The Museum of Ayrshire Country Life and Costume is located in a group of Listed mills, granaries, kilns and agricultural buildings which date from fifteen hundred and seventy, but can be traced back to Kilwinning Abbey in the early thirteenth century. The collection falls into three identifiable themes, the first is the Victorian Grain Mill and it's machinery, water wheel, lades, sluices and weir. The second, displayed in the original granaries, contains exhibitions of tools and agricultural machinery, craft tools, dairy artefacts, and extensive room settings showing, life, furnishings and memorabilia from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The third is a comprehensive collection of costume, worn and donated by local families and dating from seventeen seventy to the present. It contains an outstanding group of men's, women's and children's clothes from all sections of local society. As you would expect there is also a large collection of Ayrshire whitework and other textiles including Mandarin Chinese silks.
There has been a mill on this site of Groatholm since the 14th century, set up by the monks of Kilwinning Abbey. The first mill was a waulk or fulling mill producing woollen cloth. Retting was carried out here in ponds next to the river, this process being a stage in the manufacturing of vegetable fibres, especially the bast fibres. It involves submerging plant stems such as flax, jute or hemp in water, and soaking them for a period of time to loosen the fibers from the other components of the stem. The fibres can then be used to produce linen and other products, such as paper for banknotes, rope, etc. The present mill was erected in 1614 as a corn mill and rebuilt in 1880 after being damaged by fire. The River Garnock's waters power a 6-metre diameter breast-shot wheel that drives the French burr millstones through cast iron gearing. The traditional methods of producing flour can be followed during a tour of the mill. The wheel turns, when possible, following the almost total renewal of the mill machinery and a recent (2006-9) replacement of wooden components of the wheel, sluice, etc. For a history of the mill, written by a descendant of the milling family, please click here.
The mill race, leat or lade was critical to the efficient working of the mill and was a specialised craft; a leatwright is recorded on a grave in the Loudoun Kirk graveyard near Galston, East Ayrshire. The weir on the River Garnock is made of boulders which are carefully placed and locked together creating a millpond that supplies a good head of water to the wheel through the lade. The weir was built on a natural dyke which runs across the Garnock at this point, its existence being carefully exploited by the monks of Kilwinning Abbey who chose the site for the mill. These dykes (bands of especially hard rock) are found at several points crossing the river and many were elsewhere were exploited as the bases for dams, such as also occurred at Cunninghamhead Mill on the River Annick.
A feature of many mills was the presence of trees or other structures shading the wheel from the intense summer sun. The reason for this was that when the wheel was not turning the wood components dried out and warped, putting a great deal of stress on the whole structure, putting it out of shape and creating breaks in the buckets, etc. At Dalgarven the wheel was originally enclosed by high walls which served the same purpose as trees. The Dalgarven wheel is a low breastshot, where the water strikes the wheel at a quarter of its diameter or height of the wheel and it turns with an anti-clockwise rotation. On the outer edge of each bucket is a 'sacrificial board' which will break away if any object becomes wedged beneath it. This is very important, as the stresses and strains set up by the wheel suddenly stopping would cause considerable damage to the various cogs and to the drive to the grinding stones themselves, which have significant mass and momentum when employed in the process of grinding. The use of iron brackets to provide support to the wooden paddles on the wheel is an unusual feature. The massive wooden hirst supporting the grindstones can be viewed from inside of the mill. In the 1940s, the miller at Dalgarven used the wheel to produce electricity which was stored in liquid acid batteries. At present (2006) the Mill Trustees are looking into the possibilities of using the wheel to produce electricity to help offset the mills contribution to global warming on the basis of 'Think Global, Act Local'.
The mill building has an unusual structural feature, an alcove, designed to attract nesting owls which would then feed off and help to control the vermin which stores of cereals and other foodstuffs always attract. One feature of the mill is the relatively small number of windows. This may be purely practical, however avoidance of paying too high a 'window tax' may have been a consideration. Window tax was first levied in England in 1696 to offset the expenses of making up the gold and silver deficiency in the re-coinage of William III reign caused by clipping and filing of coins. It was set at two shillings for small tenements, six shillings for buildings with up to ten windows and ten shillings for those with twenty windows. Cottages were exempt. It was based on the number of windows in a house and large mansions often had many existing windows blocked up, such as a whole side of Loudoun Castle, in Ayrshire, Scotland. It was repealed in 1851 and replaced by a tax on inhabited houses. Lying on the cobbles outside the original mill is a large oval sandstone object with metal attachments on its central axis. This was used to crush whin or gorse in a shallow trough, the stone being dragged up and down by a horse, making the spiny and tough branches of the plant suitable for use as animal feed. It was however only used if other sources of feed were lacking. Heron, on a tour of Scotland in 1799, records that the miller at Dalgarven had constructed a wooden bridge in the Japanese style and interesting gardens with patterns of low box hedges.
Thirlage was the feudal law by which the laird (lord) could force all those farmers living on his lands to bring their grain to his mill to be ground. Additionally they had to carry out repairs on the mill, maintain the lade and weir as well as conveying new millstones to the site. The width of some of the first roads was determined by the requirements of at least two people on either side of a grindstone with a wooden axle called a 'mill-wand'. The Thirlage Law was repealed in 1779 and after this many mills fell out of use as competition and unsubsidised running costs took their toll. This may explain why so many mills went out of use, as deduced from comparing Armstrong's 1775 map with the 1885 OS map. For example, Lambroch Mill on the River Annick served Lambroughton and apart from the weir and some other indications, it has entirely vanished
One of the most unusual items on show is a royal proclamation dated 1917, which asks all British subjects to aid the war effort by cutting bread consumption by 1/4 and stop using flour. 20,000 posters proclaiming the edict were printed before the government decided to rethink the concept and the proclamation was cancelled. However, 5 posters had already been sent out, and one of these five is now on display inside the mill. Three floors of the old mill building, which once held sacks of grain, are now used as an intriguing museum of country life, telling the story of life on the land in rural Ayrshire through the ages. There is a vast array of agricultural machinery, tools, old photographs, and objects from everyday life. There is a recreated dairy, laundry, and tool store, and an area to display rural crafts. One of the most appealing things about the Country Life Museum at Dalgarven is how the owners have created tableau showing generations of life in their own family. So you can look back up the Ferguson family tree to see what the current owners grandfather and his family lived like, the objects they used in everyday life at the mill, the furniture they sat in, the pastimes they enjoyed. Its a fascinating glimpse of social history, made all the more interesting because the owners like to take a personal hand in showing visitors around the displays.
The ground floor of the mill is given over to a display of historic costumes from the early 1800s to the mid-20th century. The collection of clothing boasts over 2000 unique pieces, so not all will be on display at any one time. There are examples of men's, women's, and children's clothing, though it must be said that the vast majority when we visited were women's dresses and outer wear. There are quilts, blankets, lace, pieces of embroidery, bedcovers, shawls, gloves, petticoats, gowns - an embarrassent of clothing objects. This is a display you will want to linger over, exclaim at, and wonder at! One of the most unique items is a Garibaldi shirt made of red cotton. There are regular special exhibitions; our visit coincided with a display of Victorian clothing, particularly dresses from 1825-1901, with examples of crinolines, pinafores, bustles, and much, much more. Upcoming exhibits as of this writing include WWI clothing and the Paisley Pattern. If you enjoy historic costume and fashion, you will love Dalgarven! The costume collection is put to other practical purposes, such as for educational visits, open days and other special purposes.
The first and second floors of the mill show all the aspects of country life with re-constructions of interiors (parlour, kitchen and bedroom) from Victorian times and displays of farm implements, Ayrshire Whitework, lace, luggage, dairy work, wildlife, storage jars, a bee skep and stand, quoits, early vacuum cleaners, washing machines, blacksmiths' tools, etc. The single room in a cottars house has been re-created, complete with box-beds, girnal, swee and other features, such as the bible-chair. On each floor the restored mill machinery is open to view (hoppers, grindstones, wheel gearing, etc.) and on the ground floor is an exhibition of the stages in the restoration of the mill. The exhibition shows the enormous amount of work that had to be done to bring the mill back to life. In the grounds of the mill are a number of items of interest, such as a cast-iron milestone and various horse- and tractor-drawn ploughs, whin crushing stone, etc. School groups can visit the mill as part of their studies and are given guided tours and / or specific talks on the many topics which are covered by the trust's collections. The riverside walk provides many opportunities for various studies, such as river life, wildflower meadows, biodiversity, geography, geology, etc. The water wheel gives a focus for studying sustainability.
A type of petroglyph called a cup and ring mark stone is recorded as existing at Dalgarven by John Smith, the notable Ayrshire antiquarian. Unfortunately the exact whereabouts of the stone is unknown; however a copy has been produced and is on display in the grounds of the mill. The purpose of cup and ring marked stones is unknown. The carvings on the original stone would have dated from the Neolithic or Bronze age times, being as old as 6000 years. This Dalgarven example is unusual in having cups and connecting toughs, but no rings. Often up to five concentric rings are found circling the central cup. Fossil-bearing limestone boulders are sometimes found in the river with fossilized tree fern roots and imprints of the trunk. These represent long-extinct plant species which grew to an impressive height compared to their modern relatives which only reach a few feet. Millions of years ago these plants thrived in a warm and hospitable climate and gave rise to much of the Scottish coal deposits.
Visitors should leave time to wander through the unspoilt landscape formed by the gently flowing River Garnock. In spring, the wild flower meadow is at its best, in summer, sit by the riverbank and watch the heron, swallows, kingfisher and other wildlife. A Community Woodland has been established and the site is open access. The gravel bed of the river was an important source of income for the millers, for through the estate they had sole right to the extraction of the gravel here, which was sold for various farm and horticultural purposes. The meadows are particularly rich in pignut (Conopodium majus), a relative of parsley, which formed a breaktime snack for children in former times. If the plant is dug up a small potato-like structure is found which when eaten raw has a slightly nutty taste. It is available commercially for salads, etc. Hemlock water dropwort grows well in the wetter areas and is best left alone as the name hemlock suggests. The large leaves of the butterbur (Petasites hybridus) are found in several areas; its name harkens back to the days before clingfilm or cheap paper when the leaves were used to wrap butter destined for the market. Water ragwort (or Saracen's ragwort) (a species of Senecio) is an introduced plant which grows along the riverside in tall stands. It is common on the Garnock and at present quite rare elsewhere
Himalayan balsam or policemen's helmets is another introduction, but a common one. Giant hogweed is beginning to make its presence felt. It is another plant which should never be handled as the sap can cause severe blistering and scarring of the skin. Ayrshire Rivers Trust are a local conservation charity that have been highly effective controlling invasive weeds in Ayrshire and are soon to tackle Giant Hogweed on the Garnock and other rivers in North Ayrshire. More information on the work of the Trust is available through their website. The Stewarton Flower or pink purslane (Claytonia sibirica) is common in wetter areas. It has white or pink flowers at this site, but closer to Stewarton it is almost always white. It seems that it was first introduced as a white variety in the Stewarton area in Victorian times and the common pink variety, introduced later, spread to other areas. Dalgarven, it seems, is on the edge of the white flower zone of dominance. Dalgarven is the only known site for the Pocket Plum gall Taphrina padi which develops on Bird Cherry. Coppicing of the riverside alder trees is still carried out. Alders grow well in wet soils and are specially adapted for the low nutrient conditions through having large root nodules containing nitrogen-fixing bacteria which enrich the soil in the same way as clover plants and other legumes. The many hedgerow trees in the vicinity of the mill were not planted by farmers for 'visual effect', they were crops and the wood was used for building and fencing. The miller needed beech or hornbeam wood for mill machinery, in particular the cogs on the drive wheels from the waterwheel. It is not generally appreciated how much the Ayrshire landscape has changed its character over the last few hundred years, for even in the 1760-70 Statistical Account it is stated that "there was no such thing to be seen as trees or hedges in the parish; all was naked and open".
Partially suitable for visitors with limited mobility, the access to the upper floors is by staircase. There is a ramp to the main entrance so that the ground floor is accessible. There is accessible parking and a drop-off point. Large printguides are available. Generally one of the milling family members is on hand to bring the history to life. There are accessible toilets. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Location : Dalgarven Mill, Dalry Road, Kilwinning, Ayrshire KY13 6PL
Transport: Kilwinning (ScotRail) then bus. Bus Routes : 25, 50, 125, X34 and X36 stop very close by.
Opening Times : Easter through October, Monday - Saturday 10:00 to 17:00, Sunday 11:00 to 17:00; Winter Wednesday to Sunday, 11:00 to 16:00
Tickets : Adults £3.75; Children to 16 years £2.50
Tel. : 01294 552448