Thirlage was the term used for the law in regard of the milling of grain for personal or other uses. Vassals in a feudal barony were thirled to their local mill owned by the feudal superior. People so thirled were called suckeners and had no choice but to use and help maintain the mill.

The term 'Thirl' originated from the feudal past when a thirl was a body servant, retainer or vassal to a noble or chief. The term is interchangeable with 'Carl' and indicates subservience to the feudal lord and feudal laws; the situation being not that far removed from the conditions of slavery.


Thirlage was the feudal law by which the laird {lord) could force all those vassals living on his lands to bring their grain to his mill to be ground, the justification was that an essential service was being provided at a great expense and had to be 'paid' for by the users. Additionally vassals had to carry out repairs on the mill, maintaining the lade and weir as well as conveying new millstones to the site. Such trees asbeech and particularly hornbeam were grown as a 'crop' to provide the necessary wood for the mill machinery.

The Thirlage Law was repealed in 1779 and after this many mills fell out of use as competition and unsubsidised running costs took their toll. This explain why so many mills ceased to be marked on maps after this date. Lambroch Mill for example was on the Annick Water near Stewarton in Ayrshire and apart from the weir and some other indications, it has entirely vanished, most likely because it was the thirlage mill for Lambroughton and its business went to Lainshaw or Cunninghamhead mill after the thirlage act was repealed.


The 'Sucken' was the area over which a mill held thirlage over tenants and a 'suckener' was a tenant thirled to a particular mill. The millers were obliged to 'police' the adherence of tentants to the thirlage laws as the income of the miller was based on that portion of the tenants grain that the miller was legally entitled to take for the act of milling the grain. The legal term 'astricted' was appilied to a tenant who was thirled or bonded to a particular mill. The term 'Out sucken' was given to a mill which ground corn from outside its thirl or sucken for whatever reason.


Multure, pronounced 'Mooter' was the name for the payment, a fixed proportion of the tenants grain, paid to the miller by the suckener to grind the corn. The term 'Dry multure' was often used, indicating the multure that a tenant had to pay, whether the grain was to be ground or not. Failure to take grain to the thirled mill was termed 'abstracted multure' and could result in the suckener being fined. The term 'bannock' denoted the payment to a miller's servant amounting to a handful of meal, in addition to that given as knaveship, this being a handful of cereal from each load milled. After the abolition of thirlage the term 'Lick of goodwill' or 'lock' was the term for the miller's payment for grinding the cereal, etc.


This was the payment, amounting to a year's rent, for entering into the miller's rights under the law of thirlage. This was a significant sum and the miller was often forced to insist on his rights of multure to make a reasonable living.


The Scots term 'Mill-bitch' was used for a bag hung near the millstones into which a dishonest miller would slip a handful of meal now & then. The 'Mill-ring' is the space between the millstones and the wooden frame. This space inevitably collected meal and was enlarged by unscrupulous millers to increase the amount that accumulated to their benefit. The term 'Ring the mill' was used in common discourse to mean a 'cheat'.


The legal requirement in Scotland for tenants to use the baron's mill meant that early leases of mills gave to the miller the legal right to break quern-stones which were being used in defiance of thirlage agreements. Many quern stones are found in a broken condition and the thirlage law may well explain this observation.

The 1799 Thirlage Act

The act allowed those suckeners bound by thirlage to make a one off payment that 'bought' them out of the various legal requirements:-

And whereas there is a kind of thirlage known in the law and practice of Scotland, called a thirlage of the invecta et illata, to which sundry towns, burghs, burghs of barony, villages or other places in that part of the kingdom and the inhabitants thereof are subject, which thirlage it is expedient to allow to be purchased by the persons subject to the same: Be it therefore enacted, that if any inhabitant or inhabitants of such town, burgh, village or place, shall be desirous to purchase an exemption from the said servitude of thirlage, and all and every the services and prestations incident thereto, to which the whole town, burgh, village or place is liable, from the proprietor of such mill or mills entitled to the same, it shall be lawful and competent to them to apply in manner above mentioned to the sheriff or steward depute of the county in which such town, burgh, village or place is situate, who shall take such proceedings and summon a jury in such manner as is herein-before particularly directed, which jury shall by their verdict fix and determine the full value in money of such right of thirlage in perpetuity; on which verdict and determination the said sheriff or steward depute or substitute shall pronounce decreet against the person or persons so petitioning or applying to him as aforesaid for the sum so fixed and determined by such jury; on payment of which to the proprietor of the mill, such town, burgh, village or place, or such inhabitant or inhabitants thereof, formerly subject to such thirlage, shall thenceforth be for ever freed and relieved from the same.

The Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc. (Scotland) Act 2000 finally ended Any obligation of thirlage which has not been extinguished before the appointed day is extinguished on that day.

Transporting millstones

Under thirlage the suckeners had to conveying new millstones to their thirled mill, sometimes over significant distances. The width of some of the first roads was determined by the requirement to have at least two people on either side of a new grindstone being transported, with a wooden axle called a 'mill-wand' passed through the hole in the centre.

Aid to the poor

Suckeners would place a small amount of grain in a bag at the mill which would be used to help feed the poor or those suffering hard times.

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