For over two hundred years, the Scutch Mill was a familiar sight, dotted throughout the Ulster countryside. Scutching was usually carried out in the autumn, after the flax was retted and the scutched fibres sold in November, when rents were due. According to W H Crawford's figures, there were 1,400 Scutch Mills in Ulster in 1868, falling to about 600 in 1914.

In Ulster scutching was always done on a commission basis by the scutcher for the grower. Scutch Mills were traditionally powered by water wheels, although steam driven mills were not uncommon.

The Scutch Mill owners were often regarded as rogues by local farmers. The cause of the mistrust usually being in the fact that payment for the scutching was often on the understanding that the miller kept the tow that came off the flax. This agreement often had a weakness when the scutching appeared to produce more tow than good flax. Excessive tow did not suit the miller's employees either, as the hired scutchers were only paid for each good stone of flax scutched and nothing for the tow.

Scutching Terminology

  • Pig Tail - Chewing Tobacco.
  • Bridle - Worn on hand as protection (often a twist of flax).
  • Shous - Chaff like waste left after scutching often used as a fuel instead of turf.
  • Pause - Fine dust caused by scutching.
  • Crimper - Mangle like rollers used to crush the retted flex.
  • Tow - Short poor quality fibre used for coarse fabric and ropes.
  • Stock - flat iron partition over which the scutcher holds the flax.
  • Handles - Propeller like wooden blades which beat the fibre from the waste.
  • Stone Box - A wooden shelf which held approximately one stone of scutched flax.
  • Crick - A scutcher's handful of flax. 8 - 10 cricks usually produced one stone of good fibres.
  • Kiln Fire - Made by laying a thorn stick horizontal on an open hearth and at its end a second stick was placed vertically. Shous were then pressed round the two sticks and when the sticks were withdrawn a small flue remained, forming a kiln. When lighted the flue produced a forced draught through the fire, causing it to glow brightly. Some time ten glass whiskey bottles were used in place of the thorn sticks.

Last of the Damask Weavers

John McAtasney works at his loom
Click clack, click clack, it sings a rhythmic tune,
Of market days, and scutcher's ways, prices bleachers paid,
Press the treadle, lift the warp, weave the linen thread.

John McAtasney works at his loom,
Click clack, click clack, it sings a storied tune
Of old days, old ways, traditions lost in time,
Press the treadle, lift the warp, weave a damask fine.

John McAtasney, last of his line,
To and fro, to and fro, his shuttle tells a rhyme,
Of Flemish men and Huguenots, and weavers long since dead
Press the treadle, lift the warp, weave the linen thread.

Dedicated to John McAtasney, last of Ulster's Damask Weavers.
Ken McElroy

The Scutcher's Song

The miller is happy
I know by his song
The flax is the finest
Strong fibre and long
As the water wheel turns
Drives the broad belts around
Good flax in the stone box
Short tow on the ground.

I've welts neath the bridle
My knuckles are sore
Still the handles keep beating
Piling shous on the floor
As the water wheel turns
Drives the broad belt around
Good flax in the stone box
Short tow on the ground.

Dry shous for the widow
Makes her kiln fire red
Dry shous for the tinker
Makes a soft cosy bed
Still the water wheel turns
Drives the broad belts around
Good flax in the stone box
Short tow on the ground.

There's pouse in my old lungs
And pouse in my hair
Pouse on the crimpers
Thick pouse on the air
As the water wheel turns
Drives the broad belts around
Good flax in the stone box
Short tow on the ground.

I chaw on the pig tail
Drink an odd slug of rum
Hold a strick on the stock
As the blades spin and hum
Still the water wheel turns
Drives the broad belts around
Good flax in the stone box
Short tow on the ground.

Good flax for the spinner
To spin the best thread
Good thread for the weaver
Fine sheets for a bed
Still the water wheel turns
Drives the broad belts around
Good flax in the stone box
Short tow on the ground.

Ken McElroy



Sources WH Crawford and Michael McCaughan