All posts by gs

Fearnag Growers – a Community

Raghnaid Sandilands describes a community growing project in Strathnairn and introduces a new venture with ancient cereal grains.

Fearnag Growers is a communal growing project based in a beautiful old walled garden at Farr estate on South Loch Ness. It has been worked by the community since 2016 and treasured by the allotment holders, a life line through the lockdowns.

Over the years we have become a small hub for cultural and communal events, hosting a wide variety of events – a Gaelic plant lore walk at midsummer with expert Roddy MacLean, drawing the garden days with artists Sarah Longely and Maureen Shaw, a hut raising day, a woodworking workshop for children and an alfresco traditional music session, are among some of the community building days we’ve had together. 

Some of the photographs on this page show the Fèis Farr ‘Mapa Mòr’ – a huge charcoal map showing some characters from local stories and wildlife too, along with places that are important to the children, the allotments among them. 

Ancient and unusual grains – April 2021

In late April a gathering of individuals of all ages came together at Fearnag Growers to communally sow and plant a number of different types of ancient and unusual grains. The sun shone and we had a morning to gladden the heart, working together and planting small patches of emmer, eikorn, naked barley and oats, Bere barley, Shetland Aets, and other heritage varieties of wheat and barley. Col Gordon from Easter Ross, grain expert and enthusiast, gave us direction and spoke with conviction about his passion for grains. 

Grains are the staples foods of most of our cultures, but the growing of them today as monocrops or monocultures has become something very far removed from most folk.

Our major grains have very long histories. Barley and wheat began to develop in the Fertile Crescent around 10,000 years ago and are directly tied to the spread and development of Eurasian civilization. Rye and oats came later to our lands.

Easy to transport and store and very adaptable, these grains migrated across the globe, developing alongside peoples and their cultures. There are thought to be tens if not hundreds of thousands of cereal landraces globally. Landraces are now critically threatened.

In recent decades, more of the world has abandoned traditional farming and seeds and adopted more industrial systems and modern seed varieties. When this happens, the genetic diversity built up, in some cases for millenia, can disappear very quickly. Today very few grain varieties are commercially available and all have been bred to work alongside high-input chemical farming.

Whereas in the past, every region in the British Isles would have a few locally adapted varieties and landraces and maybe some local customs and traditions that would accompany them, these have practically all disappeared now. Luckily, some folk had the foresight to see this happening and began to gather as much of the world’s genetic material as they were able to preserve in gene banks.

If it wasn’t for these people we truly would have lost most of these varieties. But as John Letts used to say, a mentor for Col Gordon, rather than in these gene banks “the safest places for these seeds are the farmer’s fields.”

Grains in tradition

Farmers and crop scientists are starting to understand that modern varieties, which are bred for yield above all else, are not suited to low input growing or changing climatic conditions, not to mention flavour and nutrition. But we don’t often consider the damage done by disconnecting our grains from their histories, places, peoples or cultures. Each of these older seed varieties belongs to a distinct culture and place. There are likely all sorts of traditions, stories and myths, rituals, songs and festivals that are associated with a lot of them.

Col spoke to us about the need to stop thinking about grains and farming purely in terms of production and instead rediscover and repair once again the cultural aspects that make old agrarian systems beautiful. To do this may require us to question the limits of, for instance, efficiency and try to find a scale where grains are able to be surrounded by song again. While Rachel Carson’s “the silent spring” has made us question our trajectory of progress from an ecological point of view, Col suggests there may be need for a title “The songless harvest” from a cultural point of view. 

Looking at all the things that have been lost in the name of speed, yield and efficiency, Col suggested that these are the kind of questions we need to be asking more. 

Reconnecting with our farming culture

At Fearnag Growers we hope to play a small part in passing on some of this seed but also try to reconnect with some of the cultural aspects of grain. In September we hope the build another communal event around the harvesting and preparation of the grain. There may be food and songs too. 

Col Gordon – hear more from Col and his own story in his recent Farmarama podcast series ‘Landed – the family farm (episode 1)’ He speaks in episode 2 to Raghnaid Sandilands of Fearnag Growers about her creative ethnology work and Gaelic.  

Sources | Links

[1] Fearnag Growers Facebook page.

[2] Farmarama: more at https://farmerama.co/

Contact: raghnaid@icloud.com

Editor: The Living Field thanks Raghnaid for telling us about Fearnag Growers. We look forward to hearing more at grain harvest later in the year.

Please note that the photographs taken in the garden pre-date social distancing.

Click the map to see a larger image

Pictish Knotwork

Interlaced knotwork of some major Pictish cross slabs found in Scotland, based on triquetra knots [1]

By K Owen

The Living Field welcomes this article and drawings of patterns on stone-carved monuments left by early medieval people based in and around the lowland croplands and grazing lands.

Aberlemno Kirkyard Stone, early 8th Century, Angus

The Aberlemno Kirkyard Stone is an impressive sandstone slab 2.29 m high, 1.27 m wide with stone carved interlacing and fantastic beasts on the front and the carving of the depiction of  a battle scene on the rear. The pattern below is from the front, showing the north quadrant of interlacing that forms the upper part of the cross. The stone had been damaged, so there had to be a bit of interpretation of what it should look like, using the other shapes within it and with reference to similar carvings [2, 3].

The stone now stands in the grounds of Aberlemno Church [4], itself within a landscape that has sustained crops, livestock and trees over thousands of years. The view of arable and grass fields (upper image, below) was taken from the ‘fort’ on Turin Hill, a few km to the south of the church.

Kilduncan Cross Slab, 10th Century, Fife

 The cross slab was found in 2001 lying against the wall of a barn in Kingsbarns, Fife. It is now in St Andrews Museum, Kilburn Park [5]. It is a small slab, only 0.78 m high and 0.53 m wide. There are two S-dragons carved on the face,  framing a circle, with carved interlaced knotwork in the centre of the stone.

The stone was found near the coast on the edge of an extensive area of mixed farmland producing crops and livestock. The coastline is varied: estuaries and inlets, rock extending out into the sea, stony beaches and as in the photograph, great tracts of sand.

Eassie Cross Slab, 8th Century, Angus (near Glamis)

This great stone is an old red sandstone cross slab 2.03 m high and 1.02 m wide. It is protected within the ruins of the Eassie old parish church [6] by purpose-built screens. There are four quadrants to the cross, each with carved interlaced knotwork, together with hunting scenes and angels. This is the west quadrant of the cross.

The ruined church lies several km west of Glamis. Images below show the church in 2021, the cross slab under its protective cover, and a nearby view of spring-sown crops just emerging green from the soil, tree lines and forest plantation beyond.

Ulbster Stone, 9th Century, Caithness

This once stood in an ancient burial ground attached to the ruined Church of St Martin at Ulbster near Thurso. Both sides of the slab are carved with strange beasts, symbols and interlacing. This drawing of interlaced knotwork is taken from the north quadrant of the front.

St Vigeans 1 – Drosten Stone, 9th Century, Angus

This remarkable stone stands 1.84 m high and 0.55 m wide in St Vigeans Museum near Arbroath [7]. On the face shown in the photograph below there are a number of carved animals – a doe with a suckling fawn, a  bear, an eagle feeding on a salmon, a horned animal and an archer with a bow. 

Images below, taken inside the museum show a description of the stone, the stone itself and (inset) a closer view of some of the animals, including ‘a beast with a large curved horn on its head and its tail curved over the back’ [3].

The Boar Stone of Gask, 9th Century, Perthshire

This old red sandstone slab is 1.88 m high and 1.08 m wide and now sited in the grounds of Moncreiffe House. The lower shaft of the cross has this carved interlaced knotwork while carvings of animals such as deer and boar surround it.

Sources | links

[1] Triquetra knot: a figure with three interlacing loops which have no end. Common from about 7th C in insular ornaments such as illuminated manuscripts and stone carvings.

[2] Canmore: Part of Historic Environment Scotland canmore.org.uk. On the site, search for the name of the object, building or place.

[3] Allen JR, Anderson J. 1903. The early Christian monuments of Scotland. Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Reprinted 1993 by the Pinkfoot Press, Balgavies, Angus.

[4] Aberlemno Pictish stones. Four in total, three on the roadside and the one shown here in the church yard, sculpted between AD 500 and 800. Free to visit. Details on the Historic Environment Scotland web site at Aberlemno Sculptured Stones.

[5] St Andrews Museum, Kinburn Park, Doubledykes Road, KY16 9DP. More on the Visit Scotland web site.

[6] Eassie Old Church: free to visit. Information on the Canmore and VisitAngus web sites.

[7] St Vigeans Museum, near Arbroath, occupies several cottages opposite St Vigeans church. Contains 38 sculptured stones that were found in and around the churchyard. The web site gives opening times St Vigeans Stones and Museum.

Ghost Calls

This remarkable, unique exhibition is open at Dundee Contemporary Arts from 28 April 2021 to 8 August [1].

Main works include Ghost Calls (2020), a large painting in acrylic on silk (parts shown in the photos below), the mesmerising Keening Songs (2020) – an animation of over 14 mins (hard to describe) and A Crash in Fast and Slow Motion (2020), again acrylic on silk.

In Ghost Calls female forms occupy and move through a landscape. Intense colour contrasts with the greys of the figures and with shapes containing words describing how things are and where we might go.

Perhaps in relation to A Crash … , the author writes [2] “Against the backdrop of the ecological disasters of our age, I feel increasingly like we were passengers in a vehicle being driven recklessly round a blind corner, headed for some massive smash up.’

Those of us who see ecological destruction and human misery can’t help but connect with what we see here. Yet the artist offers a way forward. First, it helps to grieve, to keen.

Then to imagine. From the book of the exhibition [2]: “Talbot imagines future environments where humankind has been flung out of a capitalist-driven society of digital technologies and must look towards more ancient and holistic ways of crafting, making and belonging”

And then to act – at the end of Ghost Calls are the words: ‘This is not the end | let’s use the time we have together | embracing | a forward movement without fear’.

Britain’s environment has been irreversibly changed. The rainforest has almost gone, soils are being lost, rivers are still polluted, so much life has been made extinct. Yet there is still the need to re-group and re-form, to make the best of the land, soil and living things, those remaining and those introduced. Where’s the alternative.

You must see this exhibition.

From a Living Field correspondent visiting the exhibition on 19 May 2021.

Further

[1] Exhibition Notes: Ghost Calls by Emma Talbot. Dundee Contemporary Arts, 152 Nethergate Dundee DD1 4DY

[2] Ghost Calls. Emma Talbot. 2021. Artist and various authors. Book published as part of the exhibition. Dundee Contemporary Arts. 

[3] DCA What’s On web page for Ghost Calls.

Pilewort

One of the dark materialsa medicinal for a range of ailments … tubers found at archaeological sites suggesting it was eaten … flowers open in the sun … storage in root tubers … dispersal by bulbils

Madwort, mugwort, sneezewort, spearwort – worts apiece. But among the earliest to show itself is the pilewort or lesser celandine Ranunculus ficaria: first the deep green leaves, then the buds and soon the bright yellow buttercup flowers.

Its ‘business end’ lies in the dark, just below the soil surface. The foliage has gone by summer, but a collection of small root tubers holds the plant’s stores until next spring.

Pilewort unearthed: whole plant just about to flower (right) showing the tubers above the main root mass; and closer views of the tubers (left), each about 2 cm long, the hanging one 5 cm. Photo right is edited to distinguish foliage, tubers and roots.

Prehistory – food?

The tubers, usually charred remains, have been found preserved at a range of archaeological sites throughout Europe, extending back to the Mesolithic [1], for example at mesolithic Staosnaig on Colonsay [2] and the Iron Age period at Howe Broch, Orkney [3]. The implication is that the tubers were used as food. Archaeobotanists working on the middle Bronze age in Sweden ‘considered that the tubers had been roasted and eaten like popcorn’ [3]. There are also records of the leaves being eaten.

Most plants in the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, are poisonous and there are reports that Pilewort has poisoned cattle and sheep [4]. It is difficult to find definitive, recent evidence that it can or cannot be safely eaten by humans, though Long [4] cites Cornevin’s 1887 book that the plant “is not poisonous when young, as in Germany the first shoots are eaten as a salad, but that it becomes so later … “. Other records [1] suggest roots of various species among the Ranunculaceae, which includes plants much more poisonous than pilewort, have been eaten safely when cooked. Given the uncertainties, it would be wise not to try it!

Remedy for a common complaint

The pilewort, also called figwort, is claimed as cure for haemorrhoids, known colloquially as piles or figs. Grigson [5], quotes Gerard’s (1597) observation that the piles “when often bathed with the juice mixed with wine, or with the sick man’s urine, are drawne togither and dried up, and the paine quite taken away”.

Grieve [6] writes that the plant is “used externally as an ointment, made from the bruised herb with fresh lard, applied locally night and morning, or in the form of poultices, fomentations, or in suppositories.” The hanging tubers are also said to offer a physical resemblance to the complaint.

Pilewort flowers, heart-shaped leaves (lower right), and plants early morning, frosted next to a clump of lords and ladies (lower left).

Habitat and reproduction

Plants seem to thrive best in locations that are partly shaded, where sunlight filters through to them in the morning. They sometimes form a near-complete cover, but in nutrient rich places, other plants, such as cleavers and ground elder, will soon grow taller and shade them. In some years, they suffer repeated frosts, from which they recover in a few hours. After a very cold mid-April night, the pilewort in the photograph above (lower left) looked fine by mid-morning while Arum maculatum nearby still displayed frost-damaged, hanging, curved leaf stalks.

The plant has a further interesting feature in the bubils formed in leaf axils. Kerner, in the 1894 translation of his Natural History of Plants [7] reported that when growing in sunny sites, the flowers were visited by pollen-eating beetles, flies and bees that pollinated the flowers, leading to seed formation. But when in deep shade, pollination was less successful, seeds were few and the plants responded by producing “little bulbous bodies in the axils of their upper foliage leaves”, which on becoming detached when the plant withered, were dispersed and gave rise to new plants.

Today the difference reported by Kerner is considered genetic, those plants reproducing mostly by seed and those mostly by vegetative bulbils being classed as different subspecies [8].

Pilewort grows in various places in the Living Field garden. This time of year, it will be flowering beneath cut hedges.

Plate showing pilewort bulbils and root tubers (right) from Kerner von Marilaun’s The Natural History of Plants [7], taken from author’s copy.

Sources | references

[1] The Sheffield Archaeobotany site: Charles, M., Crowther, A., Ertug, F., Herbig, C., Jones, G., Kutterer, J., Longford, C., Madella, M., Maier, U., Out, W., Pessin, H., Zurro, D., (2009) Archaeobotanical Online Tutorial http://archaeobotany.dept.shef.ac.uk/ https://sites.google.com/sheffield.ac.uk/archaeobotany/tubers/identification/ranunculus-ficaria

[2] Mithen S, et al. 2001. Plant use in the Mesolithic: evidence from Staosnaig, Isle of Colonsay, Scotland. Journal of Archaeological Science 28, 223-234, https://doi.org/10.1006/jasc.1999.053 (Institutional or paid access only).

[3] Dickson C & Dickson J. 2000. Plants and people in ancient Scotland. Tempus Publishing, Stroud, UK.

[4] Pilewort as a poisonous plant. 1) Long HC 1927. Poisonous plants on the farm. MAFF, HMSO, London. 2) Forsyth AA. 1954 (1968) British Poisonous plants. MAFF Bulletin 161, HMSO, London. 3) Cooper MR, Johnson AW 1984 Poisonous plants in Britain. MAFF Reference book 161, HMSO, London.

[5] Grigson G. 1958. The Englishman’s flora. Paperback 1975 by Paladin.

[6] Grieve M. 1931. A modern herbal. Now online, read the page on lesser celandine at botanical.com.

[7] Anton Kerner von Marilaun. 1894 (English edition). The Natural history of plants. Translated by FW Oliver. Blackie and Son, London.

[8] Stace AC 1997 (second edition) New Flora of the British Isles. Cambridge University Press.

Repurposing Grass Pea as an Embroidered textile and handmade paper

Caroline Hyde-Brown, at Norwich University of the Arts, gave the Living Field this account of her work with the legume, grass pea. Here are some examples of her craft.

Read on to see how it is done.

Introduction to the grass pea

The grass pea Lathyrus sativus is a member of the legume family (Fabaceae) and commonly grown for human consumption and livestock feed in Asia and East Africa (Caroline writes). It is a hardy yet under-utilised crop and able to withstand extreme environments from drought to flooding. The grass pea fixes nitrogen from the air which helps maintain a healthy and well fertilised topsoil [1].

However, the grass pea contains a potent neurotoxin called B-ODAP which increases if the plant is exposed to conditions of severe water stress. Historically the grass pea is known to produce adverse side effects with excessive human consumption which exacerbates the risk of a neurological disorder known as lathyrism which can cause permanent paralysis below the knees both in adults and children. 

Growing the plants

In September 2019 I initiated a collaboration with John Innes Research Centre in Norwich to investigate whether this ancient legume could be utilised to create a biomaterial with a sustainability strategy of raising its residual value. With a mixed methodology of qualitative research, critical inquiry, and home-based experimentation, I explored the inherent qualities of the natural raw plant residue with Anne Edwards and Abhimanyu Sarkar [2]. I used a framework known as the ‘whole systems’ approach adding freshly collected rainwater and solar heat [3].

Growing the plants: (left) in shallow container, weak and spindly plants one month old, and (right) in a glasshouse at the John Innes Centre.

I experimented with different types of potting containers to observe growth patterns and plant behaviour. Shallow containers produced spindly and weak plants compared to the much stronger and higher yielding plants grown in deep ‘rose’ containers or in a glasshouse.

My assistance with the harvest at John Innes yielded positive results during January 2020. I began with behavioural growth studies in agar flasks, which provided a fascinating insight into the delicate root structure as the roots are normally below ground. Unexpected discoveries about how the grass pea behaved under certain conditions helped the iterative design process.

During lockdown last year I had time to observe the plants on my windowsill and how they used the agar provided by John Innes. I didn’t need to water them, and it was fascinating to see how the plant easily grew, the perfect house plant!

Root studies with grass pea: (upper) in agar flasks on a window sill, after 5 months; (lower left) seedlings emerging in a shaped shallow container; (lower right) soil turned out after six months to show root patterns.

I also planted some grass pea in different types of container with various depths to see which environment the crop preferred. The black container (photographs above, lower left) provided the wonderful patterned shapes shown lower right.

Embroidery with roots and tendrils

Perfectly formed tendrils from the harvested residue of grass pea inspired me to do some hand embroidery. I used Kantha stitching on cotton to reflect the Indian traditional embroidery technique of simple straight stitch.

Grass pea tendril

My overall aim was to see whether the grass pea residue could be recreated into a cloth of some kind. Cutting up the paper samplers and using other threads and vintage lace slowly transformed the paper into a fabric, but the harvested residue was extremely dry and brittle.

I was unable to spin a thread out of the stalks.  However, I believe, with the right biotechnology, cellulose could be extracted from the grass pea to make clothing, paper, shoes and lighting. Recent advances prove that using agricultural waste is an extremely profitable and sustainable operation with companies such as Agraloop [4], already spinning innovative and unique fibres.

Papermaking

Initially my papermaking explorations were unsatisfactory. The handmade paper felt stiff, broke easily and resembled cardboard. After boiling the residue and retting it in a bucket for a week however, it softened to produce a softer slurry or pulp.

Making paper: paper slurry poured onto a mould and deckle with scattered seed pods adding texture and interest (upper); kitchen set-up with slurry, waste residue and mortar and pestle (lower left); and retting residue in harvested rainwater (lower right).

Although I was unable to provide precise samples of artisanal stationery, each piece of handmade paper had its own individual character. I began to realise that imperfections can help create an authentic narrative and felt more confident in exploring other possibilities with ingredients.

A series of handmade papers were constructed from localised resources. I wanted to see if the grass pea could hold other grasses and petals within multiple layers of slurry. I took advantage of the warm weather and dried them in the garden. By adding spices from the kitchen, combined with grass clippings and petals taken from hedgerows and heathers they took on a lovely range of colours.

Paper samples made with grass pea and root residue.

I also wanted to test some of the bio-resins from my collection of azeleas to see whether it added another material dimension. I looked at adding colour and referenced the pantone colour range for 2020 to provide inspiration for a moodboard of handmade paper.

Handmade papers coloured with various natural dyes

Bio pots and other functional products

Interpreting scientific knowledge and merging it with my own craft-oriented methods is a lengthy and complicated process. The bio pots initially started out as a conversation when I decided to see whether the knowledge I had gained through papermaking over the summer could result in something more tangible like a functional product.

I looked at whether the grass pea pots could be dyed to provide colour, starting with kitchen spices such as paprika and herbal tea bags with raspberry, blueberry, tea, and coffee. These were quite successful samples and ongoing observations are being made into the waterproofing and durability. Further growth studies will commence this year with a view to creating something that may offer a sustainable alternative for the tree planting initiatives overseas.

Grass pea bio-pot samples 2020 (upper) and kitchen decorative pots to keep nuts and spices in (lower).

… and some final remarks

Research into the use of natural resources to provide extra sources of income has proven potential. It shows how the bridging of traditional artisan work with modern design can provide sustainable solutions. An essential part of the process includes rigorous testing of raw materials to demonstrate that the process is both restorative and circular from the beginning of the supply chain to the end product.

As an inter-disciplinary artist, I seek to implement new ideas through forming partnerships which help shape and question my own practice.  I feel fortunate that we could build a strong professional network to bridge knowledge gaps. It was a collaborative process that reinforced our objective of helping to improve rural livelihoods in India.

I conclude that the grass pea supply chain could be disrupted from field to biomaterial and repurposed to provide vital ingredients for economic change.

Sources | Links

[1] Caroline writes: “When all other crops fail, grass pea will often be the last one left standing. It is easy to cultivate and is tasty and high in nutritious protein, which makes it a popular crop. The Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) states that at least 100,000 people in developing countries are believed to suffer from paralysis caused by the neurotoxin.  More at the Crop Wild Relatives Project: The curious case of the grasspea.

[2] From the John Innes Centre web site, 27 May 2020: Paper making with grass pea.

[3] The “whole systems approach” was devised by a group of Product Design Students at the Iceland Academy of Arts in 2015 during a project using willow. They designed a unique range of products including paper, glue and string adding just heat and water.

[4] Agraloop: transforming low-value waste to high-value fibre.

[5] The Journal of Sustainability Education describes how collaborations beyond the comfort zone of specialist areas possibly hold the key to making unusual discoveries. Journal web site: http://www.journalofsustainabilityeducation.org/

Contact Caroline Hyde-Brown

email: artistcaz@aol.com

web site: https://www.theartofembroidery.co.uk/

The editor writes: Many thanks Caroline from the Living Field for sharing your experiences and experiments on grass pea. We hope you can continue to develop the technology and craft work and help to generate new income streams for growers.

For other occasional Living Field articles on the use of legumes, see Feel the pulse and Scofu: the quest for an indigenous Scottish tofu.

Bere Barley at the Living Field

A summary of various articles on bere and other barleys from the Living Field project. First records of barley in the late stone age (neolithic). Structure – six-rowed, two-rowed (and four-rowed?). Origins of bere uncertain. Its name – from bere to bigg. Bere not exclusively Scottish – similar forms reported from mainland Europe in the early 1800s. Geographical distribution mostly to the north in the 1850s. Bere’s decline  in the 1900s.

Bere – an ancient grain

Bere is one of a group of cereal or corn crops grown at the Living Field garden near Dundee [1]. It is a landrace of the barley group. As a landrace [2], it is maintained from year to year from saved seed – and has been for centuries in Scotland. Each year, plants suited to the climate will leave more seed than others less suited, so gradually the characteristics of the population may shift. The bere grown in a particular region may become adapted to the climate and soils of that region. 

The Living Field got its bere seed from Orkney – from the Agronomy Unit at Orkney Collage and from Barony Mills – and though very little bere is now grown outside a few fields in Orkney, collections held at the James Hutton Institute include bere and other landraces from several northern locations. Bere is quite distinct from other old barley varieties such as Spratt and Old Cromarty.

Bere maturing in a field on Orkney mainland, taken 3 August 2018, showing (left) stems and downward curving ears, most leaf now withered, and (right) single ear with its vertical rows of grain and long awns.

Barley originated to the east of the Mediterranean Sea. Seed was gradually brought across Europe until it eventually reached Britain 5000-6000 years ago [3]. Barley ears with grains are first recorded at neolithic or late stone age settlements, and repeatedly through Bronze and Iron ages and onwards [3]. They are best preserved where the ears holding the grain had been charred in a fire.

Bere and similar types of barley therefore have a long history in these Islands. Yet it is unclear whether those grown by neolithic settlers started a line that led directly to the bere recorded in the 1800s and that present today. There was repeated migration of people from Europe from the earliest times, and it is not hard to imagine that seed would have been brought across the sea on many occasions. 

Bere and other barleys have been one of the main staple grains of the region, along with oat and pea [4]. These ancient grains have sustained people for thousands of years, even up to the early 1900s. Today, bere is a heritage crop, but now getting needed recognition as a source of breeding material and a nutritious food.  

The rest of this article presents some of the history of bere, including its fate after the 1700s, its relation to barley and the degree to which these two crops have been considered different.

Grains of bere, pea and oat (from left)

Structure – six-row, two row, four-row, naked and clothed?

To appreciate the various records from pre-history to the present, it is necessary to know a little of the structure of the barley ‘ear’ that holds the grains. Cultivated barley is defined by the row-structure in the ‘ear’. Grain sites are formed in triplets, on both sides of the ear’s rachis, a kind of stem. There are types in which all grains in the triplets fill. As the two set of triplets fill along the length of the ear, they form six vertical rows and are named six-rowed. There are also types where only two of the six fill, and these are named two-rowed. The unfilled grain sites appear as little ‘pegs’. The difference is clear when 2-rowed and six-rowed are shown side by side as in the photographs below.  

Bere is generally included within the six-row group, because all six grains form and fill, but bere types have also been named 4-rowed, for example by the Lawsons, Edinburgh seed merchants, working in the 1800s [5], and also in a modern definitive UK flora [6].  In the four-rowed class, six grains form, but the outer two (the lateral ones) on opposite sides of the rachis merge into one row, so there are two rows of central grains and what appear to be just two rows of the four outer grains. The structure of bere can change on the same ear, leading to the Lawsons naming bere six- and four-rowed barley [5, see also 6].

The barley grown at the Living Field tends to hold its ears upright when they emerge from the top leaf, then they gradually bend towards the horizontal as the grains start to fill and as maturity approaches the ears move to hang down towards the vertical: bere (left) in early grain fill, showing three of its rows; and maturing two-rowed barley (right) where two of the four unfilled grain sites are visible as short pegs, one next to each filled grain.

The distinction is also made between naked barley in which the grains do not adhere tightly to the surrounding protective tissue, and hulled barley, in which the protective layers remain and are difficult to separate off.  

The barley that has been found at prehistoric sites is six-rowed and variously naked or hulled. Bere today is mostly classed as a hulled barley, but as recently as the 1800s naked 4-rowed were still cultivated [5].

Bere in the historical records – is it uniquely Scottish?

The word bere and its variations have been in use for at least 9 centuries. Macleod [7] writes that in the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST), covering usage from the 12th century to 1700, bere occurs also as bear, bair and beir. The other name by which it is known, big or bigg (from Old Norse Bygg) “does not seem to be in the DOST record” which implies it was pre-dated by bere and not recorded in use before 1700. It is also unclear whether bere and barley mean the same or different things in these early writings. Macleod cites the use of ‘barley beir’ for example. 

Bere and barley were both in common usage in records of the agricultural improvements after 1700, for example in Andrew Wight’s account of travels around Scotland, 1778 – 1784 [8] and in the Old Statistical Account, 1791-1799 [9]. Sometimes both names are used when referring to crops at the same location, implying they were regarded as different crops, but at other times the distinction is unclear.

Large areas of lowland Scotland are barley country, as here on the Tarbat peninsular. Traditionally used for food, alcohol and livestock feed, but now only the latter two, with few exceptions.

By the early 1800s, the published information on crops had been greatly expanded, especially through the various descriptive lists prepared by the Lawsons’ seed company in Edinburgh, notably in 1836 and 1852 [5]. Most of the barley varieties were named under two groups. One they define as Four-rowed, of which there were 12 types, some local and some from overseas including those named African, Bengal, Himalayan and Peruvian.  The second group, recorded as a different species [10] was Two-rowed or Long-eared barley of which there were 26 types, again some sourced overseas. They also distinguished what they called true six-rowed, comprising one or possibly two types and an unusual form named Spratt (which is shown among the images on this page).   

Common Bere was among the four-rowed and was also named Barley, Bigg or Rough Barley. So the Lawsons are implying that bere was also referred to as barley among farmers and merchants. It seems that around that time, the term ‘barley’ referred to two-rowed types, but could also be used for the four-rowed, and was therefore a general name for all cultivated barleys, whereas ‘bere’ referred to the local representative of the four(six-)-rowed types.  

One of the most interesting pieces of information in the Lawsons’ account shows that Scotland’s ‘common bere’ was by no means unique. One other type, named Victoria bere, was stated as being received from the Belfast Botanic Gardens in 1836  and undergoing improvement by field trialling and selection. Another type, named Square, was received by the Lawsons from M. Vilmorin and Co., Paris, and had the following character: “Differs from the Common Bere in being three or four days sooner ripe, and having a thinner skin; properties which it may have acquired by being grown successively in the more genial climate of France, and is probably the same variety.” It is likely but not certain that Square was grown in France but the authors report ‘it was cultivated extensively in some parts of Germany’. 

So even as recently as the mid-1800s, bere was not seen to be a uniquely Scottish form of barley. Something very like it was grown elsewhere in Europe. Also, they include in the four-rowed group, two naked types – the Naked or Siberian (“Ear similar in shape to the Common Bere, but rather more distinctly six-rowed … “) and an earlier form named Old Scottish Four-Rowed Naked, neither of which were much grown at that time.

In the Lawsons’ account therefore, naked and hulled forms of 6- or 4- rowed barleys were still grown in the mid-1800s, as they were in the neolithic. 

Occurrence in the 1850 agricultural census and later

The area and yield of crops in Scotland were first recorded in a major agricultural census in the 1850s. The statist Thomas Thorburn presented averages of sown area and yield for each of the Old Counties and they have been were arranged by the Living Field on a map of Scotland [11].

The circles on the maps below represent the area of crops placed at the centres on the old counties. For reference, the internal boundaries show current administrative areas. Bere is shown on the left and barley on the right. Over the whole country, barley occupied about 10 times more area than bere, but at that time even barley covered a much smaller area than the main corn crop, oat. Bere, though present in most counties, was mainly grown in the north. 

Distribution of bere (left) and barley (right) from the 1854 census. Each circle represents the area of crop in one of the pre-1890s counties. For a circle of given size, crop areas are 10 times greater for barley. Orkney and Shetland formed one area in the census: bere represented by the large circle just above Orkney; the arrow on the right pointing to the small area grown with barley. Full description at Thorburn’s Diagrams [11].

The 1850s census recorded yield in bushels, a measure of dry volume. A bushel does not necessarily measure the same weight in different grain lots since it varies with the density of the grain and the amount of chaff [11]. Converting census records from bushels and using the same conversion for both bere and barley indicates that bere yield was 80-90% of barley yield over Scotland as a whole but similar in northern counties at 1.5 to 2.0 t/ha. (Modern barley yields are typically 5 to 6 t/ha.)

One of the fields sown by Barony Mills on Orkney in 2010, the harvest used to make beremeal (flour): for the main image, a photograph of a green crop (as inset) has been reduced to grey but with the infra-red accentuated to show the structure – the characteristic ‘leaping fish’ (www.livingfield.co.uk).
Decline

The agricultural census continued in the 1880s, after a break. By 1912, bere occupied 5.4% of the total barley, so quite a bit down as a proportion of the total from the 1850s. The total barley itself was only 20% of the area sown with oats.

During the 1920s, 1930s and up to 1944, bere was still mentioned in the census, its area was not given separately but included with barley. In the 1950s bere was no longer mentioned – barley area alone was given alongside oats, wheat and rye.

[In progress – to include recent genetic analysis]

Sources / references

[1] For a general introduction to the Living Field’s work on cereal landraces – Ancient grains at the Living Field – 10 years on

[2] Landraces: articles on this web site – What are landraces? and Landrace -1 bere, and then The bere line – rhymes with hairline.

[3] Dickson C, Dickson JH. 2000. Plants and people in ancient Scotland. Tempus Publishing, UK.  

[4] The Living Field article on Peasemeal, Beremeal, 0atmeal gives a recent historical account of these three grains. Cooking tips from the Living Field’s correspondents can be found at The bereline – rhymes with hairline

[5] The Living Field article Bere in Lawson’s Synopsis summarises work by the Lawsons, seed merchants working from Edinburgh in the 1800s. Their main works are: (1) Peter Lawson and Son 1836. The Agriculturist’s Manual. Edinburgh, London and Dublin, (2) Lawson and Son. 1852. Synopsis of the vegetable products of Scotland. Edinburgh: Private Press of Peter Lawson and Son. Copies are available online via the Biodiversity Library and Google Books. 

  • Of the four-rowed types they write – “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.”
  • On the definition of naked: “The difference in naked and other barleys, consists in the palea, or husk, separating from the grain in thrashing, as in common wheats.”

[6] Stace C. 1991. New Flora of the British Isles (second edition 1997). Cambridge University Press. The following appears: “Usually the three fertile florets per triplet produce 6 vertical rows of caryopses in the spike, but in some cultivars the 2 lateral rows of triplets on opposite sides of the rachis are superimposed producing four vertical rows (Four-rowed barley)”. 

[7] The Living Field article Bere, Bear, Bair, Beir, Bygg summarises the use and origin of words for bere as related in – Macleod, I. 2005. Cereal terms in the DOST record. In: Perspectives on the Older Scottish Tongue. Eds Kay CJ, Mackay MA, pp 73-83, Edinburgh University Press. Reproduced online in the Scottish Corpus of Text and Speech Document 840.

[8] Wight, A. 1778-1784. Present State of Husbandry in Scotland. Extracted from Reports made to the Commissioners of the Annexed Estates, and published by their authority. Edinburgh: William Creesh. Vol I, Vol II, Vol III Part I, Vol III Part II, Vol IV part II, Volume IV Part II. All available online via Google Books. For more at the Living Field on Wight’s observations – Great quantities of Aquavitae, Great quantities of Aquavitae II and The Mill at Atholl.

[9] The Old Statistical Account 1791-1799.

[10] The taxonomic naming of barley in not consistent. The Lawsons named four-rowed as Hordeum vulgare and the two-rowed as Hordeum distichon, as does Stace [6] who commented that they were ‘better amalgamated’. Most authorities today [e.g. 13] group them as one species, Hordeum vulgare, and distinguish the forms as sub-species.

[11] The Living Field article Thorburn’s Diagrams gives a summary of the 1850s crop census: Thorburn T.  1855. Diagrams, Agricultural Statistics of Scotland for 1854. London: Effingham Wilson. The Living Field article Bere Country gives maps of bere and barley in the 1850s based on Thorburn’s county averages. For more explanation of bushels and other measures of dry volume: Light on bushel and Grain measures in Ancient Greece.

[12] Agricultural Statistics provided by Scottish Government can be accessed at Scottish Agriculture: Economic Reports.

[13] Wallace, M., Bonhomme, V., Russell, J. et al. Searching for the Origins of Bere Barley: a Geometric Morphometric Approach to Cereal Landrace Recognition in Archaeology. J Archaeol Method Theory 26, 1125–1142 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-018-9402-2

Another comparison of bere (left) and a two-rowed barley, Golden Promise, both grown in the Living Field garden.
Contacts

All the bere and barley – except those photographed in Orkney fields – were grown at the Living Field garden at the James Hutton Institute near Dundee by Gladys Wright and Jackie Thompson. Geoff Squire assembled the text above.

Photographs by squire/www.livingfield.co.uk

Author / contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk and geoff.squire@outlook.com.

[Update – minor edits and corrections, 15 May 2021]

Through the Solstice

The winter solstice is the period around the shortest day, 21 December [1]. It is a turning point in the annual solar calendar. In the tradition, the winter solstice is a time of renewal, the turning of the year.

Today in northern latitudes, midwinter is a time of family and festivals. Food is in the shops, much of it imported from a global food system. Yet midwinter was very different 5000 years ago in the late neolithic when the early settlers to these islands began to farm. They could not import: they had to grow their own or go hungry.

The arrival of the solstice reminded them how long they had to last on stored grain and livestock. They could add to their diet from wild harvesting and hunting, but once people had committed to a settled existence, they needed grain and grass to ensure their survival.

Three more months at least before the soil was warm enough to sprout fresh grazing and germinate sown seed to give next year’s grain. This lag between the annual cycles of solar radiation and temperature is a defining feature of agriculture in the north. Farming has to cope with it now, as then [2].

They first farmers built great stone monuments to help them follow the solar and lunar cycles. Some, such as at Maes Howe in Orkney and Balnuaran of Clava near Inverness, were designed to mark or to celebrate the winter solstice [3].

Fig. 1 Daylength at the winter solstice, 21 December, at a range of archaeological and historical sites. Hours:minutes shown are from sunrise and sunset tables for 2020, excluding twilight [4]

Daylight hours

When neolithic and bronze age people were making their way across Europe, they experienced the large change in the length of day and night from south to north (Fig. 1). For example, daylength at the neolithic site of Carnac in Brittany (8:26) is two hours longer than at Callanish on Lewis (6:24). At the northern tip of Shetland, it is 5:40 and much farther north in Iceland, around 4 hours.

The length of day determines what can be done outside without torches and street lights. The order reverses in summer – much more daylight in the north than south. The effect of the latitudinal change on life and lifestyle was (and is still) huge, but the early settlers balanced one thing against the other. They crossed dangerous seas to settle and survive throughout the range of daylength, including areas that even today seem remote to most city people.

The standing stones at Brodgar and Stenness, in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, lie close to the Maes Howe chambered cairn, whose entrance passage is aligned with the setting sun at the winter solstice. [3]
Sunrise, sunset and the three twilights

It would be difficult in most years, even with the aid of aligned monuments, to tell exactly when the shortest day had arrived. Daylength changes very slowly in mid to late December, and the position of the sun is often obscured by cloud or mist. Two other factors make the estimation more difficult – twilight and the shortest day not coinciding with the latest sunrise or earliest sunset (Fig. 2).

Light from the sun is still visible even after it dips below the horizon. This is the time of twilight, of which there are three divisions – civil, nautical and astronomical. The boundary between them is defined by the angle the sun (below the horizon) makes with the earth’s surface [4]. Most people sense night has fallen near the end of civil twilight, but under a cloudless sky it is also possible to ‘see’ well into nautical twilight.

Fig. 2 Change in length of the day and types of twilight (civil, nautical and astronomical) for 40 days either side the shortest day (SD) on 21 December. The earliest sunset (e ss) is about seven days before SD and the latest sunrise (l sr) 7 days after SD. Location: Inverness, latitude 57.5 north.

Civil twilight at the winter solstice varies with latitude less than daylength. For example, it ranges from about 40 minutes at Silbury Hill in Wiltshire to about an hour at Funzie Girt in Shetland .

There is also the complication that the latest sunrise and earliest sunset do not coincide with the shortest day (Fig. 2). The reasons are complex and depend on the axial tilt of the earth and its elliptical (not circular) trajectory round the sun [5].

The photograph above shows two trees on the Hutton Farm near Dundee in 2010. It was taken after the end of civil twilight and well into nautical twilight. The original image was almost black, but shape and colour were revealed by digital processing.

Solar elevation and the sun’s intensity

The growth of crops and grass depends on the amount of solar energy reaching the earth’s surface rather than on the period of light. Daylength has an effect – it determines when some plants change their state, for example from vegetative to reproductive – but plants put on mass by capturing solar energy and using it to process carbon dioxide from the air into living matter.

The incoming solar energy increases from winter to summer solstices as a result of both increase in daylength and increase in the sun’s ‘height’ in the sky, defined as its elevation or altitude [Fig. 3]. Between winter and summer solstices, daylength increases about 2.6 times, while the sun’s elevation or altitude increases 5.6 times. (These values change with latitude – those cited are for Dundee near latitude 56N.)

The combination of longer days and rising altitude causes a 20-30 times increase in the incoming solar radiation reaching crops, grass and forest between the winter and summer solstices [6]. This, and the annual changes in temperature and rainfall, are the major factors that determine which types of crop and grass grow here, the times they can be planted and harvested and the yields they can attain.

Fig. 3 Diagram to show the changes through the year in the rising and setting of the sun and its elevation or altitude at latitude 56N. The horizontal axis shows the time of day, the vertical axis the elevation or altitude of the sun (90 degrees would be directly overhead). The lower curve is for the winter solstice, the upper for the the summer solstice and the middle for the equinoxes [6].

Sources / links

[1] The winter solstice is defined in astronomy as a particular time on usually 21 December, but it is also used widely to mean the period of several days around the shortest day.

[2] Living Field web pages on The Year describe the changing annual cycles and their importance for farming and food production.

[3] Maes Howe, Orkney: Orkneyjar; for archaeological detail, Canmore; to see the solstice, Maeshowe webcam site. Balnuaran of Clava: Historic Environment Scotland; Canmore. See also the Winter solstice on the Living Field site.

[4] Daylength, twilight times and solar elevation are available online for almost anywhere on earth. One of the easiest web sites to use, and the most informative, is timeanddate.com – insert a named place where indicated to see daily data tables; once there, you can use the map facility to find any place. Try also NOAA Solar Calculator provided by the US Global Monitoring Laboratory.

[5] For explanation of the earth’s tilt and solar trajectory, try: Articles about Sun at timeanddate.com; a BBC Weather page; the explainingscience blog. For a thorough and authoritative account: Szokolay S.V. 1996 (rev 2007). Solar geometry. Passive and Low Energy Architecture International (PLEA) and Department of Architecture, University of Queensland.

[6] The Living Field article No Life Without the Sun gives further explanation of the effects of daylength and solar elevation on the changes in incoming solar radiation throughout the year.