Greening Heritage Buildings

The most sustainable building is the one that’s already built. Reusing older buildings avoids the destruction of natural resources and habitats and saves the energy that would be used to process and transport construction materials.

For the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), our trustee Ian Leith has shared his thoughts on the sustainable legacy of the John O’Groats Mill, which has been serving its community for hundreds of years.  

Water Mills: the original green machines

A meal mill by its very nature is about sustainability. Water mills are the original green machines. They use water – a sustainable energy source that renews with the seasons.

The purpose of the Mill is to produce one of life’s most sustainable food sources – meal. The operation of the mill is also one of sustainability, as each process is governed by the changing seasons. When the corn is cut the mill performs the essential practice of turning it into meal, which is then either distributed to the community or stored to ensure a continuing and sustainable food supply.

The Beginnings

A meal mill has existed in John O’Groats since Norse times, but the story of the mill site can clearly be charted from 1750, when a 17 year-old William Houston became the miller. Remarkedly, not only has the mill remained on the original site, but from that time, the mill has continued to be owned by the same family. 

The New Mill 

In 1818 a new mill was built by William’s son, John. Moving with the times and advances in technology, this mill had a vertical breast wheel as opposed to the original click mill.  

In 1845 this mill was replaced by the next generation of the Houston family. Cast iron was introduced to replace wooden components making the mill’s machinery stronger and more robust, and of course more sustainable.

The existing building dates from 1901 and continued to operate as a mill until the untimely death of the last miller in 2001. As with earlier iterations of the mill, this mill used the same sustainable power source, water. At this time steam engines were common-place, and oil engines were beginning to make inroads into industrial design. This mill is thought to be the last traditional water mill to be built in Scotland and probably in the UK, and was built against the grain of modern 1901 thinking.

The Mill Today

Today, the fabric of the mill and the machinery within it remains largely the same as when it was rebuilt in 1901. However, the passage of time has seen some deterioration on the building and it is currently on the Buildings at Risk Register. With the aim of ensuring the mill’s place in milling history, the community’s social heritage and the preservation of  this unique building, the John O’Groats Mill Trust was formed in 2016. On the 17th August 2020 the John O’Groats Mill Trust became its owners, with support from the Scottish Land Fund, the Nuclear Development Agency, Highland Leader, the Architectural Heritage Fund, Foundation Scotland, the North Highland Initiative along with enormous community involvement and support.

In January 2021, the Trust employed a Development Manager who will now drive the ongoing development of the Mill.

Ensuring the future of the mill 

In the future, the John O’Groats Mill will serve as a community and cultural hub, where people can meet, learn and share, bringing  the Mill full circle. 

Historically, the  Mill was a community space. Everyone from the area brought their corn there to be milled and the mill acted as a natural meeting point where news and views would be exchanged. 

While preservation of the original is and will remain critical, the development and ongoing management of the Mill will ensure future proofing.  It was originally built with local stone and any remedial and additional work will follow that example. Modern technology will be used to monitor the impact of changing climate effects and an increased environmental footfall. As both a community hub and a visitor attraction, the area can expect much more in the way of vehicular movement. While appropriate parking measures are included in the plans, the Trust has also secured funding to increase access via a footpath leading from the main visitor attractions centre at John O’Groats.  

Plans for the future of the John O’Groats Mill are deliberately ambitious. An appropriately designed and environmentally conscious extension will allow the Mill to act as a community hub but also as a key part of the area’s visitor footprint, thus enhancing and supporting the economic growth and sustainability of John O’Groats. 

Alongside the Mill are buildings that originally formed part of the older mill and its grain store. These have been converted into holiday accommodation, again retaining much of their original features. This provides a valuable source of income, helping to sustain the financial viability of the Mill. 

The environs around the Mill are both ecologically and environmentally important and through consultation with the local biodiversity group, the sustainability of the whole area is secured. 

The mill’s legacy is coming full circle, a community engaging in its own future by appreciating its past, appreciating its environment and seeking to sustain its diversity against the pressures of today.

To learn more about the history of John O’Groats you can watch this video from the Wick Society. To find out more about the John O’Groats Trust and the work that they do you can visit their Facebook page