Ballygrant and Keills - a glimpse of the past - Part Two

The clergy connection raised doubts about the stories, familiar to me, of Knocklearach being named after two clerks, who having stolen money from the ship toll north of Bunnahabhain, were caught and hanged on the hill above the farmhouse (on the standing stones in some versions, in which case they must have been midgets!). Even more intriguing was Eleanor MacNab's discovery in an old Islay Guide of the saying 'Is measa an latha 'n diugh, 'n an latha a chrochadh na cl'ich' which confirmed that clerks or clerics were hanged, when or where unspecified, but definitely on a day of excessively vile weather.

From the highpoint of Keills' religious and secular power in the Middle Ages we move forward to around 1820 when, with the economy no longer buoyant, the laird introduced flax growing to this pocket of good arable land. Weavers were brought in from Glasgow and cottages, which comprised the present village till the Council houses were added in the 1960s, built for them. There they spun the thread and wove the linen - parts of a loom were found in the walls of one of the cottages during renovation a few years ago. The flax industry in Scotland as a whole did not last long, overtaken by cheap cotton imports from America, and late in the century it petered out at Keills as elsewhere. However, linen sheets from that period were long lasting and examples can be seen at the Islay Museum.

Mining features in the history of both villages, the presence of lead is reputed to have attracted the Vikings to Islay, but for the most recent episode we have to switch to Ballygrant which was the centre of a late 19th century attempt to win Islay's minerals. First we go back to the origin of the name for it, too, relates to industry. The earliest record of a meal mill at Ballygrant appears in a 1686 rent roll and then regularly throughout the 18th century. As Ballygrant is an anglicised version of Bail' a Ghrana ' the town of the grain ' we believe it may have been a milling centre in even earlier times. Like Keills, Ballygrant is surrounded by good arable land where barley as well as oats would have been grown to supply the distillery, now Lossit Kennels, and no doubt, illicit distillers like Baldie a' Chladaich who, in the late 19th century, was deported for his pains. His house on the shore near Glen Logan is now a walkers' bothy. When you come to such recent history you have to tread carefully. Although, DJ is a native islander and it's 50 years since I first stepped on Port Askaig pier, we know there are Ileach readers whose memories go back 90 years or more, and we hope they won't be slow to correct any errors or misinterpretations. Continue reading......

We were keen to know when the milling industry went into decline. Ballygrant born Archie Scott knew the last miller was called Joseph Stirling but there was no milling in Archie's lifetime. We thought we were beat until a chance conversation with the late Cathie Woodrow, the last teacher in Ballygrant School, led to an exciting phone call the next morning. 'I nearly called you last night at midnight' she said. She had found an old school register which recorded a Jean Stirling starting school in 1906 and her father was described as a miller. We could now say definitely that the mill was active into the early 20th century. It stood in a hollow known to long term Ballygrant residents as Lagavalla, an anglicised form of Lag a'Bhaile ' the hollow in the village, now the yard at Ballygrant Quarry. Until recently there was a cottage there and from the school register which gave Lagavalla as the Stirling home we presume it was originally the mill house.

The last active mill, partly demolished in the 1999s, may be the same building mentioned in a mineral lease of 1836 and date from that time. To quote the 'Industrial Archaelogy of Scotland' it was 'a three story rubble building with a two storey extension. An iron over shot water wheel 14 ft in diameter with wooden buckets. 2 pairs of 54 inch stones' The two storey extension survives to show how imposing complete building must have been. Did imported meal take over the market, or did a more up to date mill at Bridgend take all the farmers'oats' Any information from better informed local historians would be welcome. Once out of use for mill mealing the water wheel which had turned the grinding machinery was adapted to drive a sawmill. It served Dunlossit Estate until the late 1960s, when water power gave way to electricity. In Ballygrant we used to say 'going down the mill' long after the site became Ballygrant Quarry.

Between 1860 and 1882 Ballygrant was a buzzing village. Miners's Row (2nd picture) was built for incoming lead miners, many from Wales with names like Finnie, Edwards and Griffiths. Sixteen families occupied the houses which have now been renovated to become three family dwellings and two flats. The houses on the right of the villages going north, probably dating from the same period, were occupied by a baker, a post office a beer inn, and later Donald Bell, tailor. According to census records there were also milliners, dressmakers and several shops. Castle Hill, situated on the south side of the Ballygrant Hall overflow carpark, was demolished in the 1980s. It was the miners' recreation centre with a ramp to the main door ideal for rolling barrels from cart to serving centre. Shanty towns surrounded the area. Evidence of Glasgo Beag and Baile na Clach on Knocklearach remain but whether from this or an earlier mining episode we'd need an archaeologist to determine.

We do know that Gartness mine produced 18,424 ounces of silver, and lead from the 14 mines around Ballygrant amounted to 1,426 tons in that 22 year period. The wheel house for the grinding machinery for the Finlaggan mines can still be seen on the west side of the Balulive road at Mulreesh and the remains of the 'washings' for the ground ore on the east side just opposite the Finlaggan farm road. Some group member had heard from someone who had read somewhere ' that's the way of historical rumour ' that the original Kildalton Cross trophy was made of Gartness silver. When our research lines ran out, John Gordon, of Ballygrant descent and four times Cross winner, volunteered to contact the Ramsay family who donated the trophy. He persevered through many attempts and finally made contact with Janna Ramsay Best, now domiciled in Ontario who conclusively quashed that rumour. However, we understand on good authority that a teapot of Gartness silver is kept in Glasgow's Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery.

On time, 31 March 2004, and on budget Ballygrant and Keills Community Action Group, delivered the project, which included tarmacing the carpark at the hall and creating one in the village, a notice board in Keills, indigenous tree planting at Ballygrant and a granite plaque in each village with a summary of our historical findings. Their work done the group disbanded but our passion for our community and its history continues. We'd like to think of it as a work in progress and welcome any additions, or corrections that readers can provide.

Tag: history keills ballygrant

This story was written by Catriona Bell and published with kind permission of the Ileach local newspaper.

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