Monday, 14 May 2012

Watermill Stories

I like stories about watermills. A watermill figured largely in my first two books, ‘Troll Fell’ and ‘Troll Mill’, and if you think about it, in past centuries the mill which ground your corn was about the most important building in any village after the church – and for similar reasons. The church provided your spiritual food, the mill provided your daily bread. The miller was an important man in any community. And like the church, the mill was a hub, a place where you could expect to meet your neighbours on a fairly regular basis, even the ones who lived on outlying farms.

Millers, like clergymen, were not always liked, of course. (The ones in my books certainly endear themselves to no one.) The song ‘I am a jolly miller and I live by myself’ has the refrain, ‘I care for nobody, no not I, if nobody cares for me,’ and rather suggests that millers felt themselves a little above the rest of the community. People couldn’t afford to offend the miller, whose mill with its machinery was one of the first non-cottage industries. No one wanted to go back to hand-grinding their own grain with a quern.

Machinery at Venn Mill, Oxfordshire, just up the road from me and the model for Troll Mill! © Copyright Steve Daniels and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence 

This tension between the miller – whose hands were never dirty, but on the contrary who was always powdered in white – and the labouring villagers, may help explain the number of ghost stories and horror stories set around mills and millpond – but I think one also has to take into account the fact that a working mill is an impressive place. The whole building comes alive, full of purpose:

Everything vibrated. Old dust trickled and cobwebs shook on the walls. …And the noises were so spooky: the rhythmic thumping of the water wheel like a dark heart beating, the creaking machinery, the clatter of the shoe that shook down the grain, and the sibilant mutter of the rotating millstone.

(Troll Fell)

Here are a couple of folk-tales about watermills. One from Peter Asbjørnsen’s collection of Norwegian tales, East of the Sun and West of the Moon:

There was a man who had a flour mill, close to a waterfall, and there was a mill-goblin in that mill. Every time he went to grind his corn, the goblin got hold of the tub-wheel and stopped the mill, and he couldn’t get any corn ground. The man knew very well it was the goblin who had his hand in this and one evening when he went to the mill, he took a big pot full of pitch-tar with him and put it on the fire. He turned the water on to the wheel and the mill went for a while, but then it stopped as he had expected it would. He opened the door which led out to the wheel and there stood the mill goblin in the door, gaping. His jaw was so big that it reached from the threshold up to the lintel.

“Have you ever seen such a jaw?” said the goblin.
The man ran for the pot and pitched the boiling tar into the gaping jaw and said, “Have you ever felt anything do hot?”
The goblin uttered a terrible shriek and let go the wheel. He has never been seen or heard there after that time, nor has the mill been stopped since.

Serbia's most famous vampire, Sava Savanović, was said to have lived in an old watermill, where he drank the blood of the millers: Serbian folk legends held that water mills were an invention of the devil and a gathering place for demons – a belief which seems reflected by this tale from Ireland, from Great Blasket Island off the coast of County Kerry, told in Gaelic by a woman called Gobnait and written down by Robin Flower some time in the early 1900’s. ('The Western Island', Robin Flower, Oxford 1944) It’s an extract from a much longer tale, itself a version of ‘Mother Holle’, in which a king’s daughter is sent by her jealous stepmother to perform an number of difficult tasks, and succeeds though courtesy and goodness, while her ugly stepsister fails through rudeness and selfishness. For one task she is sent to a mill to get a bag of wheat ground: ‘and nobody in the world ever came back from that mill’. She has to stay there overnight:

And it wasn’t long till a tall, black man came down the chimney to her. “Stretch out your long white legs beside my long black legs.” “I’ll do it,” she said, “if you’ll make me a golden cupboard.” He wasn’t long in making it. “Stretch out your long white legs beside my long black legs.” “I’ll do it if you’ll make me a golden dresser.” “Stretch out your long white legs beside my long black legs.” “I’ll do it if you’ll make me a golden ladder.” Yerra, he hadn’t put the last nail in the ladder when the little cock flapped his wings and crowed, and the tall, black man went through the chimney.

Of course the stepsister makes the mistake of being rude, and ‘All he did was to gulp her up in his mouth and fly out of the chimney with her.’

Was it because of the elemental power of the water, that mills were regarded with awe?  In contrast to the Serbian legends, here’s a poem attributed to the epigrammatist Antipator of Thessalonica, dated 85 BC: it celebrates the change from the wearisome female task of hand-grinding at home to the miraculous power of the water-driven millstones:

Hold back your hand from the mill, you grinding girls; even if the cockcrow heralds the dawn, sleep on. For Demeter has imposed the labours of your hands on the nymphs, who leaping down upon the topmost part of the wheel, rotate its axle; with encircling cogs it turns the hollow weight of the Nisyrian millstones. If we learn to feast toil-free on the fruits of the earth, we taste again the golden age...

Or, in an 18th century translation:

Ye Maids who toiled so faithfully at the Mill
Now cease your word and from these toils be still,
Sleep now till dawn and let the birds with glee
Sing to the ruddy morn from bush and tree
For what your hands performed so long and true
Ceres has charged the Water Nymphs to do.


  1. In "Puss in Boots", the boy inherits the cat from his father, who was a miller (the eldest son inherits the mill).

    Also, it should be noted that when the Philistines captured Samson he was set to work grinding their grain, becoming a mill himself thus.

  2. Really interesting post... I love the dark threads that run through certain folk tales. I liked all the fey and ghostly folk that dwelled in your Troll trilogy mill, especially Granny Greenteeth!
    Theres a song Clannad do called 'Two sisters' where one jealous sister pushed the younger into the millstream. When she came to the mill pool the miller in the song pulled her out only to take her rings and coat and push her in again. The miller hanged at the end of the song... I'll have to go and listen to it to remember what became of the jealous sister...

  3. Here's a link to the Clannad song 'Two Sisters' if you were interested...