I make shortbread biscuits regularly with my 3 year old granddaughter Ellie, who loves making a mess and ‘helps’ me.
Shortbread biscuits can be a bit dense so I always use self-raising flour (or a mixture of SR and plain flour). I usually add semolina to give a slight crunchiness to the biscuit. However, I had only a small amount in the bottom of the packet. So, I substituted bere barley for the semolina.
The resulting dough was too dry and so extra milk (or buttermilk to be more traditional) was added – about 2 tablespoons – so the dough could be rolled easily without it breaking up.
What to do
Preheat oven to 150 C or gas mark 2. Melt the butter or soften in the oven for a few minutes then cream the butter and sugar together ( use a hand held electric whisk) until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add all the dry ingredients, then mix again. Add milk to make the dough stick together.
Roll out the dough on a floured surface and then use cutters to make the biscuits into rounds or other shapes. Transfer to a greased baking tray or use baking paper and make small pricks in the biscuits using a fork.
Bake for 20 min then turn the trays around and bake for a further 20 minutes. Remove the biscuits when they are a light golden brown. This makes a good 40 biscuits or so, depending on the size of the cutter. Cool them (if you can) before eating!
Add a handful of dried cranberries or sultanas to the mixture before you roll it out. Little helpers love doing this, but often eat the fruit before it gets into the biscuit mixture!
Comments from the tasting panel
“Shortbread can lack body. The beremeal gives it serious character.”
“Good cohesive strength when wet – doesn’t disintegrate between tea-mug and mouth.”
Bere and barley both named in Andrew Wight’s journeys of 1778-1784. Bere as the substrate for aquavitae. Bere as a nurse for grass. Bere seed maintaining its mass to volume ratio. Bere fertilised with seaweed.
Andrew Wight, a farmer from East Lothian was commissioned to undertake a series of tours in the late 1700s to examine and report on the state of agriculture in Scotland. His work was published anonymously between 1778 and 1784, but is invariably referred to by his name, and quite rightly, since it was a major undertaking and the best single guide to the state of agriculture during the long ages of improvement (reference below).
He travelled by horse to mainland areas, meeting farmers, tenants and landowners and noting the improvements, or lack of them, to husbandry .
Throughout he refers to both barley and bere, sometimes in the same place, which suggests he considered them different things, presumably bere being the 6-(or 4) row types and barley the 2-row.
He related many anecdotes about bere. Here are a few of them on the journey north from Inverness to Sutherland.
Great quantities of Aquavitae, Ferintosh distillery, Black Isle
He visited the area around Ferintosh, on the Black Isle, owned by Forbes of Culloden. Ferintosh was …. “famous for the great quantities of aquavitae made there under exemption from duty. I am told that there are no fewer than 1000 distillers in that place, wholly occupied in making spirits, utterly neglecting their land, which is in a worse state than for many miles around”. He goes on to write “great quantities of bear are imported from the neighbourhood, and malted there as Ferintosh bear: Not only so, but quantities of aquavitae made elsewhere are carried to market as Ferintosh”. [Ninth Survey Vol IV.I, p. 238].
Of those areas supplying the distilleries was Fowlis, which ‘ .. near the Cromarty Firth has access to seaweed and lime is imported from Portfoy … and bear finds a ready market at Ferintosh.” [p 239]
So you can imagine all these bear harvests from all around, going, not into mouths of people and animals as meal, but to distilleries at Ferintosh, and whisky coming out for export; and everyone so involved in making the stuff that the land went to waste.
But these days bear grain contributes to only a few specialist malts. Most are made from two-row barley.
Wight implied that exemption from duty was granted as a monopoly to that particular estate before the Union, and became ‘destructive to fair trade’ and ‘the occasion of manifold frauds’. Back-handers and dodgy labelling – what’s changed? But the distillery went out of business in around 1785, presumably because other distillers complained abut the unfair exemption.
Bear as a nurse crop for grass
At Invergordon, he writes …. ‘Wheat on this strong land was very good; barley after turnip excellent; beans and pease are never neglected in the rotation; oats in their turn make a fine crop; but above all, the old pasture excels. Later, at the same place, he tells of a method used to protect new-sown grass pasture.
The farmers anticipated a demand for hay or grazing the next year that current grass fields could not supply. So what could they do? They could sow more grass late the present year (September), but what could be done to avoid the seedling grass being damaged over the winter. The solution was to sow grass (which then included various legumes and ribwort plantain with rye-grass) and then … he related….
‘Three firlots of bear were sowed at the same time upon the acre, intended as a cover for grass during the winter …… The bear grew vigorously, and covered the surface during the severe months, but died away on the approach of warm weather.’ The bear seed was sacrificed, it seems, to solve the problem ‘when grass-feeds must be sown in the wrong season’. [Ninth Survey, Vol IV.I, p. 248-250]
Bere fertilised with seaweed
Repeatedly, the writer points to farmers who use lime or marl to reduce acidity, and dung to replenish nutrients taken from the soil by previous crops. Soil fertility was probably the major limitation to maintaining yield.
At Lochbeg, Sutherland, about Mr Gilchrist, the proprietor, he writes “His mode of cropping is one half (the land?) under bear, manured with sea-weed, which is spread on the ground directly, and mixed with soil in spring in two ploughings. Three firlots sowed yield seven bolls per acre.” [Ninth Survey, Vol IV.I, p 307].
Bere seed maintaining its mass to volume ratio
On the Route Homeward, he calls in at Castle Grant. “One thing is extremely remarkable with respect to bear on this farm. Though, time out of mind, no feed has been used but what is produced in the farm itself, yet it never degenerates. To this day a boll of bear, measured by a firlot of 32 pints weighs 20 stone Amsterdam’. And he goes on to write that it degenerates every where else after three or four years sowing, ‘Yet this country lies high, and the climate is cold and stormy.’
An uncertainty in interpretation here seems to be what is meant by the word ‘degenerates’. All cereal harvests consist of grain (seed) that is used for food or sale and the supporting and protective ‘stuff’ around the grain – the stem, the spiky awns, the coverings. A good harvest has a high proportion of grain to all the rest. But grains will only grow to their full extent if they have enough nutrients from the soil.
We have noticed in the Living Field Garden, where bere and other cereals are maintained by saved seed, that the plants might put out all the supporting and protective materials, but if nutrients are short, then the grains do not fully fill. The resulting harvest is not heavy per unit volume of material.
A crucial feature of the bere on the estate that Mr Wight refers to seems to be that the ratio of volume to mass of grain (firlots to Amsterdam stones) is maintained over time. The heaviness does not decline presumably because soil nutrients removed by the crops are replaced by nutrients from elsewhere on the farm and this happens ‘time out of mind’.
This may be a case of highly effective, scientific, nutrient management centuries ago – before labs, remote sensing and intelligent machines.
Farewell Mr Wight
And he writes a farewell to Volume IV.I: “Having now no ground to survey, and having been long out, I proceeded with the utmost expedition homeward, to make up the loss that my absence occasioned in my private affairs.”
Many thanks Mr Wight!
[There will be more from Andrew Wight in future notes on the Bear line – rhymes with hairline].
Sources, references, contacts
Wight, A. 1778-1784. Present State of Husbandry in Scotland. Exracted 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. With thanks.
Ayrshire in the age of improvement. Contemporary accounts of agrarian and social improvement in late eighteenth century Ayrshire. 2002. Edited by David McClure. Published by Ayrshire Archaeological and Natural History Society. [The introduction gives background to Andrew Wight’s mission and journeys.] Available online.
This recipe is an adaptation from the booklet ‘Barony Mills – Bere Meal Recipes’ from Birsay, Orkney.
100 g beremeal
60 g self-raising flour
40 g rolled oats
2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
250 ml milk
What to do
Mix all the dry ingredients together then add enough milk to make a soft dough. Turn out onto a board coated with beremeal/oat. Flatten by hand until about 1 cm thick, then make rounds using a pastry cutter (7 cm). Bake in the centre of the oven at 170/180 degrees C for about 10 minutes, then turn the bannocks and bake for 5 minutes. Alternatively, bake on a dry griddle or pan on the top of the cooker for about 5 minutes each side. This makes a batch of about 8 bannocks. Alternatively, shape into a large round, mark out 8 segments and bake for about the same time.
The original recipe was used by the Creel Restaurant, St Margaret’s Hope. In addition to the beremeal, it used 100 g plain flour and no rolled oats. I have substituted this with 60 g self raising flour which gives a bit more ‘lift’ to the product. The rolled oats also seems to make the bannocks lighter, almost a cross between bread and a scone!
The crucial thing in baking bannocks is to get the proportions right – proportions of the dry constituents with the right amount of raising agent, in this case baking powder.
Barony Mills is Orkney’s only remaining working mill – and a water-powered one at that. It produces traditional Orcadian beremeal, a speciality flour with a nutty brown colour and a distinctive flavour, which has been used in this recipe.
In Landrace 1 – bere the query arose as to whether there was a bere line from the neolithic (late stone age), a line of transmission of bere (barley) seed from the first settlers in these regions to the present day. Another question was when bere and barley became distinct – they are the same plant species, but just look a bit different, close up.
So since bere is our most famous and still-grown-in the-wild-but-only-just cereal landrace, the Living Field will explore the bere line as a fairly random walk through time, backwards and forwards that is, putting facts and photos on this web site as we find them.
At some point in the future, we might order them into a chronological list, starting with the earliest and ending with the most recent, but ‘random’ suits us for now.
As an introduction, here are some photographs of bere barley on the left compared with a 2-row barley on the right.
Links to articles
Introduction to the Living Field’s work on bere and other ancient grains
Lawson and Son’s bere and barley varieties, 1836 and 1852. Bere and two-row barley clearly distinguished. Several extant bere landraces, attempts at improvement. Types like bere grown across northern Europe.
In their Synopsis of the Vegetable Products of Scotland (1852), Lawson and Son list the names and characteristics of all varieties of crops and other useful plants known to have been grown or tried by them or their correspondents in Scotland. The 1852 Synopsis built on their earlier Agriculturist’s Manual (1836). They must have been growing all these different types of plant in their experimental gardens and plots near Edinburgh throughout the 1830s and 1840s if not earlier. Their Synopsis was a major achievement. It has not been surpassed.
Was bere listed?
Under barley, ‘Common Bere’ is listed among the four-rowed barleys (see note below on four- and six-rowed barley), but of particular interest are several other types that appeared very close to bere. Since most of these types were kept and grown from saved seed, they made a set of landraces, certainly not pure and probably overlapping in many characteristics.
So was common bere a distinct type? Lawson and Son frequently used it as a standard, comparing others to it in terms of structure and timing. For example, there were types that looked the same as bere growing on mainland Europe, one of which was ‘probably the same variety’. Then there was the higher yielding ‘Victoria bere’, and several naked forms (the ‘husk separating from the grain in thrashing, as in common wheats’), including ones said to be superior to the ‘Old Scottish four-rowed naked’. There were also several four-rowed types originating from other parts of the world, outside Europe.
Was there more than one bere landrace?
Their account, while not mentioning separate landraces within the bere grown in Scotland, suggests a situation more complicated than a single class of northern barley landrace that was generally called bere. The name ‘Victoria bere’ suggests bere could be of different forms. The Living Field has not yet found evidence from subsequent records of what happened to the various bere-like barleys. Did any become more widely grown? Were they all classed as bere in some future time?
In the Lawson’s time, and for another century, oat was the main cereal here, but as barley increased in area and overtook oat to become the most widely grown crop today, it was mainly the two-rowed barley that came through. Certainly, most of the four-rowed recorded by Lawson and Son seem to have disappeared.
So – from the Lawsons’ books and records – bere in Scotland in the 1800s was structurally distinct from two-rowed barleys, but was not that distinct from a range of bere-like forms grown on mainland Europe and beyond.
The Lawsons’ books also give evidence of the wealth of international connexions in the seed trade and in the desire of farming to seek improved crop varieties wherever they could be found, whether from a few unusual ears in a field in Scotland or from occasional samples from Nepal, Morocco or … the list is endless.
Further details of bere and other four-rowed barleys
Lawson and Son distinguished four-rowed, six-rowed, two-rowed and an usual type named ‘fan’ or ‘sprat’ barley.
Presumably reflecting the usage at that time, they classed bere and several other barley types as four-rowed. In their earlier Agriculturist’s Manual (1836) they write of Common Bere and types similar to it – ‘middle grains on each side forming a distinct straight row; lateral ones forming a kind of double row towards the base, but uniting so as to form one row towards the extremity of the spike; so that instead of being named four or six-rowed, they might with more propriety be named four and six-rowed barleys.”
Common bere is described as ‘ear about two and a half inches long, containing about 60 grains … and ‘awns or beard about three and a half inches long, adhering to the grain’. In their Agriculturist’s Manual, they state the bere grown in 1835 in trial plots in Edinburgh was sown 7 April, in ear 27 June (81 days) and ripe 12 August (127 days).
The description of the type referred to as Victoria bere suggest attempts to improve the existing landrace. This type ‘produces longer straw, is longer eared, often containing 70 to 100 grains”. Where did it come from? A Mr Fulton, in Ayrshire, is credited with ‘bringing the Victoria bere under the notice of cultivators in this country’. He obtained a few ears of it from the Belfast Botanic Gardens in 1836 and he must have bulked seed for extensive trialling from those ears.
Several others are compared with common bere. Winter white has ears thicker and longer than bere, and its grain sample is coarser. Sown in the autumn it acts like a modern winter variety, ripening earlier than the spring types, but it can also be sown in spring, ripening later. Winter black also had ears larger than bere, but of a ‘black or dark bluish colour’ best sown autumn because if sown late in spring it will not mature the same year.
The variety Square is evidence of similar varieties to bere grown on mainland Europe, being cultivated in France and Germany. It differed from the common bere by being ‘three or four days sooner ripe, and having a thinner skin’. There authors suggest it is probably the same variety (as common bere).
Also, the variety Naked (also known as Siberian barley), which superseded the ‘Old Scottish Four-Rowed Naked‘, which is ‘still a favourite in many districts of Scotland’. Naked’s ears are similar in shape to the common bere but rather more distinctly six-rowed, containing a much greater number of grains. It was grown extensively in the north of Europe, and even in parts of France, and despite ‘its cultivation now almost abandoned … it certainly deserves a fair trial in this country, particularly in the north of Scotland, where it might form a valuable acquisition on account of its earliness, being ripe about a week before the Common Bere’.
Of the 11 other four-rowed barleys listed, some are from overseas, for example African also known as Tangier or Morocco barley (stated as no longer cultivated), Bengal, Nepaul or Himalayan introduced 1817 and Peruvian (described as a superior six-rowed).
Note on Six rowed barley
Entries on six-rowed barley include only two types, one of which is imported from China, but appears the same as the other listed, True Six-Rowed Barley. They describe the awns of this adhering to the grains ‘with great tenacity’ and ‘the coarsest in sample of any of the barleys, but hardy and prolific’, sown as a winter or a spring type, and nearly a fortnight longer to maturity than bere.
Peter Lawson and Son. 1852. Synopsis of the vegetable products of Scotland. Edinburgh: Private Press of Peter Lawson and Son
Title page: Prepared for the Great Exhibition and dedicated to William Jackson Hooker, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew. Peter Lawson and Son describe themselves as ‘Seedsmen and Nurserymen to the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland’. [The notes above are from a copy of the original book. The text is also available as a scanned version – search for its title at Google Books].
Peter Lawson and Son 1836. The Agriculturist’s Manual. Edinburgh, London and Dublin.
Full title: The Agriculturists’s Manual ; being a familiar description of the Agricultural Plants Cultivated in Europe including practical observations respecting those suited to the Climate of Great Britain ; and forming A Report of Lawson’s Agricultural Museum in Edinburgh by Peter Lawson and Son, Seedsmen and Nurserymen to the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland. Available online at biodiversitylibrary and at books.google.co.uk
Thomas Thorburn used diagrams to get a point across: for example, diagrams in the form of squares to represent large numbers of things. If the reader was no good with figures, then they might get a better idea by comparing two squares of different size to see which was larger and which smaller, and by how much.
His “Diagrams, Agricultural Statistics of Scotland for 1854” was based on agricultural census data collated by the Highland Society and gives areas grown with various crops and output in total bushels of grain and in bushels of grain per acre, including those for barley and bere.
Bere (or bigg) and barley are clearly distinguished in the pages of Diagrams as different crops.
The agricultural census in Diagrams tells us much about bere and barley in the 1850s.
Bere was grown mostly in the north and west, but occurred in most agricultural census regions. Farmers throughout Scotland would have been familiar with it.
The area in Scotland sown with bere was just less than 10% or one-tenth that sown with barley.
Yields of barley and bere, when expressed in modern units were both 1.5-2.0 tonnes per hectare (t/ha), compared to present national average yields of 5-6 t/ha for spring barley.
In Scotland as a whole, bere yields were a bit less than those of barley (about 80% or 90% depending on how yield was calculated), but where they were both grown in the same area, as in some northern and north-eastern regions, their yields were similar.
Bere has now almost disappeared as a commercial crop, whereas barley is the most widely grown corn in Scotland, going mainly to malting and animal feed.
Where was bere grown in the 1850s?
The area grown with bere in 1854 was about 9% of the area of barley. So in the whole of Scotland, just over ten times more barley was grown than bere. And while most bere was grown in the north and north-east, in places such as Aberdeen, Orkney and Shetland and Caithness, it was grown in a small area in many other places, including areas such as Haddington which are considered to be high-yielding. (The names Aberdeen, Orkney and Shetland, Haddington, refer to census areas.)
Here are some figures. The area grown with bere in census regions was, at the top end, Aberdeen 5322 ac, Orkney and Shetland 2922 ac, Caithness 2710 ac, Argyll 1888 ac; and at the bottom end, Perth 502 ac, Haddington 40 ac and Roxburgh 6 ac. The abbreviation ‘ac’ refers to acre, which is about 40% of the hectare, the present metric unit (1 acre = 0.4047 hectare; a hectare can be visualised as a square of 100 m by 100 m).
For barley, the figures at the top end were Fife 27,938 ac, Forfar 25,222 ac, Perth 23, 710 ac, Berwick 16,576 ac; while figures in the north and west were Orkney and Shetland 149 ac, Caithness 265 ac and Bute 389 ac.
What did it yield
Thorburn gives yield in bushels per acre, bushels being a measure of dry volume, used for grain, and acre being a unit of area widely used until recently, and still used locally. He gives the total bushels produced in each census region (from which bushels per acre can be calculated by dividing bushels by the area of the region) and in a separate diagram, he gives bushels per acre for each region. The two estimates are not always the same, so here we use Thorburn’s bushels per acre figures rather than our calculated figures.
Using standard conversion factors and our estimate of 1 bushel of bere = 21.8 kilograms (see Light on bushel), the national average yield of bere was 1.77 t/ha (tonnes per hectare) and of barley 1.93 t/h, so the yield of bere was just more than 90% (nine tenths) of the yield of barley.
The yields vary between regions, but where both barley and bere are grown together, especially in the north and west, the yields are not that different. In Caithness, for example, barley is 36.0 bushels per acre and bere 36.5 bushels per acre.
In Diagrams as it appears online, there is no description of the methods by which the census was conducted. It is presumed the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland did the work and handed the information to Thorburn who constructed his diagrams.
The yields of crops would have been difficult to measure consistently in the field or on the farm. Harvested grain differs in water-content depending on the weather, the locality and the variety of the crop. And grain also will differ in how ‘clean’ it is , how free of the bits and pieces of plant material that may be harvested with it. Today, yields reported in the annual census are given to a stated water content; so if the actual content measured in the combine harvester or in the grain store differs from this stated content, then the mass has to be corrected to allow comparison of near-dry mass between fields, farms and regions. No indication is given in Thorburn of how the dryness and cleanliness of the grain were standardised across regions.
The way the bushel was measured also probably varied. Perhaps some farms used a standard bushel measure (e.g. a barrel or basket) whereas others might have used a container, such as a cart, that they knew held a given number of bushels.
And then the areas sown with the crops were stated very precisely, sometime to several hundred thousand acres and three quarters. But were all fields measured so precisely? What if crops were grown in strips or parts of fields – was the area grown with each strip or part measured? It is difficult today to measure accurately the area of all fields in Scotland sown with a particular crop – and that is with all the official demands to record what was grown where and when.
Despite these uncertainties, the census was a major achievement. It must have taxed the Highland Society’s officials and local organisers. And they probably did have a very good appreciation of areas and outputs. But in some regions they appear to have come up against difficulties that were too great – for example, the yield of bere in Orkney and Shetland is omitted from Thorburn, despite much bere being grown there.
Sources and References
Thorburn T. 1855. Diagrams, Agricultural Statistics of Scotland for 1854. London: Effingham Wilson.
The Scottish Records Association has a page on the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland with references to that time:
[http://www.scottishrecordsassociation.org/index.php/archival-summaries/other-institutions/52-royal-highland-and-agricultural-society-of-scotland] Ed: possible issues with this web link, inquiries in progress.
And the following should lead directly to a pdf file on the above:
[http://www.scottishrecordsassociation.org/images/archivalSummaries/SRA004rhass.pdfSummary] Ed: possible issues with this web site, inquiries in progress.
Ps. There is also a recent reissue of one of Thorburn’s books: Diagrams, illustrative of Facts, Principles & Theories. Paperback by Nabu Press, published 2012. [Update: we have now viewed this book in late 2017 and confirm that it contains few statistics about land or agriculture. It covers a wide range of topics in various forms, including line graphs and squares within squares .]
Now here’s an informative article by Iseabail Macleod on the occurrence of names for corn from the 12th century to 1700.
The article starts with: ‘What does the terminology of cereal crops and their products in the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST) tell us about the language and diet of Lowland Scotland in the period? Her review of the records leads to the statement “Cereals … after 1550 became dominant, as the most economic way to feed a growing population. The earliest staple crops were oats and bere.” Wheat is stated as a “the food of the privileged, a cash crop and not normally consumed by ordinary people.” The author says that the best sources of information are “administrative documents, including court and burgh records, and the Treasurer’s Accounts.” (Ed – agreed, conventional histories the world over hardly mention what feeds the people.)
Wheat the food of the privileged then? Not so true today – many people eat imported wheat as white sliced or cereal nibbles, while bere is becoming a gourmet delight. (Just think) bere bannocks, made from Orkney bere-meal and pure water, cooked on a cast iron griddle wood-fire-heated, drizzled with home-grown cold-pressed lime-infused rapeseed oil and enjoyed with a glass of micro-brewed Colonsay or Arran (Source: gourmet trials in progress, Living Field).
Bere and barlie
Barley and oats have kept northern people going for thousands of years (north of the sub-tropics and mediterranean, that is) and both of these cereals appear together in DOST. But do the records tell us anything about the difference between barley and bere.
Macleod writes that in DOST, bere also occurs as bear and bair, also beir. Big or Bigg (from Old Norse Bygg) “does not seem to be in the DOST record” “though it occurs in Northern English” and more recently in Scots after 1700 (see SND).
So bere, bear and bair (also beir) were used before 1700 in Scotland, but what about barley? Macleod writes that the word barlie was used as early as about 1500 but that barlie and barley are both rare before 1700.
But were bere and barley different in those days? Hard to tell. Macleod cites the use of the term ‘barley beir’, but (we ask) was this a form of barley or a form of beir, or was it just that people sometimes used both words to mean much the same thing or simply just got confused?
The various forms of bere and barley were found in the DOST records, but the forms of bere were more common. The forms of bere were used a couple of hundred years before the Scandinavian bigg was first recorded. The article gives no firm evidence either way that bere and barley were regarded as being different things.
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. http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=840
DOST = A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue. Older Scots 12th century to 1700. http://www.dsl.ac.uk
Barley Hordeum vulgare has been grown here as a crop for many thousands of years. Some of the earliest charred remains of seed found in neolithic settlements were of barley. It has not always been the most widely grown corn – oat had that status a century ago – but now barley covers more acres than wheat and much more than oat, its main products whisky and animal food.
Most modern varieties of barley are supplied by seed merchants. The seed for each variety is grown and bulked under controlled conditions that minimise impurity and keep the line genetically uniform, so each has a particular ‘look’ and growth characteristics and suitability for different uses. At one time however, all our crops were maintained as landraces, as seed from one harvest saved for the next. (See What are landraces?) Few landraces remain and one of those is bere barley.
Where did bere come from?
Like all our corn, or cereal, crops, barley started life in the eastern Mediterranean or west Asia when crops were domesticated from wild grasses around 10,000 years ago. From there it came west and north reaching the croplands around 5000 years ago, well after the ice retreated. The earlier Living Field web site had the following paragraph –
“Imagine the small bags of seed, carried overland step by step, century upon century, from its site of domestication to the east of what is now Europe, and then by small boats to Iberia, then Brittany and north to the stone age settlements of the north-east Atlantic coasts, or else by other routes through central Europe and across the North Sea. How many times must those bags have perished and how many times must the boatman have reached dry land to see the seed rotted and the crops fail. And yet, 5000 years or more later, we still have a landrace of barley, known as bere (sounding in the north more like bear than beer) and still grown for special food and drink.”
When you see or experience the seas around Orkney (images above) and the other islands, you wonder how our early settlers managed to get here carrying bags of grain in their small boats.
Does any of that ancient barley remain?
Is there a continuous ‘bere line’ from the stone age? There can be no certainty. Landraces can be erased by natural calamities, or by peoples moving or changing their way of life. When a seed stock was lost, it might have taken centuries for new seed to be brought in. Later, waves of migrants from south and east would have brought their own seed with them. Where the new seed came from is not clear. What we can say is that the bere still grown today is very different from modern varieties.
In Lawson & Son’s catalogue of 1852, bere or rough barley, was listed among the four-row barleys. Most of the barleys at that time were two-row. The number of rows refers to the alignment of grain on the ear, obvious when you see it in two- and six-row types.
The four-row types, as Lawson and Son suggest, are probably better classified as structural variants of the six-row types. But the four-rows look different from the six-rows, so on the Living Field site, we will continue to call bere four-row. In the rough and tumble of subsistence agriculture over the millennia, the bere landrace, maintained as harvested seed saved from year to year, must have contained at various times, as well as the four-row, two- and six-row types within it. Purity is not a feature of landraces.
Bere has now almost disappeared except in some remote corners and most commercial fields you will see are two-row. Yet bere has great significance as a traditional crop, a true heritage and a possible source of genetic material for future crops.
Barony Mills, Birsay Orkney, showing interior, old grinding wheel, tackle, water wheel with new wooden paddles, 2011 (Squire)
The Orkney bere
A landrace of barley is still grown and used in a few places, notably in Orkney, where fields are gown each year to supply grain to the Barony Mills, near Birsay (images above). When the grain starts to fill and ripen, it has strong, characteristic red bands on the outer husk of the grain (images below) and long, tough awns.
As in most barleys, the protective coating around the grain does not fall off after harvest (as it does in modern wheat, for example), so the husks and awns have to be removed to get the bere meal (flour). Once, bere grain and other corn was ground between stones, then in stone saddle querns and later by hand-turned stone wheels, one on top of the other, and then by great mechanised grindstones powered by wind or water.
The Barony Mills in Orkney grind local bere grain into flour by great water-powered wheels. The Mills sell bere meal to the public (web link below). Bere grain is also sold to a few distilleries to add that something to the malt whiskey.
Barony Mills is an excellent place – an essential visit for anyone interested in rare grain and flour and living industrial heritage; and if it’s spring or summer, ask for directions to the bere fields.
The Living Field’s bere crops
The garden has grown bere for several years. The crop is grown in the Garden as a landrace – seed is harvested, saved over the winter and sown the next spring.
The bere seed germinates quickly, after just a few days, and once outside is vigorous in its vegetative phase and then flowers and seeds profusely. As a seed stock it does not give any problems and requires no special treatment. As with all seed, it has to be kept dry between harvest and the next sowing.
The red striping on the outer husk, or covering of the grain, is visible upper right and lower left below. The seeding ‘ears’ tend to bend and together the awns form an asymmetrical fan, visible in the image at the top of the page and in the one upper left below.
Each year, a few two-row plants emerge in the bere. They could be impurities introduced from commercial varieties grown in the garden? We take them out to preserve the general bere character.
Growing bere and other landraces in the Garden has been rewarding for the team and brought great interest among visitors. We start it off in April, it begins to flower in early June and is ready for harvest usually in August. It does not seem to have changed much in the last 180 years: Lawson and Son, in their experimental trials of 1835, record they sowed it on 7 April and it matured on 12 August after 127 days.
The Living Field’s original bere seed was given to us by the Agronomy Unit at Orkney College. For which, many thanks. Barony Mills, Birsay, Orkney, also gave us a couple of bags of grain. We have bought flour from them for demonstrations at various open days. Thanks to miller Rae Philips for advice.
Gladys Wright, Linda Ford and Jackie Thompson grow the bere crops and maintain the seed stocks for the Living Field garden. Text and images by Geoff Squire (unless stated).
Sources and references
Dickson C, Dickson J. 2000. Plants and people in ancient Scotland. Tempus Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire.
Fenton A (ed). 2007. The food of the Scots. Volume 5 in A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology. Publisher: John Donald. (Describes the many uses of bere meal).
Fenton A (ed). 2011. Farming and the land. Volume 2 in A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology. Publisher: John Donald. (Many references to growing bere.)
Lawson P and Son. 1852. Synopsis of the Vegetable Products of Scotland. Edinburgh: Private Press of Peter Lawson and Son.
The botanical or latin name Hordeum vulgare is used on this web site to cover all types of two-, four- and six-row cultivated barley. Some taxonomies separate the two- and six-row as different species, but where does that leave the four-row? Others suggest they are are better classed as sub-species of Hordeum vulgare.
Before modern genetics and breeding, before the world’s great stores of genetic resources were built and before the purity of crop varieties could be certified using DNA tests, most crops were kept as landraces.
Seed of wheat, oat, barley, beans and all the other crops was usually highly variable, the individuals genetically different. When sown in a field in a year, those individuals that survived and yielded the most were those best fitted to the conditions. These fitter plants contributed more to the harvested seed than their less fit neighbours. Samples of seed were kept and then sown the next season. Again, plants that were most fitted survived and reproduced.
Gradually the nature of the seed changed by this repeated selection to track the local environment and growing conditions. This would have happened as the early cereals, legumes, fibres and oils were carried westwards and northwards from their Asian centres of origin to the margins of the Atlantic. Landraces evolved to cope with low soil fertility, a cold wet winter and the local pests, and would have split into recognisable types, known to belong to an area of land or method of farming.
But with little warning, a crop could be wiped out by extreme events, the farmers left with just a fragment, or none, of the seed they had nurtured for years, decades even. Maintaining a landrace was no easy matter. Many would have disappeared, others changed to adapt to new conditions.
Landraces are not a thing of the past. They are common in Africa and large parts of Asia today. Under-used and under-researched crops such as bambara Vigna subterranea exist mostly as landraces, each typical of a region and maintained by seed saved from one year to the next.
Not so long ago in our Islands, crops were maintained as landraces, and the practice persists (see below), though most crops are now sown from bags of named varieties, each bought from a seed supplier, certified and uniform and generally high yielding.
The Synopsis of Vegetable Products of Scotland, prepared by the Edinburgh seedsmen Peter Lawson and Son in 1852 consists largely of named ‘types’ of cereals, legumes, fibres, fruit and all the other crops, but the types are not what would be considered true varieties today. Among the wheats, there were 142 types recorded, the barleys 42 and the oats 53 – each named with usually some note on their origin.
Some of the types on the list were recently imported, for instance, from the Baltic, from France, from the low countries, from England. But many of the notes suggest types were found and maintained by individual farmers in specific regions.
So there is the Hopetoun wheat “the produce of single ear of an unusual size … discovered in 1832, on Mr Reid’s farm of Drem, East Lothian … [which was passed through several farming hands and] … is now pretty widely distributed amongst growers ….”.
Or the St Madoes barley “discovered, in 1838, by the Rev. Mr. Noble of St Madoes, in a field of the Dunlop [another type of barley]; and is evidently of a very different kind … a recommendation in damp climates …” .
And then Dyock’s Early oat ” originally raised by a Mr Dyock, near Aberdeen, and has been grown in the vicinity of Brechin …. it is hardy, early, very prolific, and exceedingly well adapted for the higher corn lands”.
Most of those old cereal types are no longer with us, lost in the march towards modern varietal uniformity, but what the Lawson list shows clearly is the vigour and intent of farmers working 100-200 years ago in their search for better crop seed, better for their region and purposes, better adapted to their conditions; and then the bulking and trialling of a new type over a few seasons, and the passing on of the good material to others.
Are there landraces still?
A few farmers save seed – it avoids buying it every year. (Possibly many more save it than would admit!) Yet not many landraces remain here – the traditional barley, bere, was recorded in the Lawson list as a four-row type, “chiefly grown in the Highlands of Scotland and in the lowlands on exposed inferior light soils”. Bere remains with us in a few places, notably Orkney.
There are also landraces of wheat and rye in certain collections and black oat must still persist mainly as a landrace.
The Living Field grows bere, and landraces of wheat, rye and black oat every year to compare them with modern varieties. We save seed at the end of the year, keep it safe over the winter and sow it as a new crop next spring. All four types germinate well and grow fast. They are different from their modern relatives, often taller, rangier, weedier.
Articles on the cereal landraces will appear on the Living Field web site in the coming weeks.
Lawson P and Son. 1982. Synopsis of the Vegetable Products of Scotland. Edinburgh: private press of Peter Lawson and Son.