The Priory and the wider community would have used the mill for grinding corn into meal. Barley (bere), oats and pease would have been the staple food crop, with wheat only becoming widely used towards the end of the nineteenth century. In the same vicinity as the mill there was a large granary three storeys high, a teind-barn for the storage of produce given to the priory as taxes from the lands of the Priory Acres on the south side of the town, and a brew-house. Only a small part of the granary remained in 1683 but the tiend-barn was still evident until the mid-nineteenth century, although no longer in use.
The open lade flowed through St Leonards grounds into a substantial mill pond adjacent to the mill to the east, which provided its power. It is unclear where the mill wheel would have been situated but it is likely to have been on the western wall of the mill.
Throughout the 1500s Abbey Mill was feued by the Priory to three generations of the Cairns family. During that time the miller was granted a near-by croft and was expected to maintain a fair price for grinding the corn of the the citizens of the town and the brewery. In 1596 John Cairns surrendered the feu to the town and soon after the mill was purchased by the burgh of St Andrews.
There are few references to Abbey Mill during the seventeenth century and one possible explanation might be the political unrest and decline of the town following the Reformation in Scotland in the late sixteenth century. The poor condition of the town is described in 1697 in a document proposing to move the university from St Andrews to Perth and the condition of the lade is noted as ‘neasty and unwholesome’. At the turn of the eighteenth century Dr Samuel Johnson writes ‘The city of St Andrews, when it lost its archiepiscopal pre-eminence, gradually decayed: one of its streets is now lost and in those that remain, there is the silence and solitude of inactive indigence, and gloomy depopulation.’ Another possible reason for fewer references to the mill is that during this time wheat was replacing oats, barley and pease in the field. It was stored as grain for export as a cash crop and was not for local consumption. This would have reduced demand for local milling.
In the late eighteenth century wheat bread became more affordable for everyone and the Incorporation of Bakers, one of the seven guild and craft trades of St Andrews, leased Abbey Mill in 1794. They completely rebuilt it in 1832 at a cost of £1000 and later converted it to a steam powered mill. It was now a substantial three storey building with a dominating chimney. The Baker Trade worked the mill for nearly seventy years but when the Burgh Trading Act of 1846 came into force exclusive trading rights for guild and craft members ceased and trading in the town was opened up to a more competitive market.
Wheat flour becoming more widely available from imported sources, suggests that the mill became less viable and from 1861 it was sold several times in quick succession, its value declining at every sale and eventually was sold to The Caledonian Oil Mills of Dundee for a meagre £75. At this time it was producing oil cake, a by-product of oil extraction from seed (possibly from flax) where the leftover residue is compacted into blocks for animal feed.
During the mid nineteenth century Sir Hugh Lyon Playfair utilised the lade for ornamental gardens in the grounds of St Leonards where a series of fountains were fed by elevated cisterns supplied by water pumped by an undershot water-wheel. The mill lade was covered over along the section in front of Bishopshall around 1868 but was still open to the east in 1893 as it flowed into the mill pond.
Abbey Mill was still in use in 1895 but by 1897 it had been demolished. In 1900 a school sanatorium for infectious diseases was built a few meters to the east of the Abbey Mill site. The mill pond was drained and landscaped to form a sheltered garden that preserved the shape of the pond perimeter and the mill lade was covered over. Refurbished in 2012 the building is now part of St Leonards Junior School.
- St Andrews Cathedral, St Andrews Priory, Abbey Mill; online at RCAHMS
- R N Smart; “Notes on the Water Mills of St Andrews” (1989) in “Three Decades of Historical Notes” (ed. M Innes & J Whelan, 1991)
- “Bere” online at Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language
- E Gauldie; “The Scottish Country Miller 1700-1900” (1981)
- J Grierson “Saint Andrews as it was and as it is; Being the third edition of Dr James Grierson” (1838) (University of St Andrews) online at Google Books
- “Teinds (tithe) Barn” Encyclopaedia Britannica Vol II (1771) online at Google Books
- “Feu Charter by James, perpetual commendator of the priory of the monastery of St Andrews in favour of Henry Kairnis (Cayrnis)” (1549) online at St Andrews University Archives
- Ordnance Survey; 6″ Series Map Teinds Barn (1855) online at National Library of Scotland
- Ordnance Survey; large scale Scottish town plan Abbey Mill (1854) online at National Library of Scotland
- “Precept of Clare Constat by Robert Bishop of Caithness, infefting John Kairnis as son and heir of the deceased Henry Kairnis in two mills” (1576) online at St Andrews University Archives
- “Instrument of Sasine transferring the Abbey Mills to the burgh, St Andrews” (1621) online at St Andrews University Archives
- C J Lyons; “The History of St Andews Ancient and Modern” (1838) online at Google Books
- Letter to the provost of St Salvator’s College concerning the proposed move of St Andrews University to Perth” (1697) online at St Andrews University Archives
- St Andrews Baxters’ Book (1548-1861) online at St Andrews University Archives
- Ordnance Survey; 25″ Series Map Oilcake (1893) online at National Library of Scotland
- “Oilcake” online at Encyclopaedia Britannica
- John H Wilson; “Nature Study Rambles Round St Andrews” (1910) online at Forgotten Books
- “Records of St Leonard’s College” (1215-1901) online at St Andrews University Archives
- Ordnance Survey; Large Scale Scottish Town Plan Mill Lead (1893) online at National Library of Scotland
- B Bushnell; “Early days at St Leonards” (2012) online at St Andrews Preservation Trust