A fine example of a corn kiln can be found at Torgarve. This will feature in a planned future Archaeological Trail. Other examples of kilns can be found at Rhuroin, Ardheslaig, Fearnmore and Cuaig.
Corn kilns are a little-known archaeological feature. We don’t know when they were first used, but they appear to have continued up to the end of the 19th century. It is believed that they are mostly associated with what is known as ‘post-mediaeval settlement’ i.e. the pattern of townships and farmsteads that existed until the clearances or improvements moved people onto crofting areas, villages or emigrant ships. Every township or farmstead would have had at least one corn kiln.
They are circular structures, with a drying platform over a bowl-shaped chamber. Heat from the fire was carried through a flue and rose through the drying floor, where the grain had been spread on a bed of straw. Kilns were often built into slopes or banks, facing the prevailing wind. In some areas these stood alone. Elsewhere they were built into a small kiln barn where winnowing and storage could also be carried out.
There is very little written or oral evidence for the use of the kilns. It seems that each household would take it in turns to light the fire, using their own fuel, to toast the grain until it was dry and brittle enough to grind. The grinding could have been by hand, using a quern, or in a small click mill associated with the township, or at a larger mill serving a wider community. On the west coast the grain would have been oats. The old men would have sat tending the fire, making sure it didn’t get too hot and burn the grain, and putting the world to rights.
The Applecross kilns all have a small annexe, just large enough for the fire and a small sitting area. This is slightly different from most of the examples I’ve seen elsewhere and possibly a local adaptation dictated by weather and building materials. They seem to be remote, almost hidden in the modern landscape, but 200 years ago they would have been close to the areas of settlement and crop growing. The Rhuroin kiln, for example, is now hidden in woodland, but it’s only a few decades ago that a hay crop was being taken just above it
But were they all used for oats? Almost certainly kilns were also used for drying malt for brewing and distilling. The more remote, hidden kilns were probably used in illicit distilling. The kiln built into the cave at Cuaig is probably the same as the one written about by Seton Gordon in ‘Highways and byways in the west Highlands’: ‘On the further shore of this bay is a cave, accessible only at low tide, where a whisky still was hidden in former days, but the smugglers have long gone and now the rock pigeons which roost in the cave have the place to themselves’