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Indigo Mills at Elie (C.P. Biggam)

Following a query from Etienne Rogier about “indigo mills” at Elie, and discussion with Graham Johnston of the Elie and Earlsferry History Society, investigations were carried out as far as the evidence allowed.

The source of the information is a brief paragraph in the Practical Mechanic’s Journal, series 2, volume 8, page 231, of 1863, in an article entitled ‘Power of Wind as Applied to Flour Mills’ by J. S. of Woolwich (full name unknown). After describing a new type of windmill “on the horizontal construction”, J. S. adds this sentence: “Several mills on the horizontal construction were in use at the town of Eli [sic.], in the litigious kingdom of Fife, at the end of the last century, and were employed in grinding indigo, but they have long since been removed”. This statement was repeated by later authors but no-one supplied references to support it.

The indigo dye, technically known as indigotin, can be obtained from certain shellfish, namely, whelks, and from certain plants, usually referred to as indigo or woad, and it produces colours which are mostly blue or purple. There is a tendency to use indigo for the tropical plant which produces quantities of blue dye, and to use woad for the less productive native plant of Britain and western Europe, but this terminological distinction has never been well observed.

Mr Johnston and the History Society know of the growing and milling of flax in Elie as late as the early 19th century, and there was a cottage industry of linen weaving in Earlsferry between 1820 and 1890, but there was no record of dye production in the area.

Intrigued by the mystery of the disappearing mills, I tried to investigate further but without any real success. However, one matter caught my attention, and that was the name of a small bay at the east end of Elie, which was separated from the main bay of Earlsferry and Elie by a rocky promontory. The small bay was named Wadehaven, but the alternative names of Wadd’s Haven and Woodhaven also occurred. Although the usual explanation given was some connection with General Wade, I wondered whether there could be a connection with woad, especially as woad-workers were often called wadmen. The fact that Wadehaven is on the eastern edge of town is also significant since woad-workers were usually made to live and work away from settlements because of the smell of their product. I approached a colleague in the University of Glasgow, Carole Hough, Professor of Onomastics, and she was able to supply some more information.

To stand a chance of successfully identifying the origin of a place-name, the researcher has to find early spellings but the earliest recorded form of Wadehaven can (so far) only be dated to 1775. For this reason, and the low number of occurrences recorded of the name, Prof. Hough and I are only offering suggestions but we cannot be sure of any explanation. The prime source of information is The Place-Names of Fife, vol. 3: St Andrews and the East Neuk, by Simon Taylor with Gilbert Markus (2009), pages 280–281. Under Wood Haven, the following occurrences are listed:

Wood Haven 1775

Wadehaven 1790s

Wadd’s Haven 1790s

Wood Haven 1828 and 1855

The discussion of this name includes the following: “The first element may be Sc wood. This was certainly the view proposed by the OS Name Book in the 1850s, which stated that it was called Wood Haven because it was ‘where vessels usually discharge wood’. But the two forms from the 1790s raise doubts about this origin. If we accept the explanation… involving the personal name Wade, there may be a connection between Wood Haven… and nearby Wadeslea, a street-name at the east end of Elie burgh”.

While looking up this name for me, Prof. Hough caught sight of something interesting in The Place-Names of Fife, vol. 2: Central Fife between the Rivers Leven and Eden, by Simon Taylor and Gilbert Markus (2008), pages 473–474. In a charter in the Cartulary of Dunfermline Abbey, the boundaries of a land-grant include “and thus northwards as far as the stone which is called Woadstane (Wadestan) and thus to the place which is called Knockmadder (Knokmadyr)”. The bounds start on the south-eastern side of Largo Law. In his comments on these names, Taylor points out that closely located names with (probably) woad and madder “suggests that at around this time (the first half of the fourteenth century or earlier) this north-west corner of NBN [Newburn] was especially involved in the production of cloth-dying plants”.

If woad had been grown locally in the medieval period, it is possible that, when such a crop was no longer viable (because of the import of exotic indigo) people turned to importing indigo themselves to continue an activity with which they were familiar. However, much of this is speculation.



It has been the conventional wisdom that Wadehaven and Wadeslea were ascribed to General Wade.  The General spent some time in Elie post 1745 and was reputed to have lived in a house which over looks the Harbour but with all his other duties in Scotland he cannot have lived in this house for very long.   It is documented that the bay which bears the names of Woodhaven or Wadehaven (otherwise Ruby Bay) was surveyed by the General with a view to finding a deep water anchorage for ships of war.  But if that is the accurate ascription of the name it seems strange that the bay suddenly acquired a name from someone who had surveyed it.  The alternative suggestion is that it was called Woodhaven on the basis that it was where reputedly ships discharged cargoes of timber.  Again this is a plausible explanation but it seems strange that the timber should have been discharged in a bay rather than at the actual harbour which forms the western edge of Woodhaven bay.  Prior to 1860 or so the harbour had a tidal causeway to it but that did not seem to prevent other ships from loading and discharging at the actual harbour.  Again its seems strange that a corruption of Woodhaven should have been Wadehaven and vice versa.

Wadeslea is the area of ground lying to the east of the older parts of Elie.  In 1950 it was surveyed and social housing built on it.  The first ascertainable mention of the area seems to have been in an ordnance survey map of  the late 19th century which was after the arrival of the railway line. Prior to that, the maps did not ascribe a name to this area of ground.  It may have been that it was common folklore that gave a  name to the field as was often the way in these days.  If that is accurate why the use of “Wade” ?  Was it part of the General’s fiefdom  ?  It is strange if it was since it is a good  quarter of a mile away from his known residence.  Further why should it bear the name of Wade’s field (lea)  He was not apparently  noted as a farmer.  Wadeslea itself is not adjacent to Wadehaven bay.  The suggestion must be that it was called Wadeslea or Woadslea or Waddslea by virtue of woad having been grown on the land.  If that is a possible interpretation then it make logical sense the bay would have been properly called Woadhaven or Wadhaven and it is but a short corruption to Wadehaven.  So if the bay was named after woad that begs the question as to whether the windmills referred to in the Journal of 1863 might have been alongside this Bay.  There is another possible reason to ascribe the mills to that area. The bay itself is very exposed to the prevailing south westerly winds and rises steeply from the sandy beach. Kite surfers have used the updraft from this Bay as a powerful take off point.  The wind therefore would be easily be  expected to be able to drive any horizontal windmills that might have been on the  rising ground beside the Bay.  There is one further adminicle.  To the  east of the Toft there was a linen/flax/lint mill driven by the overflow from Kilconquhar Loch which discharges into the Toft.  There was a thriving industry of weaving especially in Earlsferry between last 1820s and 1890s and about twenty such looms in Elie.  There would therefore have been a ready market not only for the product of the mill but also the dye that woad and woad mills could produce.

This is of course speculation and based on guesswork but it is suggested that the logic tends to suggest that  both Wadeslea and Wadehaven bay may have had associations with woad and woad mills.

(Nov 16)

3 thoughts on “Indigo Mills at Elie (C.P. Biggam)

  1. Quote “overflow from Kilconquhar Loch which discharges into the Toft”I think the loch discharges into the harbour if memory serves me. I had a drainage system put at the east end opposite the estate entrance (near the village sign which I had refurbished) the road drains connect into the drainage overflow which is controlled by a weir at the loch. Crosses road at an angle then heads through the village, could not trace exact route but I put a dye into the drain and it did exit into the harbour.

  2. Could a link be established between Spinningdale Mill on Dornoch Firth and Elie? From the Dornoch parish records – on the 24th December 1802 “Capt.James Scot of the Minerva of Ely, was married to Miss Murdina Boog youngest daughter of Mr James Boog Skelbo.” in Dornoch In 1841, James and Murdina were living on South Road, Elie.

  3. Hi….do you have more info on captain james scott?
    who married murdina.
    He is 5x my great grandfather.

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