Knocking stone

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A knocking stone.

Knocking stones, Knockin'-stanes[1] or Clach chnotainn in Scottish Gaelic were exposed bedrock stone or boulders[2] with a pot-shaped concavity cut into them used for husking barley and other cereals before the introduction of other methods of milling grain or when only small quantities of cereal were processed.[3]


Knocking or husking stones were generally replaced by quern stones which were in turn were eventually replaced by water and wind powered mills. They were once used by every farming household and abandoned examples are still to be found in Ireland, the Highlands and the Western Isles.[4] In 1635 however the Chronicle of Perth records how they still had small scale use – "Thair wes great skairstie of wictuall, and elding mylnis gaed not, and thair wes no passage nor travelling to bring ony in. At that tyme aill wes waid skant. They knokit malt in knoking stones."[5]

Knocking stones remained in use until the end of the nineteenth century in the Highlands and islands and elsewhere in rural areas.[6][7]

Structure and function[edit]

A relatively large pot-shaped cavity or knocking well[8] was cut into exposed bedrock or boulders, grain was added and pounded with a rounded stone[9] or with a hardwood mell on a long handle until the husks were knocked off or hulled and easily removed.[10] Oak was often used for the head and pine as the handle of the mell.[11]

A knocking stone at the Greenbank Garden.

Apart from preparing barley grain or pot-barley[12] it was also bruised in preparation for brewing and roots, etc. that could be pounded for eating or as food for animals, especially in the winter months.[13] Green gorse or furze needles were also pounded for use as fodder for horses.[14][15]

The finished product after pounding oats was known as ‘knockit bere’ and could also be used for making a broth with the addition of beef or mutton.[16] Bere was a primitive form of oats. The pounded barley grains were more often used for baking bannocks than for making bread in Scotland.[17]

Being made of stone many have survived after their primary use ceased and some had secondary uses such as drinking troughs for poultry, etc.[18][19] Local stone was used ranging from granite, schist and sandstone to marble.[20] An example of the size of the knocking well in a knocking stone is 0.25m in diameter by 0.15m in depth.[21]

One example of a knocking stone at the old St Macarius[22] chapel site of Mackrikil near Dailly in Ayrshire has a prominent cross carved on one side that may have been intended to bless or protect the barley, etc. that was processed in it.[23][24][25] Locally it was known as the 'font' and that indicates an understandable confusion with a stoup used to hold holy water for baptism. The addition of a religious symbol to a stone used to prepare food is also recorded for quern stones as one was discovered at Dunadd in Scotland which has a cross carved into the upper stone. This example has a high quality of finishing which reflects its 'cost' and enhances its symbolic value and social significance. The cross is likely to have 'protected' the cereal and the resultant flour from evil, such as fungal rust or ergot. The religious association with knocking stones may be that the process of making bread produces the staple of life.[26]

The pounding action of the cereals over a period of time sometimes resulted in the base of the knocking stone being knocked out and the knocking stone discarded.[27]

Some had basic stone lids or covers made of other materials such as wood.[28] William Wallace is said to have rested on a knocking or husking stone in the village of Longforgan during his flight from Dundee following an incident in which he had killed the English governor's son. The stone and its lid are preserved in the Dundee Museum.[29]

The knocking stone was usually kept in the barn and was seen as a precious family heirloom that was always taken with a family if they moved. The mill or beetle had a round or oval-shaped end to it.[30]

Some knocking stones are found at the sites of the temporary mountain summer dwellings known as shielings.[31]

Cupstones may be represent a similar function to knocking stones for the processing of smaller quantities of seeds, etc and sometimes having the advantage of being portable. They may have been identified as examples of cup and ring mark stones on occasions.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Highland History & Culture
  2. ^ Knocking Stone
  3. ^ Ayr & Gall Arch Assoc p.3
  4. ^ Grigson, p.223
  5. ^ Ayr & Gall Arch Assoc p.3
  6. ^ Foula Heritage
  7. ^ Scotland's Rural Past – Inverclyde.
  8. ^ A Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language
  9. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language
  10. ^ Ayr & Gall Arch Assoc Vol. 7. p.3
  11. ^ Highland History and Culture
  12. ^ Highland History and Culture
  13. ^ Ayr & Gall Arch Assoc Vol 7. p.3
  14. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language
  15. ^ Grigson, p.224
  16. ^ Border reivers Stories
  17. ^ Future Museum
  18. ^ Ayr & Gall Arch Assoc Vol. 7. p.3
  19. ^ Dornoch History Links
  20. ^ ACFA Tiree Report
  21. ^ Brotherfield Knocking Stone on Canmore
  22. ^ Ayr & Gall Arch Assoc Vol. 3. p.99
  23. ^ Smith, p.208
  24. ^ Ayr & Gall Arch Assoc Vol. 3. p.3
  25. ^ Ayr & Gall Arch Assoc Vol. 3. p.104
  26. ^ Ewan Campbell, A cross-marked quern from Dunadd and other evidence for relations between Dunass and Iona, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 5, no. 117 (1987), pp. 105 – 117.
  27. ^ Pettinain Knocking Stone
  28. ^ Dundee Museum
  29. ^ Dundee Museum
  30. ^ The Lore of Scotland
  31. ^ geograph
  • Archaeological and Historical Collections relating to Ayrshire & Galloway. Volume III. 1894. Edinburgh : Ayr & Gall Arch Assoc.
  • Archaeological and Historical Collections relating to Ayrshire & Galloway. Volume VII. 1894. Edinburgh : Ayr & Gall Arch Assoc.
  • Grigson, Geoffrey (2010). The Shell Country Alphabet. London : Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-141-04168-1.
  • Smith, John (1895). Prehistoric Man in Ayrshire. London : Elliot Stock.