A nationally important survivor of the burgh’s agri-industrial past that still retains its internal machinery and operated as working mill visitor attraction through the 1990s until the early 2000s.
The cluster of milling buildings including Lower City Mills, the Upper City Mill (now the Mercure Hotel) and their granary block, were central to feeding Perth over the last 250 years. They processed wheat, oats, barley and peas and incorporated the production of beer and bread made from some of these milled cereals. The site also encompassed a maltings, brewery and bakery at various points in time, alongside stables and cart-sheds to collect corn and distribute corn milled products.
Initially there were two buildings on the site of the Lower City Mills, on either side of the lade and with separate waterwheels, which were brought together under one roof to be driven by an unusually large wheel in the centre of the building, measuring 3.7m wide and 4.7m in diameter, harnessing the full power of the lade passing underneath. The building retains much of the original machinery in the block to the north of the lade, including three pairs of working millstones.
Early origins and the town lade
The earliest mention of mills in Perth (a must for any town to supply food to the population) comes from the tradition that ownership of some mills were exchanged with King Malcom III (1058-93) by the local Mercer family in return for burial rights in St. John’s Kirk. Soon after, King David I (1124-53) granted Perth Royal Burgh status and, during his reign, granted 10 shillings from his mills income to the canons of Scone Abbey.
Central to the early story of milling in Perth is the town lade, a four-mile watercourse which runs from the River Almond at the ‘Low’s Work’ weir, near Ruthvenfield to the west of Perth, to the site of the City Mills. Just beyond this point, at what is now Methven Street, its course divides in two: one branch running east along Mill Street, while the other runs south and then east along what is now Canal Street, before both discharge into the Tay. The watercourses ran around the medieval walls of the burgh and as such they formed part of the medieval defences.
We are currently unclear about exactly when the lade dates from, but it may already have been in place when Robert DeBruce attacked in 1313. We are also unsure what the primary motive for its construction was: to provide a water-filled ditch to the medieval defences, or a continuous and controllable water and power source for the town, with milling as key function. The latter may be a possibility due to the unsuitability of the Tay for milling, its wide and shallow waters being difficult to contain. It is possible that a small watercourse, originally built to supply water for defensive purposes, was improved in order to facilitate milling.
Whatever the case, the lade was utilised by a number of mills along its line, collecting cereals from the surrounding arable lands for the burgh, and the City Mills were especially convenient for both customers and workers, being just outside the burgh, a location which was also advantageous in terms of trade and taxation.
Milling at the site
The earliest map showing a mill at this site dates from 1715 and is by military engineer Lewis Petit, completed to record and assess the recent Jacobite-built defences around Perth. It depicts three waterwheels (the accepted symbol for a mill on a map at that time) suggesting three separate wheels if not mills on the site. While outwith the medieval burgh walls, they were encircled by the Jacobite defences, their granaries a key resource during siege.
Lower City Mill has seen several re-builds over the centuries. In the 18th Century, two mills faced each other on either side of the lade, each with its own water wheel. The North building was dedicated to grinding oats, and the South to producing pot barley and malts. A fire in 1803 prompted a re-build of both buildings to a design by millwright John Stewart when both mills were brought together with one shared wheel. There were always periodic changes in machinery as available technology and markets demands constantly evolved and this fire was also an opportunity to upgrade.
The buildings you can see today were constructed and re-constructed during the period 1710-1810 when the city was expanding with the addition of many other mills, mostly for textiles, along the banks of the lade. Many more workers at these mills, meant an increase in demand for food locally so the mill’s capacity grow in tandem with greater industrial activities. Upgrading was again considered in 1829 when a design for a new kiln and adaption of steam driven machinery was drawn up. It is unknown if the plans were followed through and a steam engine was actually installed but the machinery surviving today seems to have been set into action sometime during the 1870s and doesn’t include one.
20th Century Mills: more upgrades & re-builds
In 1938, the barley production machinery was removed to make space for more storage of oats and this refurbishment also introduced an early electrical motor to drive an automatic oat-drying kiln. This freed up all of the waterwheel’s power to sift, dress and grind oats up until 1953.
Business started to falter for the Lower City Mill at this time, as demand for oatmeal was falling with the rise in popularity of British-grown wheat for bread and the competition from larger, more modern, producers who could offer oatmeal at reduced rates and produce it much faster than the 150-year-old mill machinery could. Two more electric motors were installed in a bid to upgrade the system which gave it another lease of life until it inevitably ceased production in 1966.
The drive for modernity and the demand for construction space around the increasingly growing city saw several of the surrounding mills and granaries demolished during the 1960s and 70s, although it should be noted that they outlived, for a time, the textile industries which had long since been abandoned in favour of overseas production. In the 1980s however, the value of preserving the Mill’s cultural, architectural and mechanical heritage was seen by the then Perth & Kinross District Council and, with the support of The Gannochy Trust and a number of other agencies, a complete overhaul of the mill was pioneered which saw a renewal of the mill’s operation once more.
During the late 80s and through the 90s, it produced mainly wheat flour for a local bakery and alongside the building’s accommodation of new craft workshops and a tearoom, it welcomed many visitors to see its historically authentic operation. Its uses again changed in 2001 when it became the home to the Perth Visitor Information Centre and the Perthshire Tourist Board, and then VisitScotland until June 2019. An increasingly rare historic asset, the mills retain significant potential to contribute to Perth’s wider cultural offer as a modern city with its roots in a proud past.
The structure has been on the Buildings at Risk Register since 2012 but in November of 2019, Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust have taken on care of the building both as office space and with a vision for a sustainable new future for the building. We are developing a project to repair the historic fabric of the building and to record and restore the internal machinery alongside our engagement work with conserving traditional building skills and promoting the retention and proper upkeep of heritage buildings.