pipes’ and not associated with a barn. Examples assigned to this category were from the Western Isles, Wales and Ireland, but Scott’s source descriptions for them were often rather sketchy; however, he thought it probable that such structures had been used in other parts of Britain.14
The main aim of Feachem’s article, written as an appendix to a paper about a Stirlingshire dun, was to describe some examples of this third type in more detail than Scott had given. One of his four main sites was the Roman fort at Balmuidy, Cadder, Lanarkshire,15 but the two kilns found there were located within buildings, and so need not be considered further in the present context. Two of his other examples were not recognized as kilns when excavated in the mid-19th century: Cairn of Milduan (NJ 4778030120) was mistaken for a cist when opened in 1859 – as Feachem commented, this ‘type of structure, once so familiar, must by then have become unknown, or it would have been recognized for what it was by the excavators.’ – then a kiln at Langlands Farm, Dunipace, Stirlingshire (NS 8220185492) was reported as a house when excavated in the 1860s!16
His remaining example, at Craignavar, Glenalmond, Perthshire (NN 8775331747) is very similar to the kilns at Bruach-caoruinn, and indeed he mentions them as such in his description: ‘This structure is situated in a deserted village near the left bank of the River Almond half a mile above Newton Bridge. It is built, as are many examples of this type, on sloping ground so that the flue lies at a level of 9 ft. below that of the mouth of the funnel. The latter, over which the corn was placed on a wooden rack, lies within a barn of which it occupies about one half. The rest of the covered space was doubtless used for storage. Similar kilns have been noted, for example, at Big Bruach and Little Bruach, deserted villages situated on a tributary of the Duchray Water, Buchanan, Stirlingshire.’ Although the Craignavar kiln was described as lying within a barn, the ‘barn’ is perhaps more accurately visualized as being a small storage area attached to an outdoor kiln. The dimensions, taken from Feachem’s figure, are eight feet across the mouth of the funnel, nearly 15 feet from the mouth of the flue to the back of the funnel’s base, and ten by five feet for the interior of the barn. In plan, the Craignavar example corresponds closely to the Bruach-caoruinn kilns, the most noticeable difference being that the barn entrance at Craignavar is in the centre of its long side, facing the kiln bowl, while the Bruach-Caoruinn barns are both entered from the same, short side so that the kiln bowl lies to one’s right on entering the barn. At Ashentrool in Menstrie Glen, Stirlingshire (NS 8299799354) the kiln bowl diameter was similar to that at Little Bruach-caoruinn, and the barn was entered from the short side, but the bowl lay to one’s left on entering.17 Kilns of this type, with or without barns, must have been widespread at one time, 18 and examples may be recognized in deserted townships, such as Braig, Moidart, Highland (6765372019) and Aioneadh Mór, Morvern, Highland (NM 6555251927).
The kiln at Little Bruach-Caoruinn
This kiln lies 145 m (160 yards) to the east of House B at the centre of the settlement (fig.8), at NN 4230800617, and has been constructed within the far (eastern) end of a 25 m (27 yards) long bank that runs from west to east on the opposite side of the burn to the settlement (fig.9). Like the kiln at Big Bruach-Caoruinn, it comprises a circular funnel in the form of an inverted cone, built with boulders; at a depth of 2.3 m (7 ft 6 in) the bottom of the bowl is blocked with debris, and the cone probably continues down for another metre or so (fig.10).
The opening to the flue at the foot of the slope is not visible. The uppermost courses of masonry are largely missing, the diameter of the surviving rim being 2.6 m (8 ft 6 in), but at the south-west side of the bowl the masonry survives to a sufficient height that a length of ledge can be seen; it is 18 cm (7 in) in depth and 50 cm (20 in) below the top of the surviving structure (fig.11). This ledge would have supported the rack that carried a straw bed holding the drying corn. The rim of the kiln bowl is 80 cm across, swelling to 1 m towards the west. The barn wall is 80 cm (31.5 in) thick and 1.35 m (4 ft 5 in) at its highest (figs 10 and 12), and it is not possible to determine how much higher it might have been, although the tumbled boulders might be taken as evidence that the end wall stood higher than the side walls. There are no features to indicate how the barn may have been covered, but it seems most unlikely that such an enclosure would have been built without any intention of roofing it (see Other sites, below). The Ashentrool and Craignavar barns, respectively 53 and 50 square feet (5 and 4.7 m2) internally,19 are larger than that at Big Bruach-Caoruinn (37.5 square feet, 3.5 m2), 20 but the one at Little Bruach-Caoruinn is the largest at 8 feet 6 inches (2.6 m) square, giving an area of over 72 square feet or 6.76 m2 (fig.10).The kiln at Little Bruach-Caoruinn remains easy to see in plan but less easy to interpret in elevation, while the one at Big Bruach-Caoruinn (NN 4186200837) is now much eroded at its upper level, but its south elevation is well seen, including the flue opening (fig.13). These two rare examples are therefore complementary, and both deserve protection. Dates cannot be confidently ascribed to them, but they are probably 18th century or earlier, and may have been in use right up until the site was abandoned in the 19th century.
Gibson, in a valuable paper reporting the excavation of three medieval kilns – two at Capo in Kincardineshire and one at Abercairny in Perthshire21 – comments that similar kilns have traditionally been regarded as 16th and 17th century AD in date. However, radiocarbon analyses of grain deposits recovered from these kilns (which were similar in design to those at Bruach-caoruinn but for the absence of attached barns, and being built wholly or in part from turf) indicated an 11th-century date for the Abercairny kiln, and 13th-century (supported by some pottery finds) for one of the Capo kilns. Several other excavations of medieval and post-medieval kilns of similar form have been reported.22 The Abercairny and Capo kilns contained evidence that they had caught fire; this was always a risk and is why many kilns were sited at some distance from other buildings. In one of the Capo examples burnt turves and timbers in the chamber and flue were interpreted as fallen roofing material.23
Although the RCAHMS Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Stirlingshire24 observed of the Bruach-caoruinns: ‘it is interesting to find that each community possessed its own corn-drying kiln’, several communities apparently operated several kilns, some of which may have been used for malting barley for brewing and distilling, and others for lime burning. Although the reports about the following sites did not consider the kilns in very much detail, the numbers recorded are of interest: Rosal township, Strath Naver, Sutherland, (NC 6887841619), which was finally cleared in the early nineteenth century, was occupied by perhaps seventeen families in three loose groups of buildings. There were seven corn-drying kilns, all built into the sides of hillocks as at the Bruach-caoruinns. The township at Lianach, Balquhidder, Perthshire (NN 5330017176) also ceased to operate as a township by the early nineteenth century. It had about a dozen houses and six kilns; five of these were small corn-drying kilns, and one ‘great kiln’ was for lime burning. Wester Lix (NN 5502529751), Middle Lix (NN 5538530019) and Easter Lix (NN 5570431186), Killin, Perthshire together had 16 tenants in 1755, declining to 12 tenants by the end of the century, and then continued as three farms from the mid 19th century. Seven kilns were identified there, but most were described as having flues too short to ensure the moderate heating needed for corn drying, and only one small ruinous structure was identified as a corn-drying kiln. A single, horseshoe-shaped example was excavated, and was interpreted as a lime kiln that had perhaps been modified from an older corn kiln.25
A number of accounts of these small kilns from the late 18th and early 19th centuries emphasize what familiar sights they must have been, and how vulnerable they were: ‘Every corn mill now has a kiln contiguous to it; the kiln-heads are of cast iron, which occasion a considerable saving in respect of straw and fuel. The oats are dried in much less time, and the meal produced is equally good as by the ancient method. Formerly almost every farmer was accustomed to have a kiln of his own, which not only required frequent reparations, but was extremely liable to accident by fire.’ (Kippen parish, Stirlingshire; 1793-4);26 ‘Drying corns … is always performed by the farmer himself at home; for which purpose a drying kiln is one of the most indispensable houses on a farm, which is attended with great expence to the farmer, and much risk. Peatis universally employed for this purpose; and the quantity thus consumed is immense. Were one or two kilns, of different dimensions, erected at every mill, and the corns dried by the shilling seeds [husks], as in the Lothians, the saving in this article would be very great.’ (Aberdeen; 1794);27 ‘Not long ago, a common practice in this parish was for each farmer to have a kiln of his own. The market was therefore filled with bad meal, lost in the drying, from the insufficiency of these rickles of buildings to perform the work. Besides, there were many melancholy accidents from fire. These and some other causes, have now made way for the introduction of brick kilns, which have become general.’ (Kilmadock or Doune parish, Perthshire; 1797);28 ‘A few yards to the north-east of the rick-yard stood a flimsy clay and stone building fitted up as a kiln. The whole of the office-houses were roofed with divot or turf, finished off with clay and straw, which in the process of time, by the action of the weather, in so far as the winds permitted, got an additional coating of green fog or moss. The heavy rains, however, penetrated these miserable roofs, from the first moment of their construction to the last stage of their decay.’ (Kildonan parish, Sutherland; 1800).29 ‘Every farm has at least one kiln upon it; because, here, the corn is not dried at the mill where it is ground, but at the farm where it is produced. These kilns are generally of very awkward construction; sometimes not covered from the rain except by blankets supported on poles. The corn is laid upon straw, spread upon cross poles situated a little below the mouth of the inverted cone, which is the figure of the kiln. The fuel is a fire of peats, or brushwood, in the mouth of a small aperture which conducts into the bottom of the kiln. Often the flame sets fire to the straw, and corn incumbent upon it; and it always happens that the corn is irregularly dried, and a quantity of it escapes through the straw, and is lost.’ (Arran; 1807);30 ‘Formerly kilns for drying victual were miserable hovels covered with thatch; every farmer had his own kiln; the grain was placed upon rafters covered with straw, and innumerable accidents happened by fire.’ (Stirlingshire; 1812);31 Cumbrian farmers, however, benefitted from the availability of slate, so that their kilns might have long lives. The standalone corn-drying kiln at Low Hartsop, Cumbria (NY 4088213155) for example, has a slate roof supported by gabled walls and a single cruck truss, and may date from the 16th century. It is built into a bank, with an upper level doorway giving access to a drying floor constructed from slates placed on edge, supported by substantial slate joists. The walk-in, bowl-shaped lower level has headroom of about 2 m, and the fire chamber was a lean-to shelter adjoining the flue that also served as the entrance. The doorways at each end of the building, at different levels, created a through draft to draw the fire (figs 14 and 15; Brunskill illustrates this type of kiln32).
Two documents – admittedly over four decades apart – concerning the author’s home village of Balmore, in the parish of Baldernock, East Dunbartonshire, may illustrate an evolution in the sophistication of Scottish kilns, or perhaps more likely that kilnbarns and isolated kilns built into slopes may have co-existed in the same locality. A 1739 Decreet Arbitral detailing kirkways from Balmore to Baldernock Church stipulated: ‘one road or way of the Breadeth of four ells at least for passing to and from the said Church … on horseback … Beginning at the Kiln bank and passing from thence weast to the Acre Dyke …;33 a 1781 tack concerning a house in Balmore gave as one of its boundaries ‘… adjoining thereto By the barn and Kiln of Walter Angus on the west’; a kilnbarn was shown in ruins in an 1819 plan showing lands of the heirs of Walter Angus, but an adjoining barn still stood.34 A tack of 1788 probably refers to yet another kiln in Balmore, but gives no clue as to its type: ‘… the said James Gibb has sett and in assedation [lease] Letts to the said Andrew Winning his heirs successors or assignies all and haill That Corn Kiln belonging to the said James Gibb Commonly known by the name of Gibbs Kiln situate on the high road Leading North from the village of Balmore … and that for the space of Ninety nine years …’ – for the price of ten pounds and ‘… the sum of one penny Sterling in the name of Tack duty at the Term of Whitsunday yearly.’35
I am especially grateful to James Kennedy of the Loch Ard Local History Group, for introducing me to the site, showing me the tortuous route to it by forestry tracks, and assistance with making measurements. I also wish to thank Joyce Kelly and other members of the Group for welcoming me on a site visit in 2019, and to Shirley Leek and John Hair of FLS for facilitating that visit.
1 The other parts of this settlement are described in N A Logan, Little Bruach-Caoruinn – surviving afforestation and harvesting, Vernacular Building, Vol. 43 pp 61-78.
2 H G Slade, Rothiemay: an 18th century kiln barn, Vernacular Building, Vol. 4, 1978, pp 21-27; E Beaton, Rothiemay kilnbarn, Banffshire – addendum, Vernacular Building, Vol. 20, 1996, p. 87; E Beaton and H G Slade, The kilnbarn, Rothiemay, Banffshire, Vernacular Building, Vol. 24, 2000, pp 41-53.
3 P Newman, Kil: variety in the design of Orkney farm kilns, Vernacular Building, Vol. 18, 1994, pp 48-66.
4 A Morrison, Recent work at Auchindrain, Vernacular Building, Vol. 8, 1983, pp 26-27; J R Sherriff, Two Speyside kilns, Vernacular Building, Vol. 31, 2008, pp 35-40; G Leet, Some observations on horizontal mills, Vernacular Building, Vol. 33, 2010, pp 61-62.
5 Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS), Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Stirlingshire, Vol, I, HMSO, Edinburgh, 1963, p. 49.
6 RCAHMS, Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Stirlingshire, Vol. II, HMSO, Edinburgh, 1963, p. 392.
7 Ibid., p. 391.
8 R W Feachem, Castlehill Wood Dun, Stirlingshire, Appendix 1, Corn-Drying Kilns, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Vol. 90, 1957, pp 45-50.
9 Feachem, ibid.
10 L Scott, Corn-drying kilns, Antiquity, vol. 25, 1951, pp 196-208.
11 A Fenton, Winnowing, drying and milling the grain, In A Fenton and K Veitch, eds, Scottish Life and Society: Farming and the Land, John Donald, Edinburgh, 2011, pp 735-742.
12 A Young, An aisled farmhouse at the Allasdale, Barra, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 87, 1955, pp 80-105.
13 Scott, loc. cit.
14 Scott, loc. cit.
15 S N Miller, The Roman Fort at Balmuildy, Glasgow Archaeological Society, Glasgow, 1922, pp 27-31, plates X, XII.
16 Feachem, loc. cit.
17 RCAHMS, ‘Well Shelterd and Watered’: Menstrie Glen, a farming landscape near Stirling. RCAHMS, Edinburgh, 2008, pp 31-34.
18 P Dixon, Pre-Improvement Rural Buildings, in A Fenton and K Veitch (eds), Scottish Life and Society – Farming and the Land, John Donald, Edinburgh, 2011, pp 319-320
19 RCAHMS, 2008, loc. cit., pp 31-34.; Feachem, loc. cit.
20 RCAHMS, 1963, Vol. II, loc. cit., p. 391.
21 A Gibson, Medieval corn-drying kilns at Capo, Kincardineshire, and Abercairny, Perthshire, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Vol. 118, 1989, pp 219-229.
22 A Fairbairn, Notes on excavations of prehistoric and later sites at Muirkirk, Ayrshire, 1913-1927, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Vol. 61, 1927, pp 269-289; J Close-Brooks, Excavations in the Dairy Park, Dunrobin, Sutherland. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Vol. 110, 1980, 328-345; G J Barclay, M Brooks and J S Rideout, A corn-drying kiln at Barbush Quarry, Dunblane, Perthshire, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Vol. 112, 1982, pp 583-586; D Pollock, The Lunan Valley Project; medieval settlement in Angus, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Vol. 115, 1985, 357-399.
23 Gibson, loc. cit.
24 RCAHMS 1963, Vol. I, loc. cit. p. 49
25 H Fairhurst, Rosal: a deserted township in Strath Naver, Sutherland, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Vol. 100, 1968, pp 135-169; J H Stewart and M B Stewart, A highland longhouse – Lianach, Balquhidder, Perthshire, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Vol. 118, 1989, pp 301-307; H Fairhurst, The deserted settlement at Lix, West Perthshire, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Vol. 101, 1971, pp 160-193.
26 J Sinclair, The Statistical Account of Scotland, William Creech, Edinburgh, 1791-1799, Parish of Kippen (1793-1794), vol. XVIII, p. 349.
27 J Anderson, General View of the Agriculture and Rural Economy of the County of Aberdeen, Board of Agriculture, Edinburgh, 1794, p 80.
28 J Sinclair, The Statistical Account of Scotland, William Creech, Edinburgh, 1791-1799, Parish of Kilmadock or Doune (1797), vol. XX, pp 75-76.
29 D Sage, Memorabilia Domestica; Parish life in the North of Scotland, John Menzies, Edinburgh, 1899, pp 56-57.
30 J Headrick, View of the Mineralogy, Agriculture, Manufactures and Fisheries of the Island of Arran. A Constable, Edinburgh, 1807, p 314.
31 P Graham, General View of the Agriculture of Stirlingshire, G and W Nicol, Edinburgh, 1812, p. 117.
32 R W Brunskill, Vernacular Architecture, an Illustrated Handbook, Faber and Faber, London, 2000, p 171.
33 National Records of Scotland (NRS) SC67/49/15, pp 336-342.
34 NRS SC67/49/40, pp 432-435; RHP400/1/1.
35 NRS SC67/49/38, pp 252-255.
1 Part of north-west Stirlingshire, showing the location of the Bruach-Caoruinns.
2 Replica kiln barn constructed at Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore, Highland.
3 Kiln barn at Highland Folk Museum; the drying floor.
4 Kiln barn at Highland Folk Museum, looking down into the hearth and flue.
5 An Orkney steading and its associated kilnbarn at Dam of Hoxa, South Ronaldsay (ND 4295293805).
6 Orkney kiln viewed from inside the barn at Corrigall, Mainland (HY 3241619323).
7 Ruined Orkney kiln at Brough, near Skaill, Rousay (HY 3729330393).
8 The houses at Little Bruach-Caoruinn are seen in the distance, viewed from the east across the bowl of the kiln.
9 The kiln mound, with the mouth of the bowl showing, seen from the north across the burn.
10 Plan and elevation of the kiln at Little Bruach-caoruinn; the depths of the bowl and flue are conjectural.
11 The kiln bowl viewed from the north-east, showing the ledge that supported the rack carrying the bed of straw and corn.
12 The kiln barn seen from the north, prior to harvesting.
13 The kiln at Big Bruach-Caoruinn seen from the south, showing the opening of the flue.
14 Kiln at Low Hartsop, Cumbria; the drying floor formed from slates placed on edge, with the single cruck truss and purlins also visible.
15 Kiln at Low Hartsop, Cumbria; the drying floor viewed from beneath, showing slates placed on edge and supported by slate joists.