THE quern songs, like all the labour songs of the people. were composed in a measure suited to the special labour involved. The measure changed to suit the rhythmic motion of the body at work, at times slow, at times fast, as occasion required. I first saw the quern at work in October 1860 in the house of a cottar at Fearann-an-leatha, Skye. The cottar-woman procured some oats in the sheaf. Roughly evening the heads, and holding the corn in one hand and a rod in the other, she set fire to the ears. Then, holding the corn over an old partially dressed sheep-skin, she switched off the grain. This is called 'gradanadh,' quickness, from the expert handling required in the operation. The whole straw of the sheaf was not burnt, only that part of the straw to which the grain was attached, the flame being kept from proceeding further. The straw was tied up and used for other purposes.
Having fanned the grain and swept the floor, the woman spread out the sheep-skin again and placed the quern thereon. She then sat down to grind, filling and relieving the quern with one hand and turning it with the other, singing the while to the accompaniment of the whiff ! whiff ! whirr ! birr ! birr ! birr! of the revolving stone. Several strong sturdy boys in scant kilts, and sweet comely girls in nondescript frocks, sat round the peat fire enjoying it fully, and watching the work and listening to the song of their radiant 'mother.
In a remarkably short space of time the grain from the field was converted into meal, and the meal into bannocks, which the unknown stranger was pressed to share. The bread was good and palatable, though with a slight taste of peat, which would probably become pleasant in time.
The second time I saw the quern at work was in January 1865, in the house of a crofter at Breubhaig, Barra, and it reminded me of Mungo Park's description of a similar scene in Africa. The quern was on the floor, with a well-worn cowhide under it. Two women sat opposite one another on the floor with the quern between them. The right leg of each was stretched out, while the knee of the other leg formed a sharp angle, with the foot resting against the knee-joint of the straight leg. A fan containing bere lay beside the women, and from this one of them fed the quern, while the other relieved it of the constantly accumulating meal. Each woman held the 'sgonnan,' handle, with which they turned the quern, and as they turned they sang the Quern Blessing here given, to a very pretty air. Then they sang an impromptu song on the stranger, who was hungry and cold, and who was far from home and from the mother who loved him.
When mills were erected, the authorities destroyed the querns in order to compel the people to go to the mills and pay multure, mill dues. This wholesale and inconsiderate destruction of querns everywhere entailed untold hardships on thousands of people living in roadless districts and in distant isles without mills, especially during storms. Among other expedients to which the more remote people resorted was the searching of ancient ruins for the 'pollagan,' mortar mills, of former generations. The mortar is a still more primitive instrument for preparing corn than the quern. It is a block of stone about twenty-four inches by eighteen by eight. The centre and one end of this block are hollowed out to a breadth of about six or eight inches, and a depth of four or five, leaving three gradually sloping sides. The grain is placed in this scoop-like hollow and crushed with a stone. When sufficiently crushed, the meal is thrown out at the open end of the scoop, and fresh grain is put in to follow a similar process. When using the mortar, the woman is on her knees, unless the mortar is on a table.
The meal obtained by this process is called 'pronn, pronnt, pronntach, min phronntaidh,' bruised meal, to distinguish it from 'gradan, gradanach, min ghradain,' quick meal, ' min bhrath, min bhrathain,' quern meal, and 'min mhuille,' mill meal. The crushed meal of the primitive mortar is similar in character to the crushed meal of modern commerce.
The quern and mortar are still used in outlying districts of Scotland and Ireland, though isolatedly and sparingly.