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Kinnoir Sawmill

The scream of the saw biting into timber is not a new sound for Kinnoir but rather one that has resonated through the Kinnoir woods on and off for many years. Although not popular with all residents of Kinnoir due to the noise, the Kinnoir sawmill today is a thriving Biomass operation run by AW Jenkinson.  

In these photos taken recently at the Kinnoir Sawmill two local lads, Ciaran Angus and Ryan Morrison show the scale of the operations.

But timber production and processing has long been carried out at Kinnoir and the Kinnoir Sawmill (and its mobile predecessors) have been a key part of the community of Kinnoir.

With the establishment of the Forestry Commission in 1919, many tracts of land in the north and North east of Scotland were planted with fast growing conifers trees. Timber stocks had become so depleted during the First World War that Parliament decided a radical approach to re-developing Britain’s woods was required and the Forestry Commission was given wide powers to acquire land  and regenerate Britain’s timber resources. For a more detailed history of the Forestry Commission click here

Fast growing is of course a relative term but the soil and the weather conditions in the north east provide a ideal home for these trees and so became a focus for the commission. Timber from the conifers was also considered ideal for the mining industry providing pit props for securing the roofs of the tunnels and boards for shoring up the sides of the shafts and workings to keep the miners safe.

Photo Credit Scottish Mining Museum

The process of turning the young fast growing conifers into useable timber, however, was more complex than might at first sight seem to be the case.

The first challenge, of course, was to cut and extract the felled trees from the forest. The trees had been planted very close to each other to maximise the use of the land so several rounds of "thinning" needed to take place to extract the smaller or twisted trees thereby giving the remaining trees space and light to grow tall and straight. The thinning and extraction had to be carried out carefully to ensure that the remaining trees were not damaged by the process.

So, who could carry out this delicate task with skill and finesse? Enter man and his horse! The skills and strength of the men who thinned the conifer forests were well known in the area. Carrying and operating a chainsaw all day every day built upper body muscles that would be the envy of many a body builder. The chain saw operators were also skilled in felling the trees in a way that no damage occurred to the remaining trees so that they could continue to grow and mature into more valuable specimens.

The horses were also skilled at extracting the felled timber and would work patiently with their "operators" to pull the logs out of the forest. The land that was used for timber was frequently steep and dangerous yet the surefooted Clydesdales were up to the task and worked safely and surely in all conditions. The felled trees were hooked up to chains which the horse then dragged out of the forest to a nearby clearing ready for removal to the sawmill. These horses were typically Clydesdales chosen for their strength, intelligence and patient natures. Clydesdales were being used in forestry operations long after they had been replaced by tractors on the farms of the North East of Scotland.

Transporting the newly felled logs to the sawmill was a difficult and expensive task in the past so, in the early days, it was more economical to bring the sawmill close to the area of timber extraction. The major timber company in the area was Riddochs of Rothiemay. This was a family run business with its main office in Rothiemay. They owned a number of "mobile" sawmills which were deployed in the forest near to where the timber was being extracted and were on site for as long as the timber was being extracted from that area of forest. "Mobile" in the case of these sawmills was another relative term as they were certainly not easy to move around. So it was really more a case of dismantling them and putting them together again on the new site. But once on site they provided a very efficient and convenient way of processing the timber being extracted from the forests.

Power for the mobile sawmill was provided by a tractor which was part of the "bill of materials" of the mobile sawmill. Power was delivered to the saw by a belt wrapped round the tractor's pulley. Those tractors had very few miles on their clock but accumulated many many hours of hard work driving the pulley which drove the saw. For some reason, the most popular model of tractor on the mill was the Fordson Dexta but who decided that or chose the model is not clear.     

Some of the tractors looked like this…….

But most looked more like this……

The saw millers on these mobile mills were highly skilled professionals who were compensated based on the quantity of quality timber they could extract from a given tonnage of logs. (Although they were paid directly for non-productive work such as setting up or moving the mill)  This arrangement worked for both the saw miller and the timber merchant and ensured that the best use was being made of the timber being extracted. Click here for an example of a saw miller’s time sheet.   

Nothing was wasted, though, as the strips of bark taken off the side of the logs were sold for firewood (known locally as "backs") and even the sawdust was sold for a variety of uses - including soaking up spilled beer in the pub or making the lines on the football pitch!!!!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

As time went past, road transport became more efficient so the balance of cost between moving the mills and moving the logs to the sawmill turned in favour of moving the logs. This happened gradually and came about as the mobile mills stayed for longer and longer on the same site. The site at Conniecleugh on the other side of the Deveron from Kinnoir was example of this where two mobile mills were stationed for many years.

Riddochs of Rothiemay’s first “permanent” sawmill site was at Mosstodloch near Fochabers. This had also been a mobile site but was gradually enhanced to become a permanent site and the main sawmill station for the company.

Mosstodloch as it is today……

© Will Anderson reused under Creative Commons Licence.

Mosstodloch as it was in its “heyday”…..

Photo credit

The scope of Riddoch’s operations covered a large area of the North East of Scotland and it was soon realized that a second permanent site would be required to cope with the volumes of timber being processed. The site at Kinnoir had been a temporary sawmill site on several occasions but its central geographical location made it an ideal site for another permanent site. Thus another temporary site “morphed” gradually into a permanent site during the 1970s and the permanent site at Kinnoir became established. This provided significant employment opportunities for workers from Kinnoir, Rothiemay and Huntly

Kinnoir Sawmill as it was in 1975.   

Photo credit family of George Dey c/o

In 1989, the family firm of AJ and WG Riddoch was acquired by their long time rivals James Jones Ltd. Jones had operated in a similar fashion to Riddochs but had focused more on the West of Scotland and the timber available there. With this acquisition, Jones acquired both the Mosstodloch and Kinnoir sawmills. Jones had a broader capital base than Riddochs and they invested significantly in equipment and in the modernisation of the Kinnoir sawmill turning it into an up to date and efficient saw milling enterprise.

Business conditions never stand still, however, and the demand for softwood timber products – especially for the mining industry - was diminishing. Softwood is, however, ideal for processing into other materials such as chipboard. In addition, by combining supplies of softwood with other re-cycled wood (branches, thinning, clippings etc.) green energy can be extracted from this material to supplement our ever growing demand for low cost energy.

The sawmill site at Kinnoir proved an ideal location for this work and in 2012 the site was acquired by A W Jenkinson as part of their Biomass operations and the Kinnoir sawmill is once again a thriving buzzing operation processing local timber and turning it into modern products and sustainable green energy.

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