James, Andrew and George Meikle
The Meikles were a family of agricultural engineers who were held in high esteem for many generations. As far back as 15th June 1686 the Old Scots Parliament passed an Act in favour of a John Meikle, Founder, who was the first person to introduce the art of iron-founding into Scotland.
James Meikle (fl. 1700s)
James was a millwright at Nether Keith in Haddington. His reputation as a technically able wright made him a desirable employee. In 1710 the Fletchers of Saltoun contracted him to go to Holland and take note of the machinery used there for removing the husks from barley, and for winnowing corn.
Andrew Fletcher had been impressed by this machinery, which he had seen on his travels, and he must have been inspired to have it brought to Scotland. At this time in Scotland removing barley husks was very slow and laborious work, carried out by pounding the grains in the hollow of a stone until the husks rubbed off. The barley made from the new mechanised method was called pot (or pearl) barley.
In the contract with James Meikle, he agreed to perfect himself in the art of “shieling barley”, he was also to “endeavour to instruct himself in any other useful trade or manufactory”. James also brought home with him the designs for constructing a barley mill, as well as Dutch fanners to winnow corn indoors. Winnowing is the process of separating the chaff from the grain. This was done at this time in barns which were open-ended to allow the wind to blow through, and blow away the chaff. The use of fans allowed this to be carried out much faster and it did not rely on the wind. This new method of cleaning the grain caused some controversy and was treated with suspicion. Not surprising when some clergy argued that only God was allowed to create wind.
The barley mill at Saltoun was the first in Britain; it was the only one of its kind in Britain, Ireland and America for forty years. The first pair of fanners was set up at Saltoun in 1720.
Andrew Meikle (1719–1811)
Andrew was born in 1719, the only surviving son of James Meikle. He married and settled at Houston Mill on the Phantassie Estate, by East Linton, owned by James Rennie. There he combined the occupations of farmer, miller and millwright. He set up his own mill at Phantassie, and a small workshop. He was interested in improving agricultural machinery and presumably in his workshop he built his prototypes. In 1768 he took out a patent for dressing and cleaning corn. This was one of the first patents taken out by a Scottish mechanic. In 1787 he is credited with inventing the drum threshing machine. His machine separated grain from straw, and threshed and winnowed it. It could be powered by horses, water or wind and it could handle up to forty bushels of corn an hour (a bushel is a dry measure of eight gallons of grain). His first machine was water-powered and the second one, built for James Rennie, was horse-powered, He patented the invention in 1788 and in the patent he describes himself as “engineer and machinist”.
Andrew Meikle must have received very little money from his inventions, as a subscription for his relief was started in 1809 by Sir John Sinclair. He raised £1500.
Andrew died on 27th November 1811 at Houston Mill and he is buried at the kirk of Prestonkirk, East Linton.
George Meikle (d. 1811)
George Meikle was one of at least eight children of Andrew Meikle and his wife Marjorie Mirrilees. George followed in his father’s footsteps and is best known for the invention of an ingenious water-lifting wheel, in 1787. This device was used to float peats from Blair Drummond Moss.
George died just two days after his father, on 29th November 1811.
Mills such as Preston Mill, painted here by HD Torrance, were the legacy of the Meikle family, though it’s uncertain whether they were involved with this one. It’s tempting to speculate that they were, since they lived within sight of this mill.