The life and death of a mill on the Don.


A couple of months ago, a small exhibition was organised by Aberdeen city council in the old Provost Skene’s House. I went along during my lunch hour because I wanted to conjure up a place that I poked around a while ago. We have different motives for exploring – sometimes to satisfy curiosity, have an adventure, experience the thrill of transgressing, to unlock a puzzle, or just take pleasure in making pictures. These all tend to fuse together at the time, but afterwards the photos are a way of evoking memories. It's surprising and depressing how quickly we forget.




The exhibition was devoted to Crombie – the firm who make the famous woollen overcoats. They were founded in 1805 and worked in the city for almost two centuries, until (having long since passed out of Scottish ownership) they were shut down by owners Illingworth Morris in 1991, and production moved elsewhere. The mills on the River Don were locked up, and a long time afterwards I stuck my nose in, while they were still lying empty. In fact, they lay like that for many years, and redevelopment only started quite recently. Little did I realise that afterwards I would see inside another woollen mill also owned by Illingworth Morris and similarly shut down, then unceremoniously flattened: Huddersfield Fine Weavers, at Kirkheaton. I’ve only just made the connection between Crombie and Illingworth Morris, but they were bought over decades ago, when Illingworth Morris was owned by the wife of James Mason, the famous American actor.




I’d more or less forgotten about the photos I took at Grandholm until I saw a flyer for the exhibition. So I located the prints, languishing at the bottom of a shoebox with all sorts of other stuff pressing down on them: a half-filled sketchbook, cuttings from magazines, photos of friends who’ve since dispersed to the points of the compass. The wallet of prints stirred up memories. I mind fine about my grandmother folding away woollen blankets made by Crombie (everything they bought was locally made in those days, and without the need for any entreaty to “Buy British”). My mum’s cousin, who served in the Gordon Highlanders during the War, and fought in the Palestine, used to wear a Crombie greatcoat at Remembrance Day. Crombie was once an integral part of Aberdeen's identity, and although it moved upmarket to become a luxury brand, many ordinary folk owned a suit or coat of Crombie cloth.




J&J Crombie were one of Aberdeen’s major employers, founded in 1805 at Cothal Mills near Fintray as wool spinners and weavers – Cothal is a hamlet a few miles upstream of Grandholm on the Don. Their dense woollen cloth was scoured and milled then spun and woven so that it was proof against the Scottish winter, which was why it was later adopted by the army. As Billy Mackenzie sang, Dusseldorf's an old place, and Aberdeen's a cold place… To meet increasing demand, power looms were installed in the 1850’s and a decade later the mill clothed the Confederate army during the American Civil War. Later still, senior spooks in the KGB wore Crombie coats, hence they were styled the “Russian Army Greatcoat”. During several wars, Crombie turned out khaki cloth for army blankets, uniforms and greatcoats – perhaps some remain yet, tucked away in Aberdeen’s lofts. The famous “British Warm” overcoat was created for the British Army during the Great War, and apparently it’s still made today – just not in Aberdeen. Meanwhile, Crombie's success meant that they outgrew the mills at Cothal, and in 1895, took over Grandholm Works, then expanded relentlessly.