Rothiemay: Woollen Mill

Local Industries

  • Bridge of Isla woollen mill
  • Avochie quarry
  • Milltown meal mill
  • Hacklaw smiddy
  • Riddoch's sawmills

Benjamin Fearnside (1779-1858) was the son of a woollen manufacturer (also called Benjamin Fearnside) at Ossett in the Calder Valley south of Dewsbury in Yorkshire. About 1801 he moved north and married Carolina Montgomery (1779-1858). She was born in America while her father, Henry Montgomery was serving as an officer in the army.

*Key dates:-
  • 1776 American Declaration of Independence.
  • 1785 Edmund Cartwright invented the power loom.

Bridge of Isla Woollen Mill

Benjamin Fearnside (1779-1858) established a woollen mill at Bridgeton of Isla about 1808*.

The mill was waterpowered, with water taken from the River Isla at a weir and sluice a little west of the road bridge.

Carding machine
The carding machine now in Knockando mill

In 1841 Benjamin (62) described himself as a woolcarder. His household at that time included Carolina (62), Thomas (20) and grandson Benjamin (16), and also Charles Stuart (15) and Margaret Stuart (19).

Ten years later, in 1851, he was recorded as being a woolcarder/spinner, and the household consisted of himself and Carolina, daughter Grace (29), grand daughters Sarah Stuart (17) and Maria Stuart (15) who were employed as wool carders, grand daughter Georgina (7) and a domestic servant, Isabella Simpson (17).

By 1861 the business had expanded and was being run by his nephew James Fearnside (1801-1888) who described himself as a woolblend manufacturer. He was married to Ann Christie from Forres. His son Thomas (37) was employed as a wool spinner, and his daughters were Martha (25) and Grace (20). Grandaughters Ann (8) and Martha (6) and grandson James (4), and James Paterson (42), woolweaver, and Susan Knowles (13), servant, completed the household.

Rothiemay had the first Fearnside mill in Scotland but other Fearnside family mills followed including Gollachy at Rathven near Buckie  and Bogindreep near Strachan in Kincardineshire.

Bridge of Isla mill
In 1951 Roy Laidlaw commissioned this painting of the Bridge of Isla mill by artist S.J. “Lamorna” Birch R.A.
It hung in the managing director’s office in Robert Laidlaw and Sons in Keith during the 1960’s and 70’s, and was
used in Robert Laidlaw advertising from 1951 onwards. Picture: © W. Laidlaw

In 1882 the mill and the croft were purchased by Robert Laidlaw and family from Walkerburn on Tweedside. The Laidlaws continued manufacturing woollen blankets and tweeds at Bridge of Isla until they moved to the newly built Seafield Mills established at Keith in 1901.

A Robert Laidlaw advertisement in the Huntly Express in 1889

When Robert Laidlaw and Sons moved from Rothiemay and Dufftown to Keith, they installed larger machinery for the most part. The Mill in Keith was powered in 1901 by a Crossley shale oil engine, rather than water, so heavier machinery could be driven. The old lighter machinery and small looms, were therefore for the most part, redundant and quite a lot of the machinery from Rothiemay ended up at the mill at Knockando mill.

The weir on the Isla today. The tree marks the start of the mill lade.
Little now remains of the Bridge of Isla mill - the weir and mill lade have largely disappeared but some of the stone walls remain in the garden of the house. A row of grave stones in the old cemetery commemorate the Fearnside family.