Tag Archives: barley

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?



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 battered fish

Grannie Kate’s back with a new use of bere meal ….. she writes …

“Fed up of ‘days old’ fish from the supermarket? Try stopping a local fish van to see the beautiful produce on sale!


This was what I did last Friday morning at 9.50 a.m. precisely and bought some haddock (landed that morning) from a mobile fish merchant from Anstruther.

The van horn was tooted loudly in the Main Street and behold people silently appeared to purchase from a wide selection of sea food displayed in the back of the refrigerated van. The old word ‘fishmonger’ seems to be out of fashion these days, ‘fish merchant’ now the preferred description

Home made fish and chips then, for tea, using my mother’s recipe for coating the fish before frying in oil. Haddock (and other white fish) tend to break up in the frying pan if they are fried without coating them first.

Fresh haddock from the sea and …… earthy bere meal from Barony Mills!

What to do

  1. Place a large tablespoon of bere barley on a plate and then (if preferred) mix with white flour, e.g. another large tablespoon or less depending on your taste.
  2. Grind sea salt and black pepper into the flour to season it.
  3. Crack a fresh free range egg into a small jug and whisk it until the yolk is well mixed with the white.
  4. Wash the fish ( this is important especially if the fish is not as fresh as you would wish and actually smells; remember, fresh fish does NOT smell!). Cut the fish in half lengthways to give 2 portions. Then cut again diagonally across the portion to give two or three smaller pieces or goujons. You now have about 6 goujons of fresh haddock.
  5. Dip each goujon into the egg, shake off the excess egg wash then place onto your flour, rolling it around until it is covered. Repeat for all the haddock pieces.
  6. Add some light cooking oil into a frying pan and heat – to test the temperature is right add a little bit of flour to the oil and it should start to bubble up immediately.
  7. Add all your goujons to the oil, fry for about two or three minutes on one side, then two or three minutes on the other on a medium heat.
  8. Lift out with a fish slice onto some kitchen towel and blot lightly to remove excess oil.

The goujons should be light brown with a thin crispy coating of bere meal on the outside.

Serve with fresh garden peas and homemade chips. Add salt and vinegar or wedge of lemon and perhaps some tartare sauce!


The bere meal was sourced from Barony Mills in Orkney. For more on Orkney bere, see: Bere line rhymes with hairline and Landrace 1 Bere.

And for other bere recipes on this site – Bere bannocks and Bere shortbread and Seeded oatcakes with bere meal …..


On the edge

Remote, extensive rig system (lazy beds), north Lewis; historical records of crops from 1690s; bere and barley; subsistence farming on the atlantic edge.

One of the remotest field systems in Europe lies near Eoropaidh (Eoropie) on the north-west coast of the Island of Lewis, facing the Atlantic at 58 N.  Continue round that parallel and you’ll cross Quebec in Canada, the Gulf of Alaska and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula.

The Butt of Lewis lighthouse [1] lies at the northern tip of the Island. As you walk south west from there, the soil and grassy vegetation  appear to be slipping towards the cliffs and into the sea.


A little farther south, and the cliffs descend to a rocky shore where the rigs or lazy beds were cultivated close to the tide. It’s a stunning position – go west and there’s no more land until north America. And what Atlantic storms there must be. Yet corn and other crops were grown here.

As testament, the rigs remain as long, grass-covered mounds 5 to 6 m between the furrows, some at more or less right angles to the coastline, others parallel to it. Earth was dug and piled from both sides into the centre and seaweed carried from the beaches and heaped on as fertiliser. Excess water ran down the furrows.

lf_ntsmgs_dglws_lkngwst_gs_1100Extensive field systems

The rigs in the images are one of several field systems around Eoropaidh and Butt of Lewis. The Canmore web site [2] describes the field system in the photographs here, which lies south west of the lighthouse and facing west, and several others (round the ‘top’) to the south east of the lighthouse. All are abandoned.

They are considered to be post-mediaeval but period uncertain.

Aerial photographs are given for each location on the Canmore site [2] and other pages on that site tell more of the history of the area [3].

Looking inland towards Eoropie, one bed running across, and the others up and down, March 2017 (gk-images)

Lazy Hardly. Lazy beds in various parts of Scotland and Ireland were constructed to different designs. They are of various widths and heights. One explanation of the word is that they are made, not by digging up and completely turning sods of earth and grass, but rather cutting the sod on three sides, then flipping it over the uncut side to form  a double layer – soil, vegetation, vegetation, soil. The method is shown in some recent videos [4].

But the most likely meaning is indicated by Fenton [4] as ‘from an obsolete sense of the English word (lazy), meaning uncultivated’, and refers to the fact that the raised bed is made on top of a strip of uncultivated ground.

Maintaining fertile rigs of the extent seen today around Eoropaidh was a major undertaking, needing the work of (according to Martin below) probably hundreds of people each year.

The method by which this land was managed is known as runrig, ‘a system of joint landholding by which each tenant had several detached rigs allocated in rotation by lot each year, so that each would have a share in turn of the more fertile land’ [5].

Fenton and Veitch (2011) give explanations and many references to the runrig system in different parts of Scotland.

Looking uphill from the shore, the central rig about 5 m wide (gk-images)

Historical records

Several accounts of the area  were made from the 1690s onwards, but they make no mention of the field systems and give little information on the crops and methods of husbandry.

Why this omission? The extensive rigs must have been there during one or more of these accounts, The landforms look impressive to us today, the result of decades, centuries, of hard work, and continued upkeep.

Martin Martin’s visit in the 1690s

Martin Martin, from Skye, visited Lewis in the 1690s and reported his findings in the Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, published 1703 [7].  On soil cultivation, he reported that the people turned the ground with spades; and with wooden harrows for breaking and smoothing the earth, drawn by a man ‘having a strong rope of horse hair across his breast’.

He writes ‘the island was reputed very fruitful in corn, until the late years of scarcity and bad seasons. The corn sown here is barley, oats and rye; and they have also flax and hemp.’ [8] He continues to relate that the main fertiliser is sea-ware but that soot is also used, reportedly causing jaundice in those who eat bread from corn grown on land so treated.

However, there is no mention in his chapter on Lewis of rigs, lazybeds or any means of land-sharing.

Potato is often associated with rig systems but it was not grown in Scotland until several decades after Martin Martin wrote his journal, so it would not have been on the Island when he visited.

Coastal rocks, resting place of seabirds, south-west of the Butt of Lewis, looking west (Squire/Living Field)

A note of caution is due – Martin is not always credible. What a pity when reliable records from that time are so needed! At various places, he related what we would today consider fabulous or supernatural occurrences, without question, as if they happened.

He was knowledgeable about many things, so was he tempting readers with fake news, or did he not check his sources?

Old Statistical Account, 1797

The Rev Donald Macdonald wrote ‘not a single tree, or even any brushwood, to be seen in the whole parish’. The crops were black oats, bear and potatoes, sown April and May, reaped in September and October. (Ed: black oat is Avena strigosa and bere a landrace of barley, Hordeum vulgare).

He confirms the use of soot as fertiliser as reported by Martin a century earlier. He writes that the roof of each house is thatched with stubble and heather ropes (stubble presumably being cereal stems) which become covered in soot due to the burning of peat within. He writes that in the latter end of May when the barley blade (first leaf) appears, the people take the soot and stubble and strew it over the crops as fertiliser.

Many domestic animals were reported – horses, sheep and black cattle, all small in stature. The region was very isolated, things had to be carried to and from Stornoway.

Potato came to the area between Martin’s visit and this account, but there is no mention of rigs or lazybeds. Just that many crude ploughs are found in the parish, consisting of a small piece of crooked wood, guided by a side handle held by a man walking alongside, and pulled by four small horses.

On the beach, Eoropie – wide stream in the foreground, flowing across the beach from inland; hazy light due to sand from the dry part of the beach blown inland (Squire/Living Field)
New Statistical Account, 1836

The Rev William Macrae notes also the absence of wood or tree, but  that roots and trunk of fir, oak and hazel (with nuts) are ‘imbedded in a great depth of moss, such that wooded land must ‘at some remote period, have undergone some sweeping and desolating revolution’.

He mentions that people eat oat and barley meal, potatoes and milk, but laments the state of farming: that people have not attempted draining or trenching because they were just too hard up, while short tenancies of 6-12 years did not making it worthwhile. It was a subsistence economy with no exports and in no season was produce more than ‘barely sufficient, and sometimes not adequate, to supply the necessities of the tenantry’.

There is no mention of field systems or rigs, and the comment on the absence of drainage is not consistent with what we see today, but he may have been generalising to the whole of Barvas parish rather than these rig systems.

The Rev Macrae commented on many other aspects of life. His account is entertaining, but you feel his mind sometimes strays: he is patient to note among the statistics of population, produce, and adherence to the faith, that ‘The women are modest, comely and many of them good-looking.’

Modern field strips

Visitors today will see the agricultural land in crofting townships on Lewis divided into long thin strips, usually separated by fences. The OS 1:25,000 maps show these bundles of linear features covering much land near the coast.

Draining and de-stoning croft land (upper); sheep on long strips of grazing land demarked by post and wire fences (lower): both north-west Lewis (images by Squire/Living Field)

One of the stated characteristics of linear farming of the type shown above is that, provided the strips run perpendicular to the main gradient in slope or soil, no one strip gets the best land and no one gets the worst.

This sharing of good and bad appears to be one of the reasons why crops, especially in the tropics, are sometimes mixed in a field, not in clumps but in long straight lines [11].

A note on bere and barley

The Living Field has a biding interest in when bere and barley were noted as being different things, e.g. that bere was a primitive landrace of barley. The story unfolds on this site at Bere line – rhymes with hairline.

There is nothing definitive in any of these historical accounts as to whether bere and barley were considered different. In the Old Statistical Account of Barvas parish [9], as noted above, both names are used for the barley crop but neither is defined.

Landraces of bere (barley) from Eday and North Uist grown in the Living Field garden in 2015 (Living Field)

In 2015, the Living Field team grew a range of old barley varieties in the garden, including some bere landraces  originating from various parts of the north.

We had none from Lewis, but shown above are bere from North Uist in the Outer Hebrides and from Eday in Orkney. Barley grown in the lazy beds around Eoropie would have looked like this.

An achievement

The land was farmed in this way for centuries, in isolation from much of the rest of the world. Given the location,  the rig systems in north Lewis and elsewhere should be seen as a major achievement rather than something to be dismissed as backward (as some travellers did).

Crop production was limited by plant nutrients – nitrogen, phosphate, potash and the many minor elements. Legumes that provided much needed nitrogen by fixation from the air were not mentioned in the historical accounts, and were unlikely to have been planted as crops here as they were during the Improvements era after 1700 in the lowlands.

Apart from seaweed and soot, and probably animal dung, there was no other source of nutrients. To have survived for so long on so little was the achievement.

Author and contact for this article: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk. Thanks to gk-images for allowing us to use some of their photographs.

[Began late March, edited in April and May 2017]


[1] Northern Lighthouse Board: Butt of Lewis Lighthouse.

[2] Field systems of lazy beds around Eoropie and the Butt of Lewis on the Canmore web site: the one shown in the photographs here is west of Eoropie, Canmore ID 129505. Others include ID 270561, ID 270560 and Dun Eistean ID 4417.

lf_dglws_mp1_gs_350[3] More on the history of the area at the Canmore pages for Eoropie, Teampull Mholuaidh (St Moluag’s).

[4] Lazy beds: Guthan nan Eilean short video on making lazy beds in Uist (in Gaelic and English versions). A article from Ireland: Lazy beds in the Cooley Mountains. From the Louth Field Names project. The origin of the word lazy, from ‘uncultivated’, is explained by Fenton A, Ch 27, p 673 in Fenton & Veitch 2011 [6].

[5] Definition of runrig in the Concise Scots Dictionary. Ed. Mairi Robinson. 1985. Aberdeen University Press. Also: The runrig system of land tenure, fromThe Angus Macleod Archive via Hebridean Connections.

[6] Fenton A & Veitch K (eds). Farming and the Land. 2011. Publ: John Donald & European Ethnological research Centre. This multi-authored book has many references to runrig and lazybeds, including photograph of lazybeds at Eoropie (p 125); and a note that the runrig system in north Lewis may have been managed by small groups of people, rather than individuals.

[7] Martin Martin, 1703. A description of the Western Islands of Scotland. Printed in London. Available online: search Google Books for the author and title; also the Undiscovered Scotland web site offers the book online (with adverts). Undiscovered Scotland web pages: biography of Martin Martin, died 1719.

[8] Martin is probably referring to the Ill Years, the 1690s when a run of very bad weather caused repeated crop failure and consequently hardship and famine through the north of Britain.

[9] Old Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-99: Vol XIX dated 1797 for the Parish of Barvas. Online at Old Statistical Account.

[10] New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1834-45: Vol XII for the Parish of Barvas. Online at New Statistical Account and also at Google Books.

[11] As argued in the editor’s account of Mixed cropping in Burma (Myanmar).

And if you are anywhere near latitude 58 N, make a point of visiting the famous –


Information at eoropiedunespark.co.uk


Effect on corn yields of the 2016 winter flood

High annual rainfall in recent decades causing problems for cereal production; timing of rainfall more important than yearly total; much greater yield drop caused by the wet harvest of 2012 than the winter floods of 2016. [An article in the series ‘Winter flood’.]

The last few decades have experienced several of the highest rainfall years since reliable records began in 1910. The effects of perhaps too much water on long term trends in crop yield are being examined and will be reported elsewhere.  Yet contrasting years tell us already that problems are not caused by the amount of rainfall in a year, but by the timing of that rainfall.


The image above looks south over the Carse of Gowrie in early January 2016, the green cereal (corn) fields and the brown stubble were completely waterlogged, the landscape immersed in dense cloud, hardly any light for photosynthesis in the middle afternoon. (No attempt to brighten the image – this was how it looked.)

Many autumn-sown corn fields grew yellow with the persistent wet, dead patches within them. Yet the final estimates of yield for the harvest years 2016, released in December 2016, give the first indication that the severe flooding the previous winter caused a much smaller loss of yield than the wet harvest of 2012.


Fig. 1. Grain yield, average for Scotland, for wheat, spring barley and oilseed rape between 2000 and 2016: the first two standardised to 14% water content, the latter to 9%; horizontal lines show the average.

The trace in yield from 2000 (Fig. 1) shows a drop in 2002 for the two cereal crops, then a period of stability up to 2011 followed by a large fall in 2012. Yield partly recovered in 2013, rose well above the average in 2014 and 2015, then dropped back in 2016.

The same data are shown in Fig. 2 where yield of each crop is expressed as a percentage of the average for the whole period (100% line). The large depression in 2012 and 2013 is shown by all three crops as is the recovery and the later drop in 2016. The 2012 depression caused economic losses, but perhaps more important, the large variation between years shows how sensitive modern arable farming is to these slight variations in the weather.


Fig. 2. Grain yield from Fig. 1 presented as a percentage of the average for the period, for wheat (red), spring barley (green) and oilseed rape (blue).

It’s not the total rainfall

The annual  rainfall exceeded 1300 mm several times during the period of stable yield between 2003 and 2011, but then the rain generally peaked in the winter. Only about one third of the corn is in the ground at that time (mainly winter wheat, winter barley and winter oat) – the larger area destined for spring-sown barley is still unplanted.

So provided the winter crops are not submerged for more than a few days at a time, they recover and grow to harvest. This happened during the stable phase, for example in 2008 and 2009 when annual rainfall was above 1300 mm.

Why was 2012 yield so poor?

The difference in 2012 and to some degree in 2002 was that rainfall was much higher in summer before and during harvest. In fact, annual rainfall in 2012, at 1287 mm, was lower than that during several years between 2003 and 2011.

It was the wet weather in late summer and autumn of 2012 that caused major loss of yield in the harvest of that year (mostly August to late September). The damage to the ground and to the winter crops just sown or about to be also caused a depression of yield in the next harvest in late summer 2013.

How did 2016 recover?

In contrast, the high rainfall in the winter of 2015/16 set records: in East Scotland December 2015 had the highest rainfall at 272 mm since records began in 1910, then January 2016 also broke all previous records with 266 mm.  The result was prolonged waterlogging of fields and severe flooding of some river floodplains, and as stated above, a yellowing of leaf in many winter cereal fields.

Then conditions changed – the spring and summer months had less than average rain, and more than average sun, allowing soils to dry and crops to bulk, such that they yielded at or not much below the the average in Fig. 2.


The image above looks north across the Isla floodplain in Strathmore, in dense cloud just before nightfall, the field in the foreground cultivated, sludging and eroding into the river-water. (No attempt to brighten the image.)


The 2015/16 cropping season was testament to the resilience of the crop varieties and their agronomic management to overcome what was unusual weather by our standards. There’s also evidence that farming adapted, perhaps learning from the 2012 floods to shift its cropping patterns and perhaps the fields in which its most profitable crops were placed.

Winter wheat maintained its area between 2015 and 2016, indicating that few fields already sown with this crop had failed by February 2016 to the extent that they had to be resown in March or April with another crop.

But the surprise was the greater production of oats despite the bad winter. The area sown with oat (mainly spring 2016) increased a little, but the yield per unit area increased from 5.92 to a record 6.44 t/ha (tonnes per hectare) and the total production of oat increased by a factor of 1.32, also to a record for recent decades.

So what was going on? The reasons why oats did so well are not clear at present.

Signs of things to come?

The capacity of grain yield to recover from the late summer rain of 2012 and adapt to the winter floods of 2016 shows the soil and crops have kept a certain resilience during this bout of record rain-years.

But the alarming feature of the traces in Fig. 1 and Fig. 2 is the large variation between years caused by what were – compared to weather patterns elsewhere – fairly small shifts in the distribution of rainfall through the year.

The longer term effects of the present rise in annual rainfall are not yet understood. It will be not easy to distinguish the effects of rainfall from the higher temperatures over the same period – and the lower solar income in cloudy summers

More on this in future articles …

Sources, references

Links on this site

Winter flood – pages on the flooding effect of the high rainfall in recent years.

Winter flood …. continued  – commentary on the 2012 yield depression

The late autumn floods of 2012 – after the bad harvest


Rainfall since 1910 for UK and regions. Annual and monthly totals are available from 1910 at the Met Office pages for UK and Regional Series. At the Download site for UK and regional datasets scroll down to ‘Year ordered statistics’ and click the download link for ‘Scotland E – Rainfall’.

Winter rainfall 2015/2016. The following Met Office web article gives a summary, with maps, videos and data, of the very wet November to January: Further rainfall and flooding across north of the UK. http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/climate/uk/interesting/december2015_further Jan 27 2016

Cereal and oilseed yields

Scottish Government. Final estimate of cereal and oilseed rape harvest 2016. Downloads are available as pdf and excel files. In the excel download, Tables 2 and 3 give cereal and oilseed rape areas, yield per hectare and total production from 1997 to 2016.

Yields, take from government statistics, are given in tonnes per hectare, t/ha, standardised to a water content of 14% for the cereals (corn) and 9% for the oilseed. Standardising is needed because the grain might be a bit drier in some harvests and a bit wetter in others.

Contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

Winter flood … continued

The floods this past winter of 2015/16 were spectacular, lakes appearing where there were fields and swollen rivers coursing through the landscape. The soil was saturated for months and crops were damaged.

It was difficult to predict at the time the loss of grain yield at harvest. If a winter crop fails, farmers may switch to another crop such as the hardier oat. Or they may sow oat in spring instead of spring barley; or even not sow a grain crop at all. Only the ‘good’ crops might appear in the census. The trouble caused by the flooding might appear less than it was.

The first reliable indication is after harvest when the first estimates of the year’s yield are tabled. In 2016, the first estimates were published on 6 October and they suggested a smaller drop in yield than perhaps expected, smaller than the one following the floods in 2012.  But we’ll wait until the final estimates are out in December 2016 before making final comparisons with that year.


Here for reference (Figure 1) is a graph of national average yields each year from 2000 for the main grain crops, spring barley and winter wheat. In Figure 1, yield in units of tonnes per hectare  (weight of grain per hectare of land, a hectare being 100×100 m) is shown in comparison with the average over the period represented by the dashed lines. Winter wheat yields more than spring barley, but the drop in 2012 is clear for both.


In Figure 2, the yields are shown as a percentage of the average (the heavier line at ‘0’ on the vertical axis). Both crops go up about the same and down about the same each year, but the drop in 2012 was bigger than anything like this in the last two decades. The wet cloudy year of 2002 also showed a fall in yield. Compare these with high yield of 2014 when the warm, sunny summer allowed the grain to bulk to a record for recent times.

Despite all the advances in machinery and crop varieties, farming in the north east Atlantic croplands is still very much at the mercy of the weather. Maintaining soil is good condition will be essential for future yields.

Further information and photographs of the 2012 floods on the Living Field web site at The late autumn floods of 2012.


First Estimate of the Cereal and Oilseed Rape Harvest 2016. Scottish Government. Published 6 October 2016. Link to a downloadable PDF file.



Great quantities of aquavitae II

The store-house of Foulis; more from the Andrew Wight on his journey north of the Cromarty Firth in 1781; improvement and innovation in 1700s farming; feeding oxen and horse; ‘a man of enterprising and comprehensive genius’; bere and barley.

In ‘Great quantities of aquavitae‘, the farmer-traveller Andrew Wight commented in 1781 on the denizens of Ferintosh, on the Black Isle,  who “utterly neglecting their land, which is in a worse state than for many miles around” preferred to spend their time distilling bere (barley) malt than tending soil and growing crops.

Among places supplying grain to the Ferintosh whisky trade in the 1780s was (he reported) the farmland of Foulis (also spelled Fowlis), on the opposite, northern, side of the Cromarty Firth. Mr Wight rode his horse the long way round, but now Foulis is only a few minutes drive from Ferintosh over the bridge.


The Store-House of Foulis

Andrew Wight did not write about the girnal or store-house at Foulis Ferry Point. It was built 1740, that is 40 years before he passed by on his journey north from Inverness  (and that’s about 275 years before now). It was built to store grain before it was shipped off to market or paid to people in kind for work or favours.

The grain was grown by the estate or paid as rent by the tenants of the estate. They would grow grain on a farm or allotment and pay some to the landowner. Beaton (1986) reports accounts that the total barley received at the Store-House of Foulis in 1784 came to to 169 bolls two firlots. Example of payments ranged from 98 bolls one firlot from the tenant of Mains of Foulis to two bolls from a slater.

The Store-House of Foulis (map reference NH 599636) today has been well restored, with its fine slate roof and well harled walls (images above). Though sometimes called Foulis Ferry Point, the ferry ceased to operate in the 1930s. New buildings have grown around the site housing a visitor centre, restaurant and shops.

There area is rich in these store-houses or girnals as they were called, along the Cromarty Firth and up to Portmahomak. Beaton (1986) gives a map of locations.

Andrew Wight’s comments on the area

Mr Wight (IV.I p 241 onwards) writes about the crops, the farm animals, the owners, the improvers, the tenants and the peasants. Here are some excerpts from his journey along the north side of the Cromarty Firth from Fowlis eastward.

Of Fowlis (Page 233), he regales against the old practices – “having a baulk between every ridge, upon which were heaped the stones removed from the ridges; the soil was taken off every third ridge, in order to ameliorate the two adjacent ridges; and the crops alternately oats and bere; and to this bad practice was added the worst ploughing that can be conceived.” But after the land was improved by the then owner, he reports (page 235) a wheat yield of ten bolls per acre.

And on the same estate, Robert Hall, the farm manager of Fowlis  ‘introduced a crop, rare in Scotland and an absolute novelty in the north, which is carrot. (..) The farm-horses are fed on carrots instead of corn; and they are always in good condition.”

I rejoice to see six yoke of oxen

At Novar he remarks on the poor inherent quality of the soil, which is more than compensated by the desire of the estate to effect improvement to a degree that today would be thought of as ecological engineering.

He notes “Oxen only are employed both in cart and plough. I rejoiced to see six yoke of oxen in six carts, pulling along great loads of stones, perfectly tractable and obedient to the driver. They are all in fine order, and full of spirit. They begin labour at five in the morning, and continue till nine. They are then put upon good pasture, or fed with cut clover, till two; when a bell is wrung, and all are ready in an instant for labouring till six in the afternoon.’

At Invergordon, he comments on seven crops: “wheat on this strong land was very good; barley after turnip excellent; beans and peas are never neglected in the rotation; oats in their turn make a fine crop; the old pasture grass excels.”


Agriculture, manufactures and commerce, the pillars that support the nation

Several pages are devoted to the contribution of George Ross of Cromarty, MP a man of “enterprising and comprehensive genius”.  He started a hemp manufacturing company employing many people and exporting coarse cloth to London and then a brewery for  strong ale and porter, much of it “exported to Inverness and other places by sea-carriage”.

On Ross’s  agriculture: “it is wonderful to see barren heath converted into fertile cornfields; clover and other grasses rising luxuriantly, where formerly not a blade of grass was to be seen; horse-hoed turnip, and potatoes, growing on land lately a bog; ….. hay, not known here formerly, is now the ordinary food of horses and cows”. He also cures and exports pork:  “… he carried me to a very large inclosure of red clover, where there were 200 hogs of the great Hampshire kind feeding luxuriously.”

Ross works on a plan for improving the harbour and entertains “sanguine hopes that government will one day establish a dry dock near the harbour for repairing ships of war in their northern expeditions.”

Ed: Writing in 1810 after Ross’s death, Mackenzie (1810) states that the hemp trade was “now in a flourishing state. From (the year beginning) 5 January 1807, there were imported 185 tons of hemp; and about 10,000 piece of bagging were sent to London”.  Ross was not so far off in his hopes for ship repair – Mackenzie refers to a ship being built there in 1810, and today there are deep anchorage and rig maintenance.

Eight fields, eight crops in sequence

Later on page 257, Wight comments on Mr Forsyth of Cromarty who manages a small farm divided into eight fields, and cropped as follows: “First potatoes, horse and hand hoed, with dung; second, barley; third, clover; fourth, wheat; fifth, peas; sixth, oats or barley, with grass seeds; seventh, hay; eighth pasture. … in this way ‘kept in excellent order, with the advantage of dung from the village”.

Throughout his journeys,  Andrew Wight speaks his mind, always ready to praise good farming and condemn poor practice. (You can sense these journeys are more than a job.) And while he accepts the social divides of the time – he was commissioned by the wealthy – notably between the landed gentry and their peasants,  he condemns those of the former who ignore, ill treat or exploit and praises those who support and encourage the people to improve their lot by agriculture, manufactures and commerce.

Other points to note are that legume crops (fixing nitrogen from the air) were common in crop rotations  and that bere and barley are both mentioned but no clear distinction is made between them (see link to the Bere line below).


Beaton, E. (1986) Late seventeenth and eighteenth century estate girnals in Easter-Ross and South-east Sutherland’, In: Baldwin, J R, Firthlands of Ross and Sutherland. Edinburgh, pages 133-152. Available online: http://ssns.org.uk/resources/Documents/Books/Ross_1986/09_Beaton_Ross_1986_pp_133-152.pdf

Mackenzie, G S. 1810. General view of agriculture of the counties of Ross and Cromarty. London: Phillips.

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 IV part I. (See Great Quantities of aquavitae for further reference and web links).

More on the Foulis girnal

Canmore web site. Foulis Ferry, Granary.  https://canmore.org.uk/site/12905/foulis-ferry-granary Notes on history with references.

Am Baile web site: Foulis Ferry http://www.ambaile.org.uk/detail/en/20423/1/EN20423-foulis-ferry-near-evanton.htm


Those in the upper set were taken of the Foulis Store-house and its surrounds on a visit in August 2016.

There were no ‘yoke of oxen’ around Foulis and Novar in 2016,  so the Living Field acknowledges with thanks use of photographs from Burma (Myanmar) by gk-images, taken February 2014 (permission granted by the handler to take the photographs). The quotes below the images come from Wight’s text of 1784, and apply well to this magnificent animal).

Links to posts on this site

More from Andrew Wight on his travels in this region: Great quantities of Aquavitae and Great quantities of Aquavitae II.

The distinction between barley and bere: The bere line – rhymes with hairline and Landrace 1 – bere.

Maps of potato. legumes and vegetables in the region in the twenty-tens (and the relevance of this land over the last 2000 years?): Can we grow more vegetables?

Contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

Fibres in design

West Ward Works, in Dundee, previously used for printing books and magazines, was the site of the first Dundee Design Festival, 25-28 May 2016. The Works is now a disused factory, vast space, tubes, wiring and old instructions on the walls.

The Works was one of those many places in Dundee and its surrounds that processed masses of natural product – flax and jute are other examples – usually extracted or grown elsewhere, but given greater value through manufacture and sale.


Silk, husk and glass

Several of the exhibits used natural fibre or other natural products.  ‘Firth of Tay’ (shown among the images above) is a length of handwoven silk by Cally Booker.  The notes say ‘Each block of pattern corresponds to (the) population profile in a local city, village or town’. It looks as if the patterns are based on a set of statistical distributions, e.g. perhaps number of people by age.  (The subtlety of the colours is not well reproduced in the cellphone snaps above – her web site shows the original, link below).

Elsewhere, Barley waste from local brewing has been compressed and formed into a piece of furniture (a bar) by Beer52 with Design in Action and Aymeric Renoud.

And – though not using natural fibres in this invention – the firm Scot & Fyfe, establishd 1864 in Tayport to manufacture linen from flax, offered Alphashield – ‘A seamless glass textile ‘sock’ … fed into defective pipes deep underground and set in place with resin to repair the damage and create a new strong pipeline’. (But how do they get it to stick to the sides of the pipe?)


Dundee Design Festival 2016 introduction and programme

Canmore report headed Dundee, Guthrie Street, West Ward Works

DC Thompson: West Ward Works to host first Dundee Design Festival

UNESCO Creative Cities Network

Exhibitors referred to above: Cally Booker, Aymeric RenoudScot & Fyfe.

On this site: Living Field web pages on Fibres, and Fiberoptic 1, 2 , 3 and 4.

Contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

Great quantities of aquavitae

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.

A note in the Living Field’s Bere line …..

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.

See also on the Ferintosh Distillery (closed 1785): lost distillery.com/06ferintosh/ryefield.html

For a growing list of bere notes, articles and recipes on this site: Bere line

The bere line – rhymes with hairline

Rhymes with hair line …..

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.

Here’s an image of bere in the Living Field garden, a cereal beauty!

Bere head in the Living Field garden (Living Field collection)
Bere head in the Living Field garden (Living Field collection)

Links to articles

Description of landraces
Bere in historical accounts

Landrace food


 Living Field garden

Bere heads in 2016, the lower mature, the upper still green, and from the latter, a few green grains with awns attached, contrasted with clean, dry grain from a previous year

Contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

{Last update: 11 April 2018 with new images and links]