Originally published February 2014

Our Daily Bread

A friend recently posted a link on his Facebook page to an interesting article on a historical reenactors’ page about Roman military bread and the portable hand mills the army traveled with to grind grain into flour. Each legionary would carry a ration of wheat grain rather than four because it was easier to preserve. The Roman equivalent of modern military squad was a contubernium consisting of 8 legionnaires living in a single tent along with two “servants” who served as support staff seeing to the contubernium‘s pack mule, their water needs and other duties. Each squad like this would have a small hand-powered stone mill for grinding their flour.

A saddle quern and handstone excavated from a neolithic site in Townhead, Scotland.
A saddle quern and handstone excavated from a neolithic site in Townhead, Scotland.



Of course grain was being ground well before the Romans. Just this past year a curved stone that may be a “saddle quern” was found in Perthshire, Scotland while repairing a wall. It has been estimated to be potentially 6000 years old.

A pair of querns found at Jarlshof on the Shetland Islands
A pair of querns found at Jarlshof on the Shetland Islands

Variations on rotary querns, or mills like the Roman bee-hive shaped example above, and later disk shaped versions, are believed to have started to arrive in Britain about the middle of the Iron Age (about 300 – 400 B.C. They seem to have moved north into Scotland and from there into Ireland around the 2nd century B.C.

By the Middle Ages larger, water powered mills were being built in Scotland and “thirlage” laws were passed to require vassals to bring their grain to the local mill rather then than grind it themselves. This not only ensured the mill had business, but it allowed each vassal’s grain to be weighed by the miller for purposes of taxation. The vassals were also expected to help with the maintenance of the mill. This included helping to transport new mill stones and the growing of beech and hornbeam trees suitable for the wooden mechanism of the mill.

Of course the miller was also due a payment in the form of a percentage of the flour that he ground. A dishonest miller might have a bag near the millstones into which he would secretly toss an occasional handful of flour to keep for himself. The term ‘ring the mill’ was used to mean a “cheat” and came from millers who would enlarge the wooden frame around the millstones as a way to collect flour that fell out from between the stones. Vassals who did not bring their grain to the mill could be fined, and lairds had the right to break quern stones that were found being used to avoid taxes or the miller’s share. This may explain the number of period quern stones that are found broken. The mill could also be a source of charity where vassals might donate a portion of grain to a bag that was set aside for the poor, or those suffering hard times.

The thirlage law was finally repealed in 1779. Many surplus mills seem to have fallen out of use from natural market competition after losing the subsidies provided by the mandatory local business provide by the thirlage law. As a result, simple hand-powered querns continued to be used into the 19th century as in this  1811 description:

The quern consists of two circular pieces of stone, generally grit or granite, about twenty inches in diameter. In the lower stone is a wooden peg, rounded at the top; on this the upper stone is nicely balanced, so as just to touch the lower one, by means of a piece of wood fixed in a large hole in this upper piece, but which does not fill the hole, room for feeding the mill being left on each side: it is so nicely balanced, that though there is some friction from the contact of the two stones, yet a very small momentum will make it revolve several times, when it has no corn in it. The corn being dried, two women sit down on the ground, having the quern between them; the one feeds it, while the other turns it round, relieving each other occasionally, and singing some Celtic songs all the time.

-Garnett, T. Observations on a Tour through the Highlands and part of the Western Isles of Scotland.

For fun: A couple of loaves of soda bread I baked this weekend and the simple recipe below.

two loaves of bread on separate plates

4 cups white flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon sugar

2 cups buttermilk

Mix and form into a round.

Bake at 450 degrees for 35 to 45 minutes depending on your oven.

bread, grain
Trees & Kings
Celtic History In the News — July 2019

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