Category Archives: corn

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]

Ready steady mundify (your barley)

“There is made of barly a certaine kinde of drinke …. and a meate that is good for sicke persons, called mundified barly.” (L’Agriculture et Maison Rustique 1593)

More than Aquavitae

The Library of Innerpeffray [1] holds a book, named L’Agriculture et Maison Rustique (1593), that tells of, among other things, how to grow crops and use their products. Touch, open, read ….. and you will get to the page on mundified barly or barlie [2].

As in many sources from the 1500s through to the early 1900s, barley was viewed as a nutritious food – a health-giving corn, much more than a raw material for alcohol. The book gives instructions on preparing the barley and in one case adding fruit juices or seeds.

Boil it till it burst

Preparation begins with rough barley grain and converts it one way or another to the consistency of papmeate. One method is to boil it, beat it, strain it …. and then the surprise …. add to it various juices or seeds as available. Here’s the original, the spelling kept where possible [3]:

The almonds referred to were presumably still juiceful, well before maturity (unlike those top right in the photo below). Other sources [3] offer slightly different methods of preparation and and suggest adding grape juice. Probably the juice of any fruit or sweet vegetable leaf would do.

To wet it but not to make it swim

The second process seems more involved. Wet it but not so much that it swims, beat it, force off the husks, chafe it between the fingers, dry it in the sun, put it back in water, boil it to bursting, strain it. So stressful … ! Here is the original.

Much more than Aquavitae – but was it bere

So there is in this account – and there is in many accounts from barley-country everywhere – procedures and recipes to convert this life sustaining grain to a food or healthy drink!

In temperate climatic regions unsuitable for wheat, the meal or flour from barley and oats was the main source of carbohydrate. (The equivalent crops in tropical Africa, for example, are the sorghums and millets).

In Scotland, bannocks [5], a form of flatbread made from barley with oatmeal and sometimes peasemeal, sustained the populace before it came to rely on traded cereal products in the later 1900s. After being cooked, bannocks remained in shape, flat and round, and so could be carried about.

The book says little about the varieties of barley that were mundified. They could well have been similar to ones grown here – the landrace known as bere [6] and more modern (for that time) cultivated forms.

Varieties resembling Scottish bere were known from parts of Europe. Lawson and Son (1836, 1852) refer to a form of bere grown in France and Germany and also a bere-like, naked six-row barley said to have come from mainland Europe [6]. If they mundified in Scotland, they could have added local wild fruits in season (not melon or grapes) or even kale-juice.

Maybe the Living Field will try to mundify? More to follow on barley as a food and health drink …..

Sources

[1] The Library at Innerpeffray. On a visit to The Library in September 2019 (GS writes), I was handed a book L’agriculture et maison rustique.  The title page credits Charles Estienne and Jean Liebault. The book examined was dated 1593. Online sources list one edition printed in London 1600 with a variant of the title – The Countrie Farme – credited to Charles Stevens and John Liebault, and translated into English by Richard Surflet, Practitioner in Physicke. The book appeared in Latin, then in several languages and editions. Available online – see Dumbarton Oaks or search for the title.

[2] To Mundify: the Shorter Oxford Dictionary (third edition) indicates this is now rare or obsolete, descended from mundificare (latin) and meaning to cleanse, to purify, to free from noxious matter.

[3] The letter ‘u’ was written as ‘v’ and the letter ‘s’ has the appearance of a tall form of ‘f’. Barley appears as barlie and barly.

[4] Some examples. The title page of Dictionarire Oeconomique gives it written by M. Chomel in 1725: it advised the use of mundified barley or ‘barley water’ to counter various ailments (including Hectick-dever, for which the author also suggests small meals of frogs, snails, tortoise or good fish and ‘Asses Milk’). For another ailment, the preparation is a tisane of barley and marsh-mallow. In A garden of herbs by ES Rohde (1922), another 1600s source is given for a slightly different method of preparation, but the author calls it a Hordeat as well as mundified barley.

[5] The Living Field web site gives descriptions of bannocks made from assorted grain at Peasemeal, beremeal, oatmeal.

[6] Bere is a traditional barley landrace still grown in a few northern fields: further information at Bere line – rhymes with hairline. Lawson and Son’s descriptions of various beres can be found at Bere in Lawson’s Synopsis.

Contact/author: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk or geoff.squire@outlook.com

Online 16 October 2019, revised 6 November 2019.

The barley timeline

Through her interest in traditional landforms and crops, Jean Duncan [1] compiled a history of barley landraces and varieties grown since the 1800s. She named it The Barley Timeline.

A selection of old varieties and landraces is shown in the panel below. The Living Field grew all the landraces and varieties named in the timeline in a part of the west garden in 2018 [2].

To accompany the display Jean devised the poster below, which gives general information on barley and the bere landrace and notes on each of the chosen varieties.

Selected varieties are being grown in the Living Field Garden in 2019.

Click for a 1 Mb PDF file of The Barley Timeline.

[1] More of Jean’s work with the Living Field at Jean Duncan Artist.

{2} Gladys Wright and Jackie Thompson with support of the glasshouse staff at the James Hutton Institure grow the barley plants. For information: gladys.wright@hutton.ac.uk.

More on barley and other grains at the Living Field

A decade of demos and teaching, growing, milling, cooking, road shows and open days – Ancient grains at the Living Field: 10 years on

Introduction to the barley landrace, bere, and index for all Living Field articles on bere – The bere line – rhymes with hairline and see also for the historical distribution of bere and barley – Bere country.

Photographs of old and unusual barley types from Britain and overseas – Barley landraces and old varieties in the garden 2015

Three grain resilience

The north-east Atlantic seaboard has grown three main grain crops – oat, barley and wheat. All originated in the east Mediterranean or west Asia, but all find the climate here good for their growth. Most years that is.

The fall in output of the main staple grain crops in 2018, and before that in 2012, due to unusually bad weather, raised many questions as to how food and alcohol production would be affected if the climate continued to vary between wet and dry. The crop in 2012 suffered from cloudy skies causing slow plant growth, and then very wet soil that made harvest difficult. That in 2018 suffered from lack of water mid-May, at just the point when the crops were starting their main phase of growth.

Yet in neither year did production collapse. Total grain output from wheat, barley and oats fell by little more than a tenth of the average. Perhaps the varied needs of the three grains give cereal production here its ability to withstand years of bad weather. Historical change in this combination of grains may tell much about how agriculture can cope with the future.

Here, we look back over 150 years to see that the balance of the three grains and other crops has undergone major change, most of it not due to the weather, and ask whether the three grains give production some resilience – a capacity to withstand shocks, to adapt and continue.

1900: decline in grain output, a move to grass

In and around 1900, and for many decades before that, oats was by far the most widely grown grain crop in the northern part of Britain. In the crop census for Scotland [1], oats occupied more than three-quarters of the cereal area, and barley most of the rest. Wheat was minor. Few other cereals were grown – a little rye and some ‘mixed grain’ usually consisting of oats and barley.

It was a time of great change, most of it considered negative for home production. The area sown with cereals decreased as did that of the ‘root’ crops (turnips and swede) and also the grain legumes (peas and beans). They all gave way to grass, to feed cattle and sheep, with the result that the country was far from self-sufficient in grain at the time of WWI.

From privation to food security: 1945 – 1990

The areas grown with cereals and other arable crops kept on falling until the start of WWII when the need for home-grown food and feed caused some of the grass to be re-ploughed and sown with arable. The proportional areas of the three cereals remained the same, except for a little more wheat.

Yield per unit area had not changed much from 1900. Something had to happen. The privations of the war years and reliance on imports to feed the country spurred government into action. Plans were laid to raise farming output, but it was well over 10 years before there was any improvement in yield.

The phase of ‘intensification’ really began in the 1960s – machines could plough deeper, mineral fertiliser was readily available and new crop varieties were introduced able to allocate more of their mass to grain rather than straw. By the 1980s, yields had more than doubled. This result of intensification was a major achievement, reproduced in many parts of the world (The Green Revolution).

The largest single change here during that time was a shift from oats to barley and wheat. They were more profitable than oats and could now be grown to higher yield and over large areas with the fertiliser and pesticides that became readily available. Most of the wheat and about 20% of the barley were autumn-sown winter crops. They were able to survive the cold of winter and be ready to bulk up on the sun’s energy as early as May, and so were higher yielding than the traditional spring varieties.

By the 1970s, the country could have fed itself from home production, but then a rise in global trade meant that cereal food could be imported on the cheap. Home production became almost irrelevant to peoples’ consumption of cereal products except oats.

The great levelling : 1990 to the present

The seemingly unstoppable rise in grain yield slowed in the late 1980s. The brakes were on – for various reasons (which will be looked at another time). Yields per field and total grain output from the country have hardly changed since. They go up, as in the favourable weather of 2014, and down as in 2012 and 2018, but their present trajectory is level.

It’s the same for grain output in much of Europe, and crops farther afield, such as oil palm, also suffer: years of expansion and rise in output are followed by a levelling.

The levelling presents a major problem for science and crop management. 2014 gave the highest average yields ever in the region expressed as grain mass per unit field area. There is still potential for increase. The maximum on-farm yields are much higher than the average. Possibly modern varieties, able to yield well in good years, are over-sensitive to bad years.

Lessons from the past

The great swing in the mid-1900s from mostly oats to mostly barley was caused by markets and new opportunities for trade. Science and technology provided the means but the markets drove the change. Government strategy was to gain self-sufficiency in food, but that sufficiency ultimately came from outside.

There was no real strategic plan for home -grown production and there does not seem to be one now. That farming can switch between the three grains (and between grain and grass) should make agriculture less at risk of future catastrophe, whether due to climate. volcanic eruption or blockade. But the country should not wait to see what happens.

The resilience afforded by oats, barley and wheat should now be planned into the future of farming here. The Common Agricultural Policy did little to challenge current markets and the dominance of the few major influences. Post-CAP there is an opportunity to set targets for home-grown cereal food as distinct from cereals as substrates for animal feed and alcohol. Tinkering round the edges will do little. Major structural change in land use is needed.

Some previous posts on this web site have looked at the effects on crops of unusual weather in the past decade [2]. Future articles and notes will look at how farming used the three grains to the lessen the damage caused by the 2018 drought. We’ll also be starting a major series of articles on the options for future sustainability, with reference of course to lessons from the past 5000 years.

Sources, links

[1] A longer version of this article is available as on the curvedflatlands web site: Resilience in a three-grain production system, where full reference is given to the government statistical records from the late 1800s to the present and commentaries on trends in areas and yields of the three grains.

[2] Related topics on the Living Field web site: Winter flood on the water-field pages and The late autumn floods of 2012. For our general educational work on grains, see Ancient grains at the Living Field – 10 years on.

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

[Last update: 16 March 2019, with several textual corrections! GS}

Ancient grains at the Living Field – 10 years on

The Living Field project has been sharing knowledge of ancient and modern cereal grains for over 10 years [1]. Here we look back at how things evolved from field studies in barley on the Institute’s farms to growing our own range of cereals and finally using bere barley and other flours to make bannocks, bread and biscuits.

The sequence is shown here for bere barley. Seeds are sown, crops are grown. Bere plants support reproductive heads or ears holding grain. Plants are harvested and the grains removed and cleaned. They are ground into meal or flour, then used alone or mixed with other flours to make bread, bannocks and biscuits.

This sequence has sustained people for thousands of years.  Today the grain we eat in Scotland, except for oats, is not grown here – the main cereal products from local fields are alcohol and animal feed. But whatever the future of agricultural produce, the grain-based cycle will remain essential to settled existence. In this retrospective, we describe the Living Field’s shared experience of ‘seed to plate’ over the last 10 years.

School visits to the farm’s barley fields

We began by introducing visitors to the James Hutton Institute’s fields where barley is grown both for experiments and for commercial grain sales. From 2007, the Living Field has been using the farm’s barley to give school parties a first taste of life in the crop.

The larger image above looks down from a barley field at Balruddery farm to the Tay estuary. The school children in the pictures were visiting fields of young barley at Mylnefield farm just above the Tay. This was in May 2007. They walked along the ‘tram lines’ looking at plants and finding ‘minibeasts’ – the first time many of them had been in a crop. They were fascinated with small creatures found crawling on the plants or walking over the soil [2].

The public interest in crops and their ecology in those early visits encouraged us to explore a much wider range of cereal plants than presently grown in commercial agriculture.

Ancient grains at the Living Field Garden

So began a small collection of grain crops which were sown, tended and harvested each year in the Living Field Garden [3]. We began in 2010 by growing bere barley from Orkney, black oat, emmer and spelt wheat, alongside modern varieties of barley, oats and bread wheat. Rye and a landrace of bread wheat from the western isles were added later, then several other barley landraces and old varieties [4].

The collection of photographs above shows (top right) a general view of the  garden including a tall cereal plot in the middle of the photo, then c’wise from upper right – a barley landrace from Ireland, rye, black oat, emmer wheat, young spelt ear, spratt archer barley and a bread wheat landrace.

By 2011, the Living Field had combined its practical experience on the farm with the collection of ancient and modern grains in the Garden. Gladys Wright and Jackie Thompson had perfected the way to grow all these different species. We now needed a means to demonstrate processing the grain and making food from it.

Milling and baking

The harvest from the small plots in the garden was too little to make flour enough for open days, road shows and exhibitions. Additional grain and flour (or meal) was begged or bought from a range of sources, notably Barony Mills in Orkney and ‘Quaker Oats’ in Fife.

The Living Field then bought its own rotary quern for grinding the grain into meal and chaff, which is the name given to the other bits we don’t usually eat, mostly the protective sheathing around the grain and the awns.

Now to make a loaf! Fortunately one of the team, Gillian Banks, was already an experienced bread-maker and after some experimentation turned out tasty loaves made from various mixtures including bere and modern barley, oats, emmer, spelt, wheat, rye …. and more [5]!

The whole chain from sowing seed in the ground to making food could now be demonstrated from first-hand experience. We did this at various open events beginning 2012.

The panel above shows (bottom left, clockwise) – visitors experiencing a range of ancient grains and flours, demonstrating the rotary quern, a sheaf of spelt, making things from sourdough, and a four-panel set showing oat grain in a bag, sieving and sorting meal from chaff and finally bread.

Open Farm Sundays

The highlights of our outreach over the years has been LEAF Open Farm Sunday. The Institute is a LEAF innovation Centre [6], so on the first Sunday in June, the farm and science come together to host the event. One of the main attractions is the hub of activity around the Living Field garden, cabins and tunnel. Typically 1000-2000 people visit the hub during the day. We’re mobbed ….. thanks to all!

The essential structure of a successful open day is, firstly, to provide plenty of things to do for young children, to keep them occupied and allow time for older children and grown-ups to talk about what’s on view; and, second, hands-on activity with natural products, things such as living plants, and grain and flour that can be touched, felt and smelled  [6].

Group activities are usually located in the garden’s polytunnel, just in case of rain.  The panel above shows (lower left c’wise) examples of grain and flour, a ‘tasting’, making things with grain and other natural materials, an activity table for children and their grown-ups, and bags of grain from the garden with young scientist sitting on the rotary quern fascinated by oat grains.

Cooking with bere barley – more than bannocks

The thread linking exhibits through the years has been bere barley – Scotland’s barley landrace, an attractive plant, easy to grow.  Bere as a crop declined in the late 1800s and is now restricted to a few fields in the far north. Like most of the world’s landraces, bere faded in competition with modern crop varieties and production methods. Yet it remains a favourite here. Its story continues [7].

Bere and other barleys were traditionally used to make a flatbead or bannock, either on its own or mixed with oatmeal or peasmeal, but  bere meal has many uses when mixed with other flours.

The Living Field has friends and correspondents like Grannie Kate who regularly experiment with different uses of ancient and modern grains. Scones, shortbread, batter, porridge, soups can all include bere as a unique constituent. One of the team regularly adds a a spoon or two of bere meal to their morning’s rolled-oat porridge.

The images above show (top left, c’wise) bere and oat bannocks, a bag of bear meal in Grannie Kate’s kitchen, bere fruit scones and bere shortbread [8].

On the road

Following the Living Field’s appearance at a ‘biodiversity day’ run by the Dundee Science Centre in January 2016, we were invited to join the exhibition trail organised in 2016 by the Centre as part of The Crunch [9]. By this time, we could take take the whole process on the road – seed-plant-grain-flour-food.

Gill Banks and Linda Nell, with Lauren Banks and Geoff Squire, ran the grain to plate events at The Crunch venues. One was in a darkened auditorium at the Dundee Science Centre, another at a local community Centre.

The Science Centre suggested we bring some bread made in the usual way from cereal grain and some made from insects. Gill bought various whole insects and flours and made some insect loaves that several of us had a pre-taste of and concluded they tasted just like nice wholesome loaves.

Anyway, the insects went down a treat at the events and started many a conversation of what we eat and what it costs – insects gram for gram need much less energy and cause much less pollution than most other forms of animal rearing.

The panel above shows scenes from the (top right) the January event) and bottom right (The Crunch) both at the Science Centre, then (top left, down) sheaves of spelt and black oat, globs of gluten extracted from wheat by Gill, mixed-flour bread with dried crickets laid on, and (at the bottom) dried insects for cooking or eating and (centre) barley grain.

Ancient grains in Living Field art

Through working with artists, the team were able to see the plants they had grown become part of artwork. Jean Duncan for example was able to place grain not just as a food but as essential to the development of farming and human society since the last ice. In her work, grains and plants appear close to circles, barrows, landforms and field systems.
Some extracts from Jean’s creations are shown in the panel above. Various ears, spikelets and grains appear commonly alongside mounds and barrows (example right). At top left, ancient cereal plants are stylised as fans, drawn near the centre of  a circular design,  used to create a revolving backdrop for an opera. At bottom left, a section of her ‘teaching wheel’ shows a range of cereal species grown in the region since the neolithic [10].

At Open Days, children like drawing things,  messing with paint and pencil: better then just looking, it helps to give them a lasting memory of what they saw and touched.

Where next

Nearing the end of 2018 and the project will continue its work on bere and other grains, ancient and modern. The Living Field is connecting to the swell of interest in local food and recipes.

Few others can demonstrate the whole chain – not just grain to plate – but from sowing the seed to eating the food and, crucially, saving some grain for the next year’s crop.

The James Hutton Institute has recently been awarded funds for an International Barley Hub. Let’s see what the 2019 season brings!

…… warm bere and crickets?

The idea of ‘insect bread’ always raises interest, even if to some the thought is less than appetising. But insects and bread have a long history together ……

At one time and even now in many places, a bag of flour can have resident insects in the form of weevils. They live and reproduce in it, eat it and recyle it in one form or another (probably best not thought about). They add a little crunchy something to a baked loaf [11].

That’s insect bread ‘by accident’. For several years, and as shown above, Gill and Co have been experimenting with bread made from insect flour mixed with grain flour. The insects tried so far are mainly crickets, raised especially for the purpose (though not by us). Insects as alternatives to fish and meat in European diets is a hot topic now  [12].

Sources, references, links

[1] Geoff Squire and and Gladys Wright developed the ideas around a seed to plate theme not long after the Living Field garden began in 2004.

[2] The Hutton farm staff have been partners in the Living Field since its making in 2004. They manage the crops, drive the tractors and  explain what’s going on to visitors.

[3] Gladys Wright and Jackie Thompson grow the Living Field cereals from seed each season. They have been helped by several other people in earlier years, especially Linda Ford.

[4] Thanks to Orkney College and SASA Edinburgh for giving the original seed. The Institute’s barley collection was the source of several landraces and varieties grown in 2015: see Barley landraces and old varieties.

[5] Gillian Banks experiments with bread making and has regularly baked a range of ancient grain loaves and biscuits for open days and road-shows: see Bere and cricket.

[6] Open Farm Sundays have been well supported by Hutton staff – Gladys Wright and Jackie Thompson prepare and run the Living Field ‘space’; other regular contributors to the ancient and modern cereals theme include Gill Banks, Lauren Banks, Linda Nell,  Linda Ford, Mark Young and Geoff Squire. Students and family have helped time and again on the stalls and exhibits. For more on LEAF Linking Environment and Farming, see LEAF innovation Centre.

[7] Bere barley and bere meal feature regularly on the Living Field web site, for example see the Bere line – rhymes with hairline, Bere country,  and Peasemeal, oatmeal and beremeal.

[8] The Living Field’s correspondent Grannie Kate’s offerings mix bere with other flours, see Bere shortbread, Bere scones, Bere bannocks and Seeded oatcakes with beremeal. Barony Mills in Orkney also has a book of recipes.

[9] The Crunch was a UK-wide series of events held in 2016, coordinated locally by Dundee Science Centre:  Gill and Lauren Banks, Linda Nell and Geoff Squire, among others, offered a range of exhibits on themes of grains and bread: see Bere and cricket, The Crunch at Dundee Science Centre. Thanks to DSC for inviting us to take part.

[10] Jean Duncan is an artist who has worked with the Living Field for many years. For examples of her work and links to her wider presence from the neolithic onwards, see Jean Duncan artist.

[11] Geoff reminisces – ‘lived once in a place where the flour bought to bake bread had live-in weevils; you could pick the big ones out, otherwise they got baked.’

[12] Crunchy bread made by Gill Banks from insect flour: photographs and details at Bere and cricket.   Later, Gill, Geoff and Linda F found when investigating an infestation of weevils in grain, that insects in bread, whether by design or accident, bring a high-nitrogen (high protein) addition, insects being about 10% N by weight – little nuggets of protein in your low-N loaf!

Contacts: this article, geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk or geoff.squire@outlook.com; growing the cereals, Gladys Wright has since retired from the Institute. Any enquiries through GS.

Bere country

A note in the Bere-line – a survey of bere barley, an old corn landrace. Distribution of bere and barley in the 1850s: bere to the north and west, barley to the east and centre. Loss of bere and many other crops from the late 1800s. Declines in crop diversity. 

Previous notes in the bere-line compared bere barley and the improved two-row barleys in several collections and census records from the 1800s. By the 1850s, bere was still recognised and catalogued in terms of several variants [1] but most named types of barley were of the two-row form.

In the crop census of 1854 [2, 3], itself a milestone in the description of agriculture, bere occupied about 10% of the area of barley, but was still recorded throughout the country.

Distribution of bere in the 1850s

The census of 1854 was based on the pre-1890s counties, administrative areas that had been in existence, though not unaltered, for many hundreds of years [4, 5]. A map of the counties is shown at Sources below.

The areas sown with bere and barley in 1854 are shown in Fig. 1. The centre of each circle is positioned near the centre of one of the old counties. The map is partitioned into present administrative areas [6].

The area of each circle represents the relative area of crop in each county. The largest circle in the bere map is about 3000 acres (1,200 hectares) while the largest on the barley map is 28,000 areas (11,300 hectares). The map appears to show no or little bere or barley was grown in the western islands, but they were part of mainland counties at that time, so the crops grown there were included within circles  located on the mainland.

Fig. 1 Distribution of bere (left) and barley (right) from the 1854 census, each circle representing the area of crop in one of the pre-1890s counties. The largest bere circle is about ten times smaller than the largest barley. The dashed line near the top indicates Shetland is displaced downwards in this depiction. Orkney and Shetland formed one area in the census: bere on the left represented by the large circle just above Orkney; the arrow on the right pointing to the small area grown with barley. Click on the map to see a larger image. Original map outline from [6]. Source of data [3].

The distribution of bere confirms it was grown country-wide, from the Borders to Orkney and Shetland. Yet the areas sown to bere were very small in counties to the east and south east. It seems to have almost faded out in these places but remained strong in the north in Caithness, in the south-west in Argyll and in the northern islands, Orkney and Shetland. Bere was therefore grown in colder, wetter climates and poorer soils than could be profitably grown with the two-row types.

At this time, barley was the preferred crop in the east central and south east, which are now the typical, high-yielding grain producing regions of the country. Barley was not the major cereal in the 1800s. Oat was still grown over a much greater area. But the regions occupied by barley in the 1850s are those in which it rose to dominance in the period 1940-1960 to become by far the most widely grown cereal.

Bere’s decline

One of the main difficulties with charting the fall of bere is the absence of reliable records before and in the early 1800s.  Even its decline into the early 1900s is obscure because barley and bere were combined in the annual census of area and yield [7]. 

The reasons for bere’s later decline to near extinction are uncertain and would have differed between regions. The improving two-rowed barleys were probably easier to manage and more reliable yielders than bere in most parts of the country. There were regional variations – in Shetland, for example [10] the barleys as a whole declined fourfold from 1890 to 1930 and then continued to fall due to a rise in rotational grass and sheep.

Many changes occurred in the 150 years from the 1854 census, including major reductions of other crops – other than grass – grown for animal feed, including turnips and swedes, forage (leaf ) brassicas, grain legumes and mashlum, a traditional crop mix of oats and beans [8]. The loss of bere was part of that change. 

Yet bere did not die out. This traditional landrace is still grown and finding high-value uses in food and drink [9, 10]. There’s hope still – buy some bere meal and get cooking!

Author/contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk. Gladys Wright and Jackie Thompson grow the bere and barley crops in the Living Field Garden.

Sources, references, links

[1] Lawson and Sons synopsis of the vegetable products of Scotand: Bere in Lawsons synopsis of 1852.

[2] Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland. For history and archives: https://archive.rhass.org.uk://archive.rhass.org.uk

[3] Thorburn T. 1855. Diagrams, Agricultural Statistics of Scotland for 1854. London: Effingham Wilson. More at this Living Field article on Thorburn’s Diagrams. Original available in part through the web. 

[4] The Historic Counties Trust and the Historic Counties Borders project: http://www.county-borders.co.uk/historiccountiestrust/index.html. See also Great Britain and Ireland – interactive county map at https://wikishire.co.uk/map/ 

[5] Shires of Scotland (Scotland historic counties before 1890) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shires_of_Scotland gives the history of the counties and map. The map opposite showing counties by number, except Orkney and Zetland (as it was then named) is from Undiscovered Scotland at Scottish Counties until 1890.

[6] Scotland map, outline with modern administrative regions: www.d-maps.com, free map, edited by the author.

[7] Agricultural Statistics 1912. Acreage and live stock returns of Scotland. Board of Agriculture for Scotland. HMSO. A useful starting point since it gives crop-areas back to 1902.

[8] Bean-oat or pea-oat mixed crop – an article on the Living field web site at Mashlum – a traditional mix of oats and beans.

[9] See Barony Mills’s web site  for preparation and uses of bere meal:  http://www.birsay.org.uk/baronymill.htm. The Living Field web site offers several of Grannie Kate’s recipes for bere meal, usually mixed with other cereals: seeded oatcakes with beremeal, bere bannocks, bere shortbread and bere scones.

[10] For a summary of cereal growing on Shetland, its decline and potential: Martin, P. 2015. Review of cereal growing in Shetland. Agronomy Institute, Orkney College. To find the PDF online, search for ‘cereal shetland agronomy institute 2015″.

Links to other Living Field articles on bere

The bere line – rhymes with hairline : summary of all links to bere on this site.

Landrace 1 – bere : notes on the barley landrace and crops on Orkney.

The horizontal water mills at Huxter: Shetland’s horizontal water mills.

 

Bere scones

Our correspondent Grannie Kate sent these recipes for scones made with a flour mix that includes bere meal. Bere is a traditional landrace of barley grown mainly in northern Scotland but now confined to a few fields in Orkney.

Find out more about the bere plant, its origins and its products, and also Grannie Kate‘s other recipes, at the links at the bottom of the page.

Grannie Kate’s fruit and nut scones with bere barley

Makes about 6/7 scones

Ingredients

3 oz (75g) self raising flour
3 oz (75g) bere barley flour
1 heaped teaspoon of baking powder
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 oz (25g) soft brown sugar
1 oz (25g) butter or margarine at room temperature
1 large egg
2 oz (50g) sultanas or sliced cherries or mixed fruit (whatever you have in the cupboard)
2 -3 tablespoons milk
Flaked almonds

What to do
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 200/220 C or gas mark 8
  2. Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl
  3. Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs then add the fruit
  4. Beat the egg in a small bowl, add the milk to the egg and then add both to the mixture, stirring it all in. If the mixture is a bit stiff add in a little more milk
  5. Turn the dough out onto a floured worktop and make into a round about 1 ½ – 2 cm deep, patting it with your hand until smooth
  6. Use a cutter (whatever size you like ) to cut out the scones, putting them onto baking parchment on a tray. Add flaked almonds to the top of each scone
  7. Brush a little milk onto the top of each scone
  8. Bake for 12 – 15 minutes until golden brown with slightly singed almonds.
Grannie Kate’s cheese scones with bere barley

Makes about 6/7 scones

Ingredients

4 oz (110g) self raising flour
2 oz (50g) bere barley
1 oz (25g) butter at room temperature
1 heaped teaspoon of baking powder
2-3 tablespoons milk
3 oz (75g) grated strong cheese ( e.g. cheddar, Prima Donna aged Gouda)
1 large egg
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dried mustard powder
2 good pinches of cayenne pepper
A liitle extra milk

What to do
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 180/200 C or gas mark 7
  2. Mix the flours, mustard powder and salt in a large bowl but just one pinch of cayenne pepper
  3. Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs then add most of the grated cheese. Leave a little to add to the top of each scone before putting in the hot oven
  4. Beat the egg in a small bowl, add the milk to the egg and then add both to the mixture, stirring it all in. If the mixture is a bit stiff add in a little more milk
  5. Turn the dough out onto a floured worktop and make into a round about 1 ½ – 2 cm deep, patting it with your floured hand until smooth.
  6. Use a cutter (whatever size you like) to cut out the scones, putting them onto baking parchment on a tray. Or you could just leave it as a big round and make wedges by pushing down with a knife until it almost, but not quite, cuts the dough
  7. Brush a little milk onto the top of each scone, then add a little remaining grated cheese and the last pinch of cayenne pepper
  8. Bake for 12 – 15 minutes until golden with the cheese on the top melting down the sides.
Links on the Living Field web site

More on the bere plant, its history and its products at The bere line -rhymes with hairline and Landrace 1- bere.

More recipes using bere at Bere bannocks, Bere shortbread and Seeded oatcakes with bere meal.

Many thanks to Grannie Kate for her recipes using flour (meal) from bere barley.

 

Maize husk for art paper and cheroot wrapping

Maize, along with rice and wheat, and to a lesser degree barley, provides most of the cereal or corn harvest for the world’s civilisations. Maize was domesticated in the Americas and did not arrive here until recent centuries, when ships and navigation were advanced enough to sail across an ocean.

Maize is a warm-climate crop [1] but consists of many varieties, some of which can be grown here in summer, where it’s product is known as corn-on-the-cob or sweet corn. It is also grown  in stock farming as an animal feed, but mainly in the south of the UK.

Yet maize has many other uses. Here we look at two of them, both starting with the husk surrounding and protecting the cob – Jean Duncan’s exploration of paper-making using husks from maize grown in the Living Field garden, and the traditional use of maize husk as wrapping for Burmese cheroots.

Print of maize root on maize husk paper

For making plant paper, Jean tried various parts of the maize plants including the leaves, the thick stems and also the papery coverings of the flowering and fruiting head, known as the husk, which she said made the best paper [2].

The images above are of a print on maize husk paper of an etching of a maize root cut in cross section and magnified so that the internal structure can be seen.

In the print on the left hand side of the images, the original root cross section is about 1 mm wide, the image itself is 22 by 22 cm and the paper 40 by 49 cm. To the right are close-ups of part of the print and of the paper, showing the visible fibres from the original husks, now converted into paper.

The paper in this case became a visible part of the finished art. Sources below give links to Jean’s description of making the paper and an exhibition in which images of roots were printed on various plant-based papers [2].

Burmese cheroot wrapping

Once it was brought across from the Americas, maize travelled quickly in the 1600 and 1700s and became a favoured cereal through Africa and among the warmer parts of Europe. It established also in Asia, but usually as a secondary crop behind rice.

Its parts were used not only for food for humans and animals. There is a history of usage as a medicinal, as a substate for alcohol (e.g. chibuku in Africa) and curiously, as a wrapping for cheroots.

The long cigar shaped structures smoked in Burma (now Myanmar) and known as cheroots are usually filled with a range of herby and woody plant material, not always including tobacco. The wrapping can come from a range of plants, but the cigars below were wrapped in maize cob husks [3].

Several husk-leaves were used to wrap each cheroot. The contents were, as said above, derived from a range of plant material, most pieces being 2-4 mm long. Each cheroot had a filter, consisting of tight rolls of leaf or husk. They were on sale locally along the Irrawaddy River in Burma, now Myanmar [4].

In his compendium of useful plants, Burkhill [3] notes that an industry arose in north Burma at some time in the last few hundred years, based on the use of a type of maize, characterised by a waxy endosperm (the store in the seed), which also had a ‘peculiar suitability of the sheath for cheroots.’ He also refers to the possibility that certain impoverished areas were afflicted by the vitamin deficiency pellagra through reliance on maize, as in parts of the USA [5].

Male and female flower heads

Maize is unusual among the cereal or corn plants in having separate male and female flower heads, each on compact ‘branches’ held on different parts of the same plant. The male flowers are usually held at the top of the plant and the female lower down. Female branches are shown in the images below, taken in the Living Field garden.

The female flowering head remains mostly hidden within a sheath of leafy material (above left) that later forms the husk. The grain sites are arranged around the central ‘stem’ hidden by the sheath. The stem and grains together will later form what we know as the corn cob.

Each grain site puts out a long thread, many of which together emerge from the sheath in an irregular bunch, often named a silk, the female part of the reproductive process in this species (seen reddish, above left and top right).

The function of each female thread (comprising a stigma and style)  is to receive pollen from male flowers and to provide a channel for the pollen tube, that emerges from a pollen grain, to grow into the sheath to a grain site. When pollinated, the grain sites fill to give the familiar, yellow kernel which remains protected by the sheath.

Sometimes the season in the Garden is too short for late flowering maize heads and they do not grow into a finished, filled cob. One of these late heads was prized apart to show an undeveloped cob (lower right in the images above) and the surrounding sheath that had turned to parchment in feel and colour.  The female threads, now fibrous and dead, can just about be seen issuing from each grain site.

The paper shown in the images at the top of the page was made from husks like these.

Finally, here is an image of maize intercropped with groundnut growing by the Irrawaddy river [4]. The male branches can be seen at the top of some of the plants. Female flowering heads are circled.

Sources, references, links

[1] The botanical name for maize is Zea mays. The genus Zea is of the grass family and has only this species. It was domesticated and developed many thousands of years ago in Central and South America. It was first brought across the Atlantic Ocean in the late 1400s, then spread rapidly east.

[2] The article Maize paper by Jean Duncan describes how to make paper from plants in the garden. The exhibition The Beauty of Roots shows prints and etchings made on maize and other plant papers displayed at the University of Dundee in 2017.

[3] Details of the spread and growing of maize in Asia are given in the major compendium of useful south-east Asian plants by Burkill, published in 1966, but  clearly the result of many decades of investigation and cataloguing. He lists the use of maize husks for cheroot wrappings and of maize leaf and stem for paper.

Burkill IH. 1966. Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsular. Two volumes, 2444 pages. Published on behalf of the Governments of Malaysia and Singapore by the Ministry of Agriculture and Co-operatives, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The entry on maize is in Vol II at pages 2327-2334.

The writer refers to the following article for confirmation of the use of ‘waxy’ maize varieties as cheroot wrapping in Burma: Collins GN.1920. Waxy maize from upper Burma. Science 52, 48-51. doi 10.1126/science.52.1333.48.

[4] The cheroots shown in the images were bought at a village store in 2014 on the banks of the Irrawaddy. Further description of the region is given at  Mixed cropping in Burma on the curvedflatlands web site in an article by G R Squire.  Disclaimer – no cheroots were smoked in the research for this article!

[5] The Living Field we site has the following articles on maize and pellagra: Cornbread, peas and black molasses and Peanuts to pellagra.

Contact/author: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

The Mill at Atholl

The historic watermill at Blair Atholl. Absence of corn growing in the surrounding area today. Extensive field systems and enclosed land in the mid 1700s. Andrew Wights 1780s descriptions of innovation, enterprise and crop diversification. Part of a Living Field series on old corn mills.

The watermill at Atholl [1] offers a welcoming break to journeys along the A9 road, offering – in addition to the working mill – coffee and freshly baked bread from a variety of grains. In 2017, the mill and its bakers gained some deserved exposure on a BBC2 television programme, Nadiya’s British Food Adventure, presented by Nadiya Hussain [1].

The remaining corn mills in the north of Britain tell much about the phasing in and out of local corn production over the last few centuries. The Living Field’s interest in this case lies in the mill’s history and location, being a substantial building but presently in an area that has no local corn production. In this, it differs from Barony Mills in Orkney which lies within an area of barley cultivation that still supplies the mill [2].

The images above show the water wheel fed by a lode that runs from the river Tilt to the north, the main grinding wheel (covered, top l), hoppers feeding the wheel and an old mill wheel. The watermill’s web site [1] and the explanation boards in the mill itself describe the history of the building and workings of the machinery.

The Atholl watermill was a substantial investment, but what strikes today is the absence of corn-growing (arable) land in the area. When visited in 2017, very few fields were cultivated.

What do the historical maps tell us?

The information inside the mill states that it was present at the time of Timothy Pont’s map of the 1590s [3]. It is there on his map, just south of ‘Blair Castel’. But Roy’s Military Survey [4] of the mid-1700s gives the best indication of the possible extent of cropped land in the area. Features on the Roy map (copied below) include ‘Blair Kirk’ (church) which still stands at what is now known as Old Blair and ‘Tilt Bridge’ on the road that ran north of the Garry; then areas of enclosed land or parkland, bounded by tree lines; and the Mill, shown within the white circle in the upper map, with its lode clearly leaving the River Tilt to the north and flowing past the mill to enter the River Garry upstream of where the Tilt joins it.

The Roy Map shows what appear be clusters of field systems on both sides of the Garry, depicted by short parallel lines suggesting rigs, some indicated by white arrows on the upper map. The lower map has been displaced to show more field systems around Aldclune.

Later, on the first edition of the Ordnance Survey 1843-1882, the village of ‘Blair Athole’ has started to take shape, the corn mill is marked being fed by a Mill Lead originating at a sluice off the River Tilt. Later still, the Land Utilisation Survey 1931-1935 shows arable land remaining, consistent with the location of many of the field systems on Roy’s map.

Therefore crops, and they must have included corn, whether oat or barley, were grown in the region and presumably fed the mill, but more information on what was grown was reported by Andrew Wight, travelling 30 years or so after Roy.

Andrew Wight’s survey of 1784

Mr Wight’s surveys of agriculture in Scotland in the 1770s and 1780s again provide rare and sometimes surprising insights. He meets and reports on mainly the improvers, the landowners and their major tenants, less so the householder and small grower. Yet he was there at a crucial time in the development of food production and able to present a unique and consistent account throughout mainland Scotland.

Part way through his fourth survey [6], he spent the night in Dalwhinnie, then on travelling south towards lowland Perthshire, he stopped at Dalnacardoch, commenting that the innkeeper was a ‘spirited and enterprising’ farmer. There he reports a “clover field, dressed to perfection; an extraordinary sight in this barren country” and also “turnips in drills in perfect good order, pease broadcast, bear and oats with grass-seeds”, and notes ‘great crops of potato are raised here’. [Ed: bere is a landrace of barley.]

On ‘Athol House’ (near the mill) he concentrates on the animals, various breeds and hybrids of cattle, and also sheep; but on the tilled land, he writes the “Duke’s farm is about 700 acres arable; of which not more than 120 are in tillage, the rest being hay or pasture.” The rotation is “turnip broadcast, barley, oats and turnip again”. So corn crops – barley and oats – occupied 2/3 of the 120 acres, equivalent to 80 acres or 32 hectares (abbreviated to ha, 1 acre = 0.405 ha). It is uncertain what this land yielded at that time, but assuming it was 1 t/ha or one-fifth of todays typical spring cereal harvest, then that’s 30 tonnes of corn annually. By itself it does not seem enough for such a big mill.

Again, it is unclear whether tenants and crofters are included in the stated area, but they were probably not. For example, later he mentions tenants, including the innkeeper and farmer at ‘Blair of Athol’ who grew corn for his own local consumption. The extent of other corn land cultivated by small tenants, for example, on the field systems shown in the maps above, is not mentioned.

Mr Wight continues in his appreciation of the standards as he moves south, finding after Killicrankie and towards Faskally, an enchantment of orderly farmland. On the road south to Dunkeld, he writes ‘hills on every side, some covered with flocks, some with trees and small plantations, mixed with spots of corn scattered here and there; and beautiful haughs variegated with flax, corn and grass.’

Driving along the A9 road today, the land flanking the Garry seems impoverished and the climate inhospitable for crops, but Wight presents an entirely different view: innovation, improvement, and diversity of plant and animal husbandry. As in many upland areas, the land reverted to poor pasture, in some instances as recently as the 1980s. Why? Higher costs of growing crops, low profit margins, easier alternatives based on better transport connections and ready imports of cereal carbs.

Sources, links

[1] Blair Atholl Watermill and tearoom. Location shown on map, right. http://blairathollwatermill.co.uk (check web site for opening). The mill and its bakers were featured in 2017 on BBC2’s Nadiya’s British Food Adventure.

[2] Living Field articles on water-driven corn mills: 1) Shetland’s horizontal water mills and 2) Landrace 1 – bere (Barony Mills, Orkney).

[3] Pont maps of Scotland ca. 1583-1614, by Timothy Pont http://maps.nls.uk/pont/index.html

[4] Roy Military Survey of Scotland 1747-1755 http://maps.nls.uk/roy/ The web site of the National Library of Scotland (NLS) allows educational and not-for-profit use: acknowledgement given on the map legend.

[5] Land Utilisation Survey Scotland 1931-1935. “The first systematic and comprehensive depiction of the land cover and use in Scotland under the supervision of L. Dudley Stamp” http://maps.nls.uk/series/land-utilisation-survey/ See also
https://digimap.edina.ac.uk/webhelp/environment/data_information/dudleystamp.htm

[6] Wight, Andrew. 1784. Present state of husbandry in Scotland Volume IV, part I. Edinburgh: William Creech. The sights noted above, between Dalwinnie and Dunkeld, are described at pages154-165. [Available online, search for author and title.] Other reports of Mr Wight’s journeys are given on this site at Great quantities of Aquavitae and Great quantities of Aquavitae II.