The history of the Kirkcowan waulkmills is inseparable from that of the Milroy family.
The covenanter Gilbert Milroy, who survived the experience of being transported and sold into slavery in the West Indies, rose to a position of authority on the plantation to which he was sent before returning to Galloway. He served as an elder in the Kirk of Kirkcowan until his death.
The original mill was probably established in the last two decades of the 18th century by John and Robert Milroy, the site being chosen because the softness of the Tarff Water made it particularly suitable for dyeing and milling. Also, the drop in the course of the river for the last two miles before it’s junction with the Bladnoch produced a fast enough current to provide ample power for driving the machinery.
Robert Milroy, who had served his time as a dyer under John Falconer of Mochrum, died in 1814. From documents in the Milroy family’s possession it would seem that construction of the new carding mill was under way then.
After Robert’s death, the affairs of the mill were in the hands of three of his six sons, William, Thomas, and Robert. They continued to expand and enlarge the mill, with major works being undertaken in 1822 and 1835.
In 1839, the official “Return of Factories” described the Waukmills as, thriving establishment employing 26 men and 13 women who were hard at work tending looms driven by a 12 h. p. water wheel.” The main products of the mills were plain and pilot cloths, plaidings, flannels, blankets, and tweeds, then becoming fashionable mainly through the influence of
Sir Walter Scott. These products were destined for the traditional markets of Lancashire and the west of Scotland. Lighter weight wool was earmarked for the transatlantic market .
William Milroy, old Robert’s grandson, modernised and expanded the mills during the 1880’s. He built new weaving sheds on the north side and replaced the water wheel with a coal—fired steam engine.
(This was much later replaced by electric power.) By the 1890’s, the time described as the heyday of the Galloway textile trade, the Kirkcowan Waukmills had become a large industrial complex and the major employer in the parish.
The mills continued to operate and provide employment under the direction of the Milroy family until after the Second World War, albeit not without incident.
In 1889, a fire broke out in the engine house causing damage estimated at between $600 and During the First World War, Douglas and William Hamilton were granted exemption to military service as they were key workers in the mill, but the military appealed against this and only William’s exemption was allowed to stand.
After the Second World War, a utility mark was put on everything to standardise quality.
Unfortunately, this standardisation was to such a poor level that it affected the market for the high quality goods produced by the Waukmills, and they were forced to close. Yet, as late as 1966, the plant was still being used for weaving and spinning by the Cree Mill Company of Newton Stewart.
Ian Donnachie, in “Industrial Archaeology of Galloway, describes the Waukmill as, “A long, three—storey range in granite and slate with cast—iron multi—pane windows. There are dormers to the attics.
The mill is claimed to be the best surviving example in Galloway of a plant that was enlarged and converted from water power to steam in the 1880’s.
In March, 1880, William Armstrong and Son Ltd. announced that they had moved their business from Dumfries to Tarff Mills, Kirkcowan, where they intended carrying on the customer trade in all departments.
The mill manufactured woollen blankets and was in operation until the early 1950′ s, when it was forced to close. The machinery was removed shortly after and the buildings have become ruinous, with little of the original mill remaining.
In 1895, William Armstrong wrote a pamphlet on weaving for the Scottish Home Industries Association which was translated into Gaelic for the highlanders of the Western Isles by Iain Whyte.
NOTES ON TEXTILE MILLS
Each mill, at the period of its greatest demand, would probably employ between 60 and 80 people , mainly Kirkcowan inhabitants. One resident can remember people being “imported.”
The mills built and owned many houses in the village which were rented at low cost by mill employees: e.g. after the Second World War an apprentice loom tuner earned 12s 6d – per week. Of this, 2s 6d ( 12%)) was deducted for rent; 7s 6d – he gave to his mother; he was left with 2s 6d (12%) spending money.