The bere line – rhymes with hairline

Rhymes with hair line …..

In Landrace 1 – bere the query arose as to whether there was a bere line from the neolithic (late stone age), a line of transmission of bere (barley) seed from the first settlers in these regions to the present day. Another question was when bere and barley became  distinct – they are the same plant species, but just look a bit different, close up.

So since bere is our most famous and still-grown-in the-wild-but-only-just cereal landrace, the Living Field will explore the bere line as a fairly random walk through time, backwards and forwards that is,   putting facts and photos on this web site as we find them.

At some point in the future, we might order them into a chronological list, starting with the earliest and ending with the most recent, but ‘random’ suits us for now.

Here’s an image of bere in the Living Field garden, a cereal beauty!

Bere head in the Living Field garden (Living Field collection)
Bere head in the Living Field garden (Living Field collection)
Links to articles:
Landrace food

{Last update: 25 May 2017]




Bere in Lawsons’ Synopsis 1852

Lawson and Son’s bere and barley varieties, 1836 and 1852

In their Synopsis of the Vegetable Products of Scotland (1852), Lawson and Son list the names and characteristics of all varieties of crops and other useful plants known to have been grown or tried by them or their correspondents in Scotland. The 1852 Synopsis built on their earlier Agriculturist’s Manual (1836). They must have been growing all these different types of plant in their experimental gardens and plots near Edinburgh throughout the 1830s and 1840s if not earlier. Their Synopsis was a major achievement. It has not been surpassed.

Was bere listed?

Under barley, ‘Common Bere’ is listed among the four-rowed barleys (see note below on four- and six-rowed barley), but of particular interest are several other types that appeared very close to bere. Since most of these types were kept and grown from saved seed, they made a set of landraces, certainly not pure and probably overlapping in many characteristics.

Title page of the Synopsis of 1852, scanned image set on a field of bere in greyscale (Living Field collection)
Title page of the Synopsis of 1852, scanned image set on a field of bere in greyscale (Living Field collection)

So was common bere a distinct type? Lawson and Son frequently used it as a standard, comparing others to it in terms of structure and timing. For example, there were types that looked the same as bere growing on mainland Europe, one of which was ‘probably the same variety’. Then there was the higher yielding ‘Victoria bere’, and several naked forms (the ‘husk separating from the grain in thrashing, as in common wheats’), including ones said to be superior to the ‘Old Scottish four-rowed naked’. There were also several four-rowed types originating from other parts of the world, outside Europe.

Was there more than one bere landrace?

Their account, while not mentioning separate landraces within the bere grown in Scotland, suggests a situation more complicated than a single class of northern barley landrace that was generally called bere.  The name ‘Victoria bere’ suggests bere could be of different forms. The Living Field has not yet found evidence from subsequent records of what happened to the various bere-like barleys. Did any become more widely grown? Were they all classed as bere in some future time?

In the Lawson’s time, and for another century, oat was the main cereal here, but as barley increased in area and overtook oat to become the most widely grown crop today, it was mainly the two-rowed barley that came through. Certainly, most of the four-rowed recorded by Lawson and Son seem to have disappeared.

So – from the Lawsons’ books and records – bere in Scotland in the 1800s was structurally distinct from two-rowed barleys, but was not   that distinct from a range of bere-like forms grown on mainland Europe and beyond.

The Lawsons’ books also give evidence of the wealth of international connexions in the seed trade and in the desire of farming to seek improved crop varieties wherever they could be found, whether from a few unusual ears in a field in Scotland or from occasional samples from Nepal, Morocco or … the list is endless.

Further details of bere and other four-rowed barleys

Lawson and Son distinguished four-rowed, six-rowed, two-rowed and an usual type named ‘fan’ or ‘sprat’ barley.

Presumably reflecting the usage at that time, they classed bere and several other barley types as four-rowed. In their earlier Agriculturist’s Manual (1836) they write of Common Bere and types similar to it – ‘middle grains on each side forming a distinct straight row; lateral ones forming a kind of double row towards the base, but uniting so as to form one row towards the extremity of the spike; so that instead of being named four or six-rowed, they might with more propriety be named four and six-rowed barleys.”

Common bere is described as ‘ear about two and a half inches long, containing about 60 grains … and ‘awns or beard about three and a half inches long, adhering to the grain’. In their Agriculturist’s Manual, they state the bere grown in 1835 in trial plots in Edinburgh was sown 7 April, in ear 27 June (81 days) and ripe 12 August (127 days).

The description of the type referred to as Victoria bere suggest attempts to improve the existing landrace. This type ‘produces longer straw, is longer eared, often containing 70 to 100 grains”. Where did it come from? A Mr Fulton, in Ayrshire, is credited with ‘bringing the Victoria bere under the notice of cultivators in this country’. He obtained a few ears of it from the Belfast Botanic Gardens in 1836 and he must have bulked seed for extensive trialling from those ears.

Several others are compared with common bere. Winter white has ears thicker and longer than bere, and its grain sample is coarser. Sown in the autumn it acts like a modern winter variety, ripening earlier than the spring types, but it can also be sown in spring, ripening later. Winter black also had ears larger than bere, but of a ‘black or dark bluish colour’ best sown autumn because if sown late in spring it will not mature the same year.

The variety Square is evidence of similar varieties to bere grown on mainland Europe, being cultivated in France and Germany. It differed from the common bere by being ‘three or four days sooner ripe, and having a thinner skin’. There authors suggest it is probably the same variety (as common bere).

Also, the variety Naked (also known as Siberian barley), which superseded the ‘Old Scottish Four-Rowed Naked‘, which is ‘still a favourite in many districts of Scotland’. Naked’s ears are similar in shape to the common bere but rather more distinctly six-rowed, containing a much greater number of grains. It was grown extensively in the north of Europe, and even in parts of France, and despite ‘its cultivation now almost abandoned … it certainly deserves a fair trial in this country, particularly in the north of Scotland, where it might form a valuable acquisition on account of its earliness, being ripe about a week before the Common Bere’.

Of the 11 other four-rowed barleys listed, some are from overseas, for example African also known as Tangier or Morocco barley (stated as no longer cultivated), Bengal, Nepaul or Himalayan introduced 1817 and Peruvian (described as a superior six-rowed).

Note on Six rowed barley

Entries on six-rowed barley include only two types, one of which is imported from China, but appears the same as the other listed, True Six-Rowed Barley. They describe the awns of this adhering to the grains ‘with great tenacity’ and ‘the coarsest in sample of any of the barleys, but hardy and prolific’, sown as a winter or a spring type, and nearly a fortnight longer to maturity than bere.


Peter Lawson and Son. 1852. Synopsis of the vegetable products of Scotland. Edinburgh: Private Press of Peter Lawson and Son

Title page: Prepared for the Great Exhibition and dedicated to William Jackson Hooker, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew. Peter Lawson and Son describe themselves as ‘Seedsmen and Nurserymen to the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland’. [The notes above are from a copy of the original book. The text is also available as a scanned version – search for its title at Google Books].

Peter Lawson and Son 1836. The Agriculturist’s Manual. Edinburgh, London and Dublin.

Full title: The Agriculturists’s Manual ; being a familiar description of the Agricultural Plants Cultivated in Europe including practical observations respecting those suited to the Climate of Great Britain ; and forming A Report of Lawson’s Agricultural Museum in Edinburgh by Peter Lawson and Son, Seedsmen and Nurserymen to the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland. Available online at biodiversitylibrary and at


Further sources on Bere and barley  at the Living Field can be found at the following page: The bear line – rhymes with hairline

Author/contact for this page:

Thorburn’s diagrams

The bere line – rhymes with hairline

Thomas Thorburn used diagrams to get a point across: for example, diagrams  in the form of a squares to represent large numbers of things. If the reader was no good with figures, then they might get a better idea by comparing two squares of different size to see which was larger and which smaller, and by how much.

His “Diagrams, Agricultural Statistics of Scotland for 1854” was based on agricultural census data collated by the Highland Society and gives areas grown with various crops and output in total bushels of grain and in bushels of grain per acre, including those for barley and bere.

Title page of ‘Diagrams’ by Thomas Thorburn, set by the Living Field on a greyscale image of an Orkney bere field (Living Field)

Bere (or bigg) and barley are clearly distinguished in the pages of Diagrams as different crops.


The agricultural census in Diagrams tells us much about bere and barley in the 1850s.

  • Bere was grown mostly in the north and west, but occurred in most agricultural census regions. Farmers throughout Scotland would have been familiar with it.
  • The area in Scotland sown with bere was just less than 10% or one-tenth that sown with barley.
  • Yields of barley and bere, when expressed in modern units were both 1.5-2.0 tonnes per hectare (t/ha), compared to present national average yields of 5-6 t/ha for spring barley.
  • In Scotland as a whole, bere yields were a bit less than those of  barley (about 80% or 90% depending on how yield was calculated), but where they were both grown in the same area, as in some northern and north-eastern regions, their yields were similar.
  • Bere has now almost disappeared as a commercial crop, whereas barley is the most widely grown corn in Scotland, going mainly to malting and animal feed.

Where was bere grown in the 1850s?

The area grown with bere in 1854 was about 9% of the area of barley. So in the whole of Scotland, just over ten times more barley was grown than bere. And while most bere was grown in the north and north-east, in places such as Aberdeen, Orkney and Shetland and Caithness, it was grown in a small area in many other places, including areas such as Haddington which are considered to be high-yielding. (The names Aberdeen, Orkney and Shetland, Haddington, refer to census areas.)

Here are some figures. The area grown with bere in census regions was, at the top end, Aberdeen 5322 ac, Orkney and Shetland 2922 ac, Caithness 2710 ac, Argyll 1888 ac; and at the bottom end, Perth 502 ac, Haddington 40 ac and Roxburgh 6 ac. The abbreviation ‘ac’ refers to acre, which is about 40% of the hectare, the present metric unit (1 acre = 0.4047 hectare; a hectare can be visualised as a square of 100 m by 100 m).

For barley, the figures at the top end were Fife 27,938 ac, Forfar 25,222 ac, Perth 23, 710 ac, Berwick 16,576 ac; while figures in the north and west were Orkney and Shetland 149 ac, Caithness 265 ac and Bute 389 ac.

What did it yield

Thorburn gives yield in bushels per acre, bushels being a measure of dry volume, used for grain, and acre being a unit of area widely used until recently, and still used locally. He gives the total bushels produced in each census region (from which bushels per acre can be calculated by dividing bushels by the area of the region) and in a separate diagram, he gives bushels per acre for each region. The two estimates are not always the same, so here we use Thorburn’s bushels per acre figures rather than our calculated figures.

Using standard conversion factors and our estimate of 1 bushel of bere = 21.8 kilograms (see Light on bushel), the national average yield of bere was 1.77 t/ha (tonnes per hectare) and of barley 1.93 t/h, so the yield of bere was just more than 90% (nine tenths) of the yield of barley.

The yields vary between regions, but where both barley and bere are grown together, especially in the north and west, the yields are not that different. In Caithness, for example, barley is 36.0 bushels per acre and bere 36.5 bushels per acre.


In Diagrams as it appears online, there is no description of the methods by which the census was conducted. It is presumed the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland did the work and handed the information to Thorburn who constructed his diagrams.

The yields of crops would have been difficult to measure consistently in the field or on the farm. Harvested grain differs in water-content depending on the weather, the locality and the variety of the crop. And grain also will differ in how ‘clean’ it is , how free of the bits and pieces of plant material that may be harvested with it. Today, yields reported in the annual census are given to a stated water content; so if the actual content measured in the combine harvester or in the grain store differs from this stated content, then the mass has to be corrected to allow comparison of near-dry mass between fields, farms and regions. No indication is given in Thorburn of how the dryness and cleanliness of the grain were standardised across regions.

The way the bushel was measured also probably varied. Perhaps some farms used a standard bushel measure (e.g. a barrel or basket) whereas others might have used a container, such as a cart, that they knew held a given number of bushels.

And then the areas sown with the crops were stated very precisely, sometime to several hundred thousand acres and three quarters. But were all fields measured so precisely? What if crops were grown in strips or parts of fields – was the area grown with each strip or part measured? It is difficult today to measure accurately the area of all fields in Scotland sown with a particular crop – and that is with all the official demands to record what was grown where and when.

Despite these uncertainties, the census was a major achievement. It must have taxed the Highland Society’s officials and local organisers. And they probably did have a very good appreciation of areas and outputs. But in some regions they appear to have come up against difficulties that were too great – for example, the yield of bere in Orkney and Shetland is omitted from Thorburn, despite much bere being grown there.

Sources and References

Thorburn T.  1855. Diagrams, Agricultural Statistics of Scotland for 1854. London: Effingham Wilson.

Scanned images of Diagrams appear online, for example through the Bodlean Libraries at the University of Oxford, as in the following pdf file: But not all the pages appear to be viewable!

There is also a recent reissue of one of Thorburn’s books: Diagrams, illustrative of Facts, Principles & Theories. Paperback by Nabu Press, published 2012. [Ed – we have not viewed this book and have no information on whether it contains any agricultural statistics.]

The Scottish Records Association has a page on the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland with references to that time:
[] Ed: possible issues with this web site, found 12 March 2017, enquiries in progress.

And the following should lead directly to a pdf file on the above:
[] Ed: possible issues with this web site, found 12 March 2017, enquiries in progress.

Bere and barley at the Living Field

Links to other Living Field entries on bere and barley can be found at the bear line – rhymes with hairline.

Author/contact for this article:

Light on bushel

When trying to work out how much grain was produced by crops such as bere, barley and oat in the 1800s, it was necessary to convert the bushel, the unit of measure that was common at that time, to the kilogram, which is the unit of weight in the modern International System (abbreviated to SI).

The bushel is a unit of ‘dry volume’ for measuring things like grain and meal rather than liquids. Farmers and grain traders  used a standard basket or barrel which when full would hold 1 bushel, equivalent to 8 gallons.  But obviously a bushel of ball bearings weighs more than a bushel of bere grain. So before it can be converted to modern units, the bushel has to be calibrated for each type of filling.

Table, jug and balance

Things used: table, kitchen measuring jug to 0.5 or 1 litre, kitchen balance (e.g. used for weighing out flour), lightweight container and  a bag of bere grain, grown in the Living Field garden, harvested and air-dried for some months. The bere grain was cleared of stems and leaves – any long awns still attached to individual grains were broken off.  The jug was filled with grain slowly. When a quarter full, the jug was banged gently on the table twice to consolidate the grain. The same was done when half full, three-quarters full and almost full. When full, the container was placed on the balance and the scale brought to zero. The grain was poured into the container and the weight noted.

In this instance, 0.5 litre of bere grain weighed 300 g (not 299 or 301).


A bushel equals 8 gallons or 36.37 litres. So a bushel holds 72.7 of the 0.5 litre measuring jug. Since 0.5 litre of bere grain weighed 300 g, a bushel of bere should weigh 21.8 kg.

The bushel is used in some countries, including the USA and Canada, as a unit of weight and so a bushel has a different weight assigned to it for each type of grain. We are pleased to see that the USA’s standard bushel of barley is 21.77 kg, close to our estimate. Their bushel of wheat and several other small grain crops and beans is  27.2 kg while that of oat is 14.5 kg. It means wheat is heavier and oat is lighter than barley or bere for a given volume. So a person would be happier carrying two bushes of oat than two of bere.

What causes the difference in the weight of a bushel? Provided the cereals are dried to a constant moisture content, the difference lies in the proportion of the (heavier) grain to the surrounding protective husks. Wheat grain commonly falls out of the husks at harvest so the light material may not be included; oat is more husky.

Therefore when converting yields of bere in bushels, we will used the conversion, 1 bushel = 21.8 kg.

Sources, references

University of North Carolina, USA: and links from that page to general information about measuring systems and units.

UK Agriculture web site, page on sizes and scales:

National Museum of Scotland. Photograph of a bronze bushel measure.

The International Systems of units – Bureau International des Poids and Mesures:

Note of statistical procedures: the methods reported above can be used in a fun-sized comparison of different cereals and beans. A proper  scientific calibration would check the balance with standard weights at the beginning, then repeat the procedure several times with different lots of grain from the same harvest to get an average with a estimate of the variation. If two corn crops were compared, the average plus variation would allow a statistical test of whether the two were really different.

Links on this site

The bere line – rhymes with hairline and Thorburn’s Diagrams (for grain weights in bushels).

Grain measures in Ancient Greece (measuring tables at Ancient Messene)