Kilns around Scapa Flow
There are many surviving corn-drying kilns in Orkney and a number are situated around Scapa Flow.
Grain needed to be dried for three reasons. The main reason was to prepare the grain for grinding to make into flour. But also a supply was always needed to use for seed the following year and, of course, it was used to make ale.
The grain had to be dried to stop the germination process and in Orkney kilns remained in use for a long time after the drying of the year's crop had been completed.
Drying the grain
There were various ways of drying grain on a small scale.
To make the grain suitable for use in cooking, a small amount was placed in a round-bottomed pot over the fire. The grain would be turned with the hand and, when hard and brittle, was mixed with buttermilk to make a dish known as burstin. Sometimes this mix was baked to make thick cakes.
Sometimes grain was put into a container of straw and heated stones were then rolled into it, or a hellio was used. This was a flat stone with a rim of clay around it and was used to parch the corn.
Kilns could be semi-circular, circular or four-sided. In Orkney most kilns were circular and built against the gable wall of a barn, or formed an extension to it. Access to the kiln was from within the barn. The best example of a kiln that you can visit is at Corrigall Farm Museum in the parish of Harray.
The layout of the kiln
The interior of the kiln was egg-shaped with a stepped-in bowl at the bottom. A little way up a ledge supported a beam and the spars or kiln-sticks were laid across this, which formed the drying floor. Straw was placed on this platform and the oats were laid on top. The kiln gradually tapered inwards to form a bottle shape.
The open top was closed by a thin flagstone or wooden cover. Some kilns were finished off with courses of sods or divots to a depth of about two feet. Most kilns were around 12 to 15 feet high with walls around three feet thick.
There were two openings to the kiln. A flue ran from floor level to the foot of the kiln, which was always slightly higher. This flue did not run in a straight line but was curved to, so it brought the heat in from the side and reduced the risk of fire.
A peat fire was lit and the heat dried out the grain. Someone needed to watch over this constantly, as fire was a real danger and there was a need to keep a steady heat in the kiln. This was regarded as the man's job and he had to be vigilant. It was a lonely job during the day when other family members were occupied with their tasks, but the barn was often the place where neighbours would gather in the evenings and tell stories as the grain dried. If a fire did start, the middle beam could be pulled out and the flames smothered by the weight of the straw.
The other entrance was much larger and acted as the kiln door. There was no door as such but, when the kiln was in use, a flackie (straw mat) was hung over the opening so the draught would be directed accordingly. A strong draught was not good, as it increased the risk of the grain catching fire. This door allowed access to the drying floor of the kiln and the person watching the drying could turn the grain using a wooden paddle.
In some of the bigger barns, a recess next to the kiln was used to store peats.
The amount of grain that could be dried varied according to the size of the kiln floor. A kiln with a diameter of around eight feet could hold about four sacks of oats which were spread to a depth of three inches. This amount could be dried in around six to eight hours, depending on the heat of the kiln and the draught going through it.
When the steam had stopped rising from the grain, it was carefully turned by hand to avoid losing any grain through the gaps in the straw floor.
Many of these types of kilns may date as far back as the 14th century, and many were in use well into the 20th century. This was mainly because the kiln was used to dry malt.
Many kilns can still be seen today and many are in remarkably good condition – a testament to the wonderful building skills of the past.
On the evening of Halloween young unmarried women would go to the kiln to 'wind the clew'. This involved allowing the end of a ball of wool or the end of a simmons (straw) rope to hang down the kiln chimney and asking, "Wha hauds my clew-end?" The voice that answered would be that of the girl's future husband, or his name would be given. It must have been a brave young woman who would climb up to the roof of the kiln and throw the end in, as some of the kilns were 12 feet high.