The wheats, barleys and oats – known together as corn or cereal crops – are the mainstay of the croplands. They arrived here over 5000 years ago, brought by the first farmers in their migrations from mainland Europe, either west along the Mediterranean and then north through what are now Spain and France, or north-westwards across central Europe. And in one form or another, they have sustained people and their farm animals ever since.

Today, barley, wheat and oat, in that order, are the main arable crops in this region – arable meaning they are grown on ploughed land – and usually sown each year. Right through the 1800s, and for much of the 1900s, they were still grown as the main source of people-food and animal feed. Now the main cereals are grown as raw materials for whiskey, lager and beer.  Barley and also wheat are still grown to a lesser degree for animals, but except for oat in the form of oatmeal, porridge and biscuits, most cereals eaten by people here are nurtured in other lands.  Bread, rice, pasta, polenta and maize are all imported.

Cereals in the Garden – (upper) black oat, spelt, (middle) part of rye head, bag of oat grain, part of bere head, (bottom) emmer, bere crop, still green (Living Field collection)

Yet the croplands produce good cereals – high yielding due to the long drawn-out phasing of the crop over the cool summer, the high total solar income between April and September and the general absence of drought and nutrient deficiency. The recent domination by an export economy could be tempered if needs be, but the countries of maritime Atlantic Europe are far from self-sufficient in cereal food.

The cereals, brought here by successive waves of migrants, are a fascinating set of plants, all domesticated from ‘grasses’ around 10,000 years ago east of the Med  They are small-to-moderate in grain size, distinct from the maize of Central America, the rice of Asia and the small-grained sorghums and millets of Africa. Some of the first to be grown here in the neolithic, bronze and iron ages are either absent now or very rare.

The Living Field garden grows a set of six to eight cereals each year, including the older emmer, spelt, rye, bere barley and black oat, contrasting with modern varieties of wheat, barley and oat.

Wheat Triticum aestivum, known widely as bread wheat, though the varieties grown here do not go to make bread, is mostly planted in the autumn to be harvested in late summer or early autumn the next year.  Its compact head, packed with grains, contrasts with the longer, more awny, barley.  The Garden grows a spring-sown, short-stemmed modern variety, and a much taller, older landrace known as Red Standard. Wheat seed is readily detached from its husk (photograph below).

Barley Hordeum vulgare is now the commonest cereal in the croplands, replacing oat in the 1950s and 1960s. Its seeding heads bend horizontally of even downwards when  mature and carry long awns arising from each grain. The grains are in sixes round the stem, but in many modern types, four of the six do not develop, so the head shows two rows.

Bere Hordeum vulgare is the name given to the traditional landraces of barley which persist in a few localities in the far north and west, but have mostly been replaced by modern varieties. The crop has characteristic long awns and an arcing head as it matures, giving the impression of fish jumping out of water.  Bread and bannocks can be made from the flour.

Emmer Triticum dicoccum was one of the first cereals to be domesticated in the fertile crescent. There is archaeological evidence of its presence here, but it is no longer grown. It germinates quickly, then grows tall, over six feet in some years, but when its heads start to form and fill, it falls over in the wind and rain.  Its seeding head is agreeable, clean and neat.

Spelt Triticum spelta is thought to have arrived later than the emmer and bread wheats, and like the emmer is no longer grown here. Its flour or finished products are imported for bread or crackers. The plant is much like emmer in germination, growth rate and height. It too falls over.

Rye Secale cereale has a tinge of blue-grey about its leaf, stem and head – not as tall as emmer. Strange that it features in traditional song as much as barley and more than any other cereal, but has been hardly grown here at any time. Ours is a landrace from the western isles.

Oat Avena sativa is another of the ancient cereals, but the one having lax heads or panicles, with the grain held on longish stalks unlike held close to the stem in wheats and barleys. It probably arrived here later than the wheats, yet it became the dominate cereal for many centuries until usurped by barley after the mid-1900s.  Highly nutritious and hardy, an ideal cereal for the croplands, locally grown and locally processed, but covering less than 10% of the cereal area now.

Black oat Aven strigosa also known as bristle oat, was once grown widely for animal food, and even human food in times of duress. It has this highly characteristic, black grain held on a very lax panicle, but though it grows well, the ratio of grain to total mass is too small for it to be economical as a grain crop. Attractive structure, nevertheless.

Grain of (left to right) wheat, barley and oat (Living Field collection)
Grain of (left to right) wheat, barley and oat (Living Field collection)


The cereals grown in the Garden are all spring-germinating, grow quickly and mature in September.  They germinate within days of being moistened, and spend their first few weeks in a glasshouse to ensure we have enough plants and to avoid early problems with grazing animals.

When planted out they are vigorous and seem so far to be little afflicted with disease. They are grown in small plots and have to be staked, because all but the spring wheat tend to fall over (lodge) in wet and windy weather.

The cereals are cut and threshed when mature and the seed kept for the next year. The original stocks of emmer, spelt and bere barley were given to us by Orkney College, and the rye and Red Standard wheat by SASA in Edinburgh.


sustainable croplands