Tag Archives: 1800s

Peasemeal Beremeal Oatmeal

Three flours that sustained life on the Atlantic seaboard for centuries. Commonly grown as a crop mixture in the field.  Mixed and cooked into tasty bannocks in the kitchen. Decline to near extinction in the 20th century. Now with a great future as sustainable low-input crops, bringing diversity to the farmed landscape and healthy, nutritious food. 

Peas, bere (barley) and oats have been a staple plant mixture giving protein and carbohydrate through the centuries of farming on the Atlantic seaboard. Yet in Scotland, as in much of Atlantic Europe, their role diminished within living memory.

Peas  declined in area from the mid 1800s to to almost nothing in the 1930s. Bere dropped out of census records in the 1880s but was then nearly lost except in a few northern fields. Oat fell from being the dominant grain crop over the last few hundred years to covering less area than barley and wheat by 1950 [1]. Their decline is now being reversed.

Bere grain (left), marrowfat peas and oat grain (right): bear and oat grown in the Living Field garden, peas from a packet (www.livingfield.co.uk).

Peas as crops and food

Traditionally peas along with bere and oats, and sometimes beans, was the staple protein food of the rural working population in Scotland. They were the local pulse and grain – the sustaining combination of plants that once fed the world and still feeds large parts of it.

Fenton’s Food of the Scots [2] cites many records from the 1400s to the late 1800s of peas, beans and cereal grains grown alone or in mixtures. Similarly, the flours of peas, oats and bere were eaten as bread and bannocks, either as sole constituents or baked in combination.

The pulse crops were certainly recognised and widely appreciated here for hundreds of years. A 1426 Act of Parliament in Scotland stipulated that a farmer should sow 1/12 of his labour in peas [2],  not just for protein food but to fertilise the soil with nitrogen (though the process of biological nitrogen fixation by legumes was not understood until many centuries later).

The products of peas and beans were grown locally, traded across the country or imported by sea, often from nearby Atlantic and Baltic ports. Though peasemeal was demeaned as a food of the labouring classes in some regions, the inclusion of peas in the subsistence diet was recommended by Hutchison in 1869 [2] as contributing to a healthier and longer life for the rural worker and their family.

Decline of peas

The records cited by Fenton indicate peas as a crop and food were more important here than beans Vicia faba. Yet by the mid-1800s, that order was reversed. At the first crop census in 1854, beans occupied 6 times more area than peas [1]. The cause of the decline of peas as a crop is suggested by MacDonald (1908) as due to ‘the extended use of potato’ in the subsistence economy [2] and by Porter  (1925) to the replacement of pulses by clover and grass mixtures [3] that are better at maintaining soil fertility.

Well into the period up to the 1950s, both pulses were named individually in the census and classed as grain crops to be harvested like cereals, yet unlike the cereal grains, they continued to decline in area despite a short-lived revival in the late 1940s (when food imports and nitrogen fertiliser were  restricted).

Peas became a minor crop by the 1930s and disappeared from the annual census in the 1950s. Beans went a decade or so later. They covered too small an area to be recorded in the annual summary. They reappeared gradually from the 1960s in different forms, such as ‘vining peas’ for human consumption, but that’s another story, and despite a rise in sown area similar to that of the 1880s, peas and beans together now cover 1-2% of the cropped surface, a very low percentage.

The benefits of all three products – peasemeal, beremeal and oatmeal – to health and environment are increasingly recognised today. Here, we wonder what peasemeal-beremeal-oatmeal bannocks tasted like and decided to find out.

Grain – top bere, middle peas, lower oats – is ground to beremeal, peasemeal and oatmeal, which are mixed with water, pressed on dry meal into a round, 1 cm thick, and heated in a pan until the bannock is cooked golden brown.

Peasemeal-beremeal-oatmeal bannocks

For much of recorded history in these islands, wheat was not as widely grown as oats and barley, and when it was grown or imported, it was more to feed the wealthy. Beremeal and oatmeal do not ‘rise’ much by themselves, so were most commonly eaten as bannocks, a form of flatbread [2]. The flours were mixed with water, patted into a round, typically 1 to 2 cm thick, and baked on a hot surface on or by a fire.

To try out the method, flours were sourced from water-powered mills at Golspie in Sutherland and Birsay on Orkney [4]. Then trial and error – peasemeal and oatmeal, peasemeal and beremeal and all three together, the latter preferred for the blend of tastes.

The oatmeal was medium-ground and gave some granularity to the mix. The peasemeal had a yellowish colour, while the beremeal was more of a light brown than a standard refined wheat flour.  On the packets, peasemeal had a protein content of 20.4% and oatmeal (as most unrefined cereals) around 13%.

The three were placed in a bowl at about 1:1:1,  or slightly more oatmeal than each of the other two, mixed into a thick paste or dough with water, turned out onto the board with a little beremeal on it to stop it sticking and then pressed into a bannock (about 10 -15 cm wide and 1 cm thick).

It took 10 to 15 minutes to cook the bannock slowly in a cast iron pan, very lightly oiled with cold-pressed rapeseed, though oiling is not essential. Heat sources tried were a modern gas stove, an indoor wood stove and an outdoor fire.

The three-meal bannock was tasty and filling, eaten with butter or marge (could try a drizzle of oil), marmite, various cheeses and dipped in soup. A satisfying experience.

Yield and environmental benefit

Pea Pisum sativum is now grown in various forms, for animal feed, for canning and freezing to feed people and as a fresh vegetable. The peas traditionally used for peasemeal or flour tended to be marrowfat or similar types, harvested when mature [but see note 4]. Peas need no nitrogen fertiliser and less pesticide than most non-legume crops.

Bere, the traditional landrace of barley Hordeum vulgare, is now grown only in a few localities, but appears to need less fertiliser and pesticide than modern two row barleys.  Oats Avena sativa were overtaken by barley in the middle to the 1900s as the Scottish cereal crop of choice, but they too need less pesticide and fertiliser than barley and recently oat yields have increased to rival those of spring barley. Oat is also nutritionally superior to barleys and wheats.

Many records over recent centuries describe the growing of two or three crops mixed together in one field. ‘Mixed grains’ was recorded in the crop census for most of the 1900s, while mashlum  – a mix of peas or beans with oat or barley – was common enough to be cited as a distinct crop category from 1944 to 1978 [5]. As related elsewhere on the Living Field web site (see Mashlum – a traditional mix of oats and beans) these crop mixtures disappeared from the census records but are still grown by a few farmers who value their contribution to fertility and nutrition.

The yields, nutritional content and environmental benefit of traditional landraces and mixed grains are being researched and quantified at the James Hutton Institute, Dundee [6, 7}.

Teaching about grains, milling, flour and food at Open Days

The Living Field bought its own hand-powered corn mill a few years ago. It consist of a stone base and two grinding stones. The latter were honed by Mr Roberts from the Hutton’s workshop and the whole was supported by old tyres. Grain (in this case oats, centre top) is fed into a vertical channel in the upper stone and falls  down through to the gap between the stones.

The stones are turned by the wooden rod, as shown by Mr Young and two visitors at an Open Day (this one in 2012). The grain is ground between the stones to a mix of meal and bran (the husks of the grain) which gets pushed out and collects in the stone base from where it is brushed off into a container (lower right). The meal and bran are separated by hand using a sieve (lower left).

At Living Field open days – at Open Farm Sunday for instance – visitors can see the whole process from growing the plants from seed, harvesting grain, grinding the grain and separating the meal from the chaff. Gill Banks shows how to make bread from the flour made from these ancient varieties.

Sources, references, links

[1] Census records for the main crops began in 1854, then continued from the early 1880s through to 1978 as Agricultural Statistics Scotland, a fine source of information. Yearbooks are available online from the Scottish Government web site at Historical Agricultural Statistics. More on the 1854 census on the LF site at Thorburn’s diagrams and Bere country.

[2] Fenton A. 2007. The Food of the Scots. Volume 5 in A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology. Edinburgh: John Donald. Peas, peasemeal and bannocks appear in Ch 17 Bread and Ch 14 Field crops. Fenton cites: MacDonald J (1908) Editor of Stephens’ Book of the Farm for the loss of peas in preference to potato; and Hutchison R (1869) Report on the dietaries of Scotch agricultural labourers, (Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society, 4th, 2, 1-29).

[3] Porter J. 1925. The pea crop. In: Farm Crops, Ed. Paterson WG, The Gresham Publishing Company, London.

[4] Sources of the meal. Golspie Mill in Sutherland makes a range of flours and meals including the peasemeal ‘made from roasted yellow field peas’ and the oatmeal used here. Barony Mills at Birsay, Orkney  makes the beremeal. Barony have appeared many times on this web site e.g. at Landrace 1 – bere. Suppliers who stock these products include Highland Wholefoods in Inverness.

[5] The Living Field is publishing, in 2018, articles, notes and photographs on crop mixtures as part of its Crop diversification series. The first post is Mashlum -a traditional mix of beans and oats (though mashlum can be any combination of pulses and grains).

[6] The James Hutton Institute carries out a wide range of studies on pulses and grains. The nutritional and environmental properties of pulses and pulse-grain mixed crops are examined in the EU H2020 TRUE project, coordinated from the Hutton Institute and with many partners across Europe. For further info, see TRUE Project EU and articles on the curvedflatlands web site at Transitions to a legume-based food and agriculture. Contact at the Institute: pete.iannetta@hutton.ac.uk.

[7] In collaboration with the University of the Highlands and Islands Orkney College and University of Copenhagen, Denmark, The James Hutton Institute does research on promoting the use and value of bere barley http://www.hutton.ac.uk/news/understanding-living-heritage-bere-barley-more-sustainable-future. The agronomy, genetics and unique physiology of bere barley are studied with specific reference to micronutrient efficiency and potential environmental benefits. Contact tim.george@hutton.ac.uk or joanne.russell@hutton.ac.uk.  

Links to related articles on the Living Field web site

The page on the Bere line (rhymes with hairline) gives links to comments, images and articles on  bere barley, including our correspondent Grannie Kate‘s recipes and experiences using bere meal and our Gill and Co’s breadmaking with various ingredients at Bere and cricket.

Can we grow more vegetables? looks at the current geographical distribution and status of vegetable growing in Scotland, including areas with peas and beans.  Other links to pulses include: Scofu – the quest for an indigenous Scottish tofu and Feel the pulse – our travelling exhibit on peas, beans and their products,


Author and images: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk; information on sourcing the grinding stones and growing bere, peas and oats in the Living Field garden, gladys.wright@hutton.ac.uk.

The Living Field web site Editor, normally averse to the alchemy and incantations of cooking (best left alone!) managed to make (and eat) bannocks from the constituents bought from the sources indicated at [4]. Peasemeal brose is even easier – just add hot water to a couple of teaspoonfuls of peasemeal, stir and eat with toast or dips. Caution – beware the three-meal bannocks are addictive. Reconnecting with primordial tastes?



175 years ago today

As if to presage our various web-entries on natural fibres, oils, medicinals and culinary spices, the notes below, from the Advertiser, of 1 May 1840, reproduced in the book ‘The Trade and Shipping of Dundee 1780-1850 by Jackson & Kinnear [1], confirm Dundee’s desire to trade globally in natural products in the mid-1800s.

[Images to be added]

Arrival of the Selma at Dundee

The time (1840) was transitional for Dundee and its hinterland. It was at the beginning of a phase of international trade that gave the area status as a port and manufacturing centre. Jackson & Kinnear relate that the barque Selma arrived on that day from Calcutta … the first with cargo directly for Dundee.

Selma contained, among other things, over 1000 bales of jute, many sacks of unseed [2] and linseed, 300 bags of sugar, more than 1100 bags of rice, coir fibre from coconut and almost 2000 whole coconuts, and teak planks and bamboo; also buffalo horns; spices and condiments – preserved and dry ginger, canisters of arrowroot, tea, black pepper, cloves, nutmegs, mustard seed, castor oil, chillies and cubebs [3]; hogsheads of wine; and then borax and camphor; samples of hemp Cannabis sativa, presumably for fibre. This is an amazingly varied cargo of plant, animal and mineral goods coming into Dundee, on one ship, 175 years ago.

Half-forgotten plants and natural products

Many items in the Selma’s cargo are still in common usage today, but others may be less familiar. Are you kitchen-cupboard-ready?

Arrowroot a starch from tuberous parts of the roots of some tropical species, e.g. cassava Manihot esculenta, used as a thickening agent in cooking and to make arrowroot biscuits – biscuits your granny gave you, proper, decent, thin, no chocolate, no sugar, could be dunked in tea without falling to bits and dropping in – just biscuits.

Castor oil (beavers love it) from the castor-oil plant Ricinus communis, among other things, used as a laxative: pinch the nose, open the mouth and in with the spoon! Castor oil has many legitimate medicinal and industrial uses, but its laxative, and thereby dehydrative, properties have been used as a means of systematic punishment and torture [4]. The seed-oil is extracted by complex methods; the seeds also contain the highly poisonous ricin.

Borax (not a superhero but) a white crystalline substance made from a salty deposit when lakes in some parts of the world such as Tibet evaporate. Borax is used as a mild disinfectant and cleaner. It was put on children and other humans to cure infections like athlete’s foot and dabbed on mouth ulcers (it stings!).

Camphor. A strongly aromatic extract from some tropical trees, also found in the plant rosemary. Went into mothballs, made old drawers smell funny. Camphorated oil got rubbed onto childrens’ skin to do it good.

Cubebs from Piper cubeba a bit like black pepper corns but with a short stalk (‘pepper with a tail’), mainly grown in Indonesia, and traded for many centuries in that region; employed as an aphrodisiac in Goa as reported by the traveller Linschoten in the 1580s (Q: how did these explorers and ethnobotanists get to know such things – did they experiment?), stimulant and antiseptic, and a tonic for ‘every disease that flesh is heir to’ [3] ….. and much more.

What were they like!

The question you have to ask is what Dundee folk were up to in those days 175 years ago, at least those few that could afford all these exotic imports. Hemp, cubebs, cloves, hogsheads of wine … the ingredients of wild days and nights, and then they came down to earth with borax, camphor, castor oil and coir shirts. And what about the buffalo horns – what were they used for?

Sources and notes

  1. Jackson G, Kinnear K. 1991 The trade and shipping of Dundee 1780-1850. Publication 31, Abertay Historical Society, Dundee. Scanned 2010 and available online http://www.abertay.org.uk. The list of commodities carried on the Selma is given at page 20 and Ch 3 note 32.
  2. Unseed – this had the Living Field in a stir. Even Burkhill’s 2400 pages did not list it [see note 3]. But thanks to an online note found from an internet entity named ‘cyberpedant’, we are reassured that the original was likely ‘Linseed’ and that when documents are scanned, the shape ‘Li’ is commonly read as ‘U’. Relief! Otherwise we’d be scanning the world for unseed seed and never finding it.
  3. Cubebs. Notes above taken from Burkhill IH, 1966, A Dictionary of the economic products of the Malay Peninsular. Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Malaysia (2400+ pages). On the aforesaid properties, Burkhill cites Jan Huyghen van Linschoten’s Historical Voyages, published in English 1610.
  4. Castor oil. The author Umberto Eco, in the Mysterious Flame of Queen Loanna (2004), relates in Ch 12 a story of a journalist in fascist Italy being forced to swallow a bottle of castor oil as punishment. But after the first two purgings, he regained enough presence of body and mind to bottle and seal the next expulsion of oil and faeces. The bottled contents, sealed from the atmosphere, were kept in hope that the fascist tide would turn, and when it did, the means were found to trace the original perpetrator and pour the 21-year-old vintage down his throat. A delicious passage!

Bere in Lawsons’ Synopsis 1852

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

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

Was bere listed?

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

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

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

Was there more than one bere landrace?

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

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

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

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

Further details of bere and other four-rowed barleys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note on Six rowed barley

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


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

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

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

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


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

Author/contact for this page: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

Thorburn’s diagrams

The bere line – rhymes with hairline

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

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

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

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


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

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

Where was bere grown in the 1850s?

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

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

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

What did it yield

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Sources and References

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

Scanned images of Diagrams appear online, for example through the Bodlean Libraries at the University of Oxford, as in the following pdf file: http://dbooks.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/books/PDFs/590979280.pdf But not all the pages appear to be viewable!

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 .]

Bere and barley at the Living Field

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

Author/contact for this article: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk