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Douglastown is a hamlet in Kinnettles in Angus, Scotland, three miles south-west of Forfar.  It takes its name from the landowner who in about 1789 provided land for James Ivory & Co. (in which Mr Douglas was a partner) to build a flax mill to spin yarn for heavy linen cloth called osnabruks (named from the German town of Osnabruk, where it was originally made.

The hamlet of Douglastown was built to house the workers. The mill closed in 1834. It used flax-spinning technology invented by John Kendrew and Thomas Porthouse of Darlington, patented in 1787.

The Douglastown Spinning Mill – A Scottish First?

Around 1787 there was great interest in spinning flax by machinery. The method had been patented by John Kendrew (an optician who probably invented, but never patented, spectacles) and Thomas Porthouse, a clockmaker. The patent was owned by John Kendrew and Co. who ran the small water powered Low mill in Darlington.

A small group of flax merchants from Dundee visited Darlington and were granted a lease of the patent privilege. An old water-driven corn mill, owned by William Douglas of Brigton, was offered for a trial and at the end of 1788, or early 1789, all was ready for the first experiment. It obviously met their expectations, because it was decided to lease land from Mr. Douglas for a purpose-built mill and a row of cottages for the workers. The lease was for 45 years.

The mill, functional by 1790, was built of stone and was four or five storeys high (historical sources differ on this). James Ivory, a celebrated mathematician who had earlier taught algebra at the High School of Dundee, managed it. The village of Douglastown was completed in 1792 and, although called Milltown on some old maps, was later named Douglastown to commemorate the aid given to the enterprise by William Douglas. He had been made a partner in the new business around this time.

In November 1790, Ivory and Co. made a petition to the Board of Trustees for Manufactures, to patronise their efforts and to encourage them in their undertaking. The Board, who were established after the Act of Union to encourage invention and industry throughout Scotland, visited in January 1791 and were impressed by the quality of the yarn spun. They later resolved that, “…as it would appear that this is the first undertaking of the kind that has been set on foot in Scotland, and that the undertakers have incurred a large expense with it, that they shall be allowed a premium of £300, payable in three moieties of £100 annually, provided it shall appear that the patent of the Darlington company, by whom the machinery was invented, does not extend to Scotland…”.

Great interest was shown in the new mill and, in time, similar mills, such as that at the Baxter mill at Glamis, sprang up beside burns throughout Forfarshire.

The flax for the industry was initially locally grown, but was later supplemented by Russian flax imported in increasing amounts through the port of Dundee. However this was a period of unrest in Europe as Napoleon was on the march. The price of the raw material was subject to major variations over the first 30 years of the 19th century and the original company broke up in 1803 as a result of losses attributed to price fluctuations, following the sudden death in 1801, of Paul, Emperor of Russia.

William Douglas personally met the company’s debts and in 1804 bought the mill at public auction, running it himself until 1808, when he took on several partners who each paid £800 for the privilege. Under the new arrangements the mill survived for a further 7 years. Mr. Douglas again paid the debts in full, and struggled on until 1817 when he sold the mill, village, machinery and lease to James Watt of Dundee.

The mill continued to function for another 17 years and in 1830 had the erratic power from the Kerbet supplemented by a small seven-horse power steam engine. This gave a potential of twelve horsepower in all. However, even this was not enough to compete with the more modern mills being set up in neighbouring towns and the enterprise finally came to an end in 1834, this being about the time the lease was due to expire. The engine and machinery were removed shortly afterward.

At that time the mill contained 14 frames of 30 spindles each – 420 spindles in all. These threw off 234 spindles of yarn per day, or 1404 per 6 day week. It gave employment to 49 people: 10 flax dressers, 12 preparers, 16 spinners, 7 reelers, 2 turners, 1 engine man and a clerk/overseer who supervised the whole workforce. The latter, Alexander Yeaman, lived in a detached overseer’s house situated at the northern end of the Row in Douglastown, which seems to be close to where Scroggerfield farm house, now known as Deanbank, stands. The workers seem to have been absorbed by local agriculture or the weaving enterprises in Forfar.

What became of the building? Strathmore Estates have records showing an insurance payment for £200 for the “Old mill at Douglastown”, which burnt down on June 28th. The year is not clear but the entry is before the sale of land for the new school in 1865. It is often said that when the Parish school was built in Douglastown, much of the building stone came from the old mill site and this seems the more likely explanation if one considers the effect of a fire on the structure. From old maps it would seem that the site of the mill was to the east of Scroggerfield farmhouse, on the north side of the A94 and Mrs Anne Merry remembers there being a pile of stone at this site in the 30’s . The new section of road bisects the old worker’s ‘Row’ and several sections have been demolished over the years. Of the lade there is no trace and it is not shown on any of the maps we have seen. Bob Butchart recalls, however, that when ploughing the field behind the school it was not uncommon to catch flat slabs with the plough. If you caught one you usually then lifted a whole row and there was some sort of space beneath. This seems a long way from the original Brigton meal mill lade and the river, but would have been in the line of the old spinning mill site. However, 1952 a Bronze age cist was discovered in the area where these slabs were and that is an alternative explanation of such slabs.

According to an article on the mill in the Scots magazine, there was a mill wheel in Douglastown until sometime during World War II and it was said to have been a favourite hiding place of village children. Then during the last war a zealous scrap metal collector removed it without asking. However those who might be expected to remember this do not and we believe the article is talking of the wheel at Brigton meal mill. It seems likely that the wheel of the spinning mill may have been removed with the machinery in 1834.

It is of interest that neither Porter nor Kendrew made a great fortune out of their invention. Although the machinery could do the work of 10 hand spinners, female spinners were paid such low wages that they were still cheaper than the machinery.

Warden, in his 1864 book on the Linen Trade, comments that “water spinning mills were thought a wonderful invention in 1792, were thick as blackberries in 1822 and were set aside as old fashioned in 1852. A few decades nowadays bring about greater changes than centuries did before”.

Was the Douglastown mill the first powered flax-spinning mill in Scotland? According to Warden, Sim and Thom erected a building in 1787, on the Haughs of Bervie, for spinning flax thread. This was later substantiated by a date written inside a driving drum. The firm also obtained the machinery from Kendrew and Porter, the only difference was that Ivory and Co. spun a heavy yarn specifically for Osnaburg weaving. Their petition to the Board of Trustees was quite specific about this, so strictly speaking they made no false claims about what they were doing. However it seems that Douglastown may have been beaten to first place by a thread!

See also:
•   Douglas of Brigton



Sources for this article include:
  • Kinnettles and District Heritage Group

  • Any contributions will be gratefully accepted


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    Last modified: Friday, 17 May 2024