Bere – the barley landrace. Exploring its potential with growers. Forming a Bere network. Visiting sites in July 2023. Shared expertise and experience.
By Lawrie Brown
An exciting new initiative involving volunteer growers across Scotland is using a tricot participatory selection approach  with the purpose of understanding and selecting the best Bere varieties for different production systems and locations. We are building a growing network of interested growers, currently 16 in total, who were sent starter packs early in the spring. Each participant received seed for 3 barley types, 2 Beres (with different origins) and 1 control (a modern cultivar) which have been sown this season and observations, samples and measurements are being collected.
Edinburgh to Orkney| Hebrides to Aberdeen
In June, we had the tough job of visiting as many of the participants as possible. This involved a road trip across Scotland visiting a range of sites from Edinburgh and Aberdeen to Stirling, Argyll, Oban and the Isles of Coll, Lismore, South Uist and Orkney. This was a fascinating trip as we learned of the various personal motivations and interests for growing Bere barley from bread making to distilling and heritage conservation to feeding cattle. We met some really interesting people along the way who opened their doors to us and it was great to see small pockets of Bere being reintroduced to sites around Scotland.
The trial sites this year were small (usually plots of 2 x 6 m) as we had a restricted amounts of seed for distribution. However, next year we will be able to supply larger quantities for larger trial areas and more volunteer participants. Growers were free to apply whatever treatments they wished with some applying seaweed and/or manure as fertiliser while others trialled different tillage treatments. Most were grown without any weed control.
Shared experience | sharing knowledge
We are looking forward to collating all the data at the end of the season so we can see if specific beres prefer particular environments or treatments and the results will be shared with all growers through online groups and/or face-to-face workshops.
By working together and sharing experiences and information we hope we can all learn something new about the opportunities this ancient grain, Bere barley, can offer Scottish growers.
Join the Bere net?
If you would like to get involved in next year’s trials and join the network or find out more, feel free to contact me on email@example.com.
Lawrie works at the James Hutton Institute as a Research Scientist in the Plant Soil Interactions group of Ecological Sciences. Lawrie’s colleagues Molly Brown and Tim George were also involved in visiting the disperse and remote locations around Scotland.
References | sources | links
 ‘Tricot’ is short for Triadic comparison of technology options – “a research methodology that helps farmers to identify the most suitable technologies for the local conditions of their farm .… engages farmers as ‘farmer researchers’ in the testing or validation of new crop varieties and other promising technologies”. To find out more about the Tricot approach, visit the Alliance Bioversity & CIAT site at Tricot Aproach. Guide for large-scale participatory experiments. The 2020 report by van Etten and co-authors can be downloaded there. The Alliance’s wider aims in climate change, biodiversity loss, environmental degradation and malnutrition an be viewed at their home page.
Being the first part of an article by singer and musician Russ Clare on a song about grain crops and their importance in the folk tradition.
History of a song
The corpus of rural England’s traditional balladry is admired for its engaging stories from the past still relevant today, and beautiful melodies often with a quirkiness towards time signature and modality. It’s a treasure-trove for singers. One such that I love to sing is All among the barley, also commonly known as The Ripe and Bearded Barley:
Come out, it's now September, the Hunters' moon's begun
And through the wheaten stubble is heard the frequent gun
The leaves are turning yellow, and fading into red
While the ripe and bearded barley is hanging down his head
Chorus: All among the barley, who would not be blythe? When the ripe and bearded barley is smiling on the scythe
The wheat is like a rich man, he's sleek and well-to-do
The oats are like the young girls, they're thin and dancing too
The rye is like a miser, all sulky, lean and small
While the ripe and bearded barley is the monarch of them all
The Spring is like a fair maid that does not know her mind
The Summer is a tyrant of most ungrateful kind
But the Autumn is an old friend who pleases all she can
Brings the ripe and bearded barley to gladden the hearts of man
I came across this little folk song gem in 1974 while browsing a poetry anthology in a Nottingham school library. My attention was captured by its portrayal of the changing seasons, setting the scene for a playful imagination of cereal crops and with special praise for barley, the brewers and distillers source of alcohol. I fondly imagined the song to have had a life in the past among the country people of rural Leicestershire, where I was living at the time. A likely favourite at harvest homes, those end of harvest celebrations of feasting, drinking, and singing. While All among the barley deserved a place in my growing repertoire for singing in folk song clubs, in this case no tune was given, merely a credit to Folk Songs of the Upper Thames. I had been unaware of the collection, and in those pre-internet times further enquiry soon came to a halt. So the hunt was on for a suitable melody.
The search ended with a dance tune, TheTip Top Polka, a personal ‘ear worm’ from listening to the brass band accompaniment for the Britannia Coconut Dancers on their Easter Saturday procession around Bacup, their home town in Lancashire. My mind attached All among the barley‘s words to the melody. It seemed a near perfect fit, and I have stuck with it ever-since, giving the song an airing each Autumn. Listen to a recording here.
All Among the Barley – a novel by Melissa Harrison
It’s likely I had the song in mind when, in September 2018, I noticed an intriguing newspaper review of All Among the Barley, a novel by Melissa Harrison. It is set in Suffolk in the 1930s, where local fourteen year old Edie meets Constance, a London writer on a mission (ostensibly) to chronicle the traditions of an isolated rural community challenged by modernity.
Harrison has garnered much critical acclaim for her evocation of a way of life in decline – the closeness and beauty of nature, more bountiful and diverse than now; age-old patterns of work driven by the seasons; the tension created from clinging to the familiar while recognising the need to embrace innovation. In a closing scene, following the story’s tragic conclusion, Edie’s grandfather sings to her. She is comforted by his songs, recognising the continuity they represent in the history of her family and home; songs passed down the generations.
In fiction, Edie heard her grandfather sing All Among the Barley. But the song has a real-life story of its own, about its origin and popularity, and its telling needs first a consideration of the nature of traditional folk song.
The song collectors
We will be forever in debt to Victorian and Edwardian song collectors for their rescue of so much of our traditional folk heritage, seemingly heading for extinction as singers aged and their art succumbed to rural depopulation, urbanisation and popular entertainment in the music halls. Between 1890 and 1920, Cecil Sharp, Lucy Broadwood, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frank Kidson, and Percy Grainger, notable among others, wrote down thousands of song lyrics and tunes from country people, travelling widely, often by bicycle, in their search for singers. Sharp, in particular, was driven by an ideological attempt to use folk song as a resource to establish a National music with an identifiable English style; Vaughan Williams, though less ideological was arguably more successful in that pursuit.
In his essay, English Folk Song: Some Conclusions (1907), Sharp promoted the idea of anonymous community authorship of songs and their subsequent adaptation as they were passed around and down generations in a purely oral manner. It is unlikely, however, an oral tradition can survive exclusively alongside written communication – a degree of coexistence is more likely.
A community’s songs must be either composed from within, learned by listening to other singers or obtained from printed sources: the relative importance of these routes is keenly debated. Songs on commercially produced broadsides and chapbooks – written by artisan scribes or purloined from other sources – were commonly sold on the street from the 16th century. They were very popular, for it is a myth, although a popular notion, that illiteracy among the rural working class was widespread before 1700 and beyond. The work of folk song scholar, Steve Gardham, does support the idea that many songs, if not most, entered the tradition from these written sources. His analysis of 705 songs found in oral tradition in England between 1840 and 1940 showed 88% had their earliest extant version in some form of urban commercial production (Traditional Song Forum online address September 2020, from 47:50). It is, however, widely accepted, as Sharp first suggested, an oral process that turns a song from whatever source into a traditional folk song. Shared in a community by listening and learning, songs have been adapted and shaped by singers’ inherent creative talent and passed on to succeeding generations, thus accounting for the rich lyrical and musical variation found by collectors.
Origins of a song
So what of the origins and traditional status of All Among the Barley?
The earliest record of it is a composition by Elizabeth Stirling, published in 1851 as a four part (SATB) choral arrangement in Novello’s Part Song Book. Stirling (1819 – 1895), a career church organist and composer who studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, enigmatically credits the lyrics to A T who has never been identified. Speculation among music scholars that it might be Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809 – 1892) is not backed by hard evidence, but they were contemporaries and both living in London in the 1840s, so a song writing partnership is not inconceivable. Moreover, in the opening verses of the The Lady of Shalott (1832), there is some resonance with All Among the Barley‘s lyrics:
On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye...
Underneath the bearded barley,
The reaper, reaping late and early....
An indication of a common author, or mere coincidence?
A song spreads far and wide
A judging panel of Novella’s collection awarded 2nd prize to All Among the Barley, and, among Stirling’s various organ compositions and song arrangements, it was, and remains Stirling’s most popular work, for which the sheet music is still available. It soon became a frequent choice for amateur choirs, as in the inaugural concert of Weymouth Choral Society on February 26th, 1862, and a concert given by Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam) Glee and Madrigal Club on 17 March 1879.
Writing in English Dance and Song magazine in 1967, Tony Wales cites several sources indicating the song’s popularity in schools well into the 20th Century. All Among the Barley soon found its way to publishers of songbooks such as The Fashionable Songbook (Routledge, 1865) and of broadsides across the country, including J Harkness of Preston in (1874) among many.
Stirling’s song also became popular in the USA; the Library of Congress records an arrangement in three parts for women’s voices (Lee & Walker, Philadelphia, 1871), and a version with a message from the Women’s Temperance Society in Living Waters—A Collection of Popular Temperance Songs, Choruses, Quartets (Peters, J. L., New York, 1874):
All among the Barley, wander you and I
Tho' we love the smiling Barley, we shun the dreadful Rye
Tho' we love the happy Barley, we shun the dreadful Rye
It was also included in resources for schools, as in The Golden Robin (W.O. Perkins, Boston 1863).
A popular song in print, then, and the work of a musician and, perhaps, a lyricist too, who were some steps removed from its bucolic setting. Instances of the song in oral tradition are surprisingly sparse, however. Among a plethora of printed sources, Steve Roud’s eponymous Folk Song Index cites All Among the Barley for nine singers, eight with records made between 1914 and 1974 (a ninth is undated). So, an enduring circulation among country singers in 20th Century England is suggested, and all evidence is consistent with All Among the Barley entering the tradition from written sources traceable to Sterling’s original score.
One song collector and one singer deserve more attention
Alfred Williams (1877 – 1930) collected folk songs from the Upper Thames Valley in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Oxfordshire. In contrast to Sharp and other materially comfortable, middle class collectors, Williams was born into working class poverty – in the village of South Marston, near Swindon. He was a half-time farmhand at eight, full-time by eleven, and a Swindon railway factory worker for 23 years. Williams was, nevertheless, an effective autodidact. Rising early to work before a factory shift and resuming late into the night, he published several volumes of poetry and social history, drawing on a love for his native Wiltshire countryside, and a commitment to recording the local people’s way of life. Along the way he found time to learn several languages, including French, Latin, Greek and Sanskrit. His most enduring work, Life in a Railway Factory documented the drudgery that led to his health break down and reliance on writing for a living.
Between 1914 and 1916, Williams cycled thousands of miles collecting the words of nearly 800 songs; a selection of some 200 were published as Folk Songs of the Upper Thames in 1923 “The greater part of the work of collecting the songs must be done at night, and winter is the best time, as the men are then free from their labours after tea.” On one such cold, night time journey Williams collected The Ripe and Bearded Barley from Henry Sirman, a farm hand of Stanton Harcourt. Williams lacked the skills to note down tunes, but the songs’musicality was not his prime concern; he was more interested in the significance of the songs in the lives of his informants. His own life was tragically short, worn down by poverty and a punishing work schedule.
To its considerable surprise and delight, the folk music scene of the 1970s discovered a traditional singer living, and hiding in plain sight, in Norfolk. Walter Pardon (1914 – 1996), a carpenter, passed his entire life, apart from four years war service at Aldershot, in the village of Knapton. He had a repertoire of around 150 songs, mainly learned by listening to family members. As a younger man there were few opportunities for social singing or public performance so he sang for his own entertainment, continuing in the isolation of the family cottage long after both parents had died.
Walter’s cousin Roger Dixon, a history teacher, aware of the interest Walter’s singing would arouse, recorded 20 songs and passed the tape to professional folk singer, Peter Bellmay. A late flowering singing career followed for Walter, who performed at clubs and festivals, recorded several CD albums, and sang in Washington at the USA’s 1976 bi-centennial celebrations, before retirement at 75 in 1989. His repertoire is notable for having several exclusive or rarely collected songs, including All Among the Barley. Sung to an approximation of Stirling’s tune, it can be found on Walter’s CD Put a bit of Powder on it, Father and in The British Library Sound Archive.
All Among the Barley has retained its appeal. In the 1980s Cheltenham singers, Mike and Jackie Gabriel, had the lyrics but no tune so composed their own. Robust, invitingly singable, and very much in an English traditional style, it has become, almost, the exclusive melody of choice for today’s singers. Several interpretations can be found on Youtube and variation in words and music shows the ‘folk process’ still at work.
The second part of Russ Clare’s article Social and environmental changes during the life of a song will be published later on this web site.
At the Bowhouse, St Monan’s Fife – the first Scottish Real Bread Festival – 25 February 2023 – hosted by Scotland the Bread. The Living Field went to see what was happening.
Well … you can’t grow bread wheats in Scotland they say. But on this day Scotland the Bread  hosted the first Scottish Real Bread Festival . The venue – at the Bowhouse, St Monans, Fife  – was packed with people seeing, selling, eating and debating flour and bread grown, milled and baked locally.
There were presentations and discussion through of the day, people sitting on hay bales, listening and asking.
Earlier, bakers had entered their loaves in the bread contest. A panel of experts had made a decision and the winners were announced and awarded. The loaves were all laid out on a table and given away at the end of the day.
Scotland the Bread‘s own flour, milled from local wheat landraces, was on sale ….. and went like hot loaves.Some sheaves of bread-wheat landraces were on display (lower images above), grown locally in the soil and climate of Fife. The plants are much taller than modern wheat varieties – due to the length of stems or ‘straw’ .
Long straw was once valued as a base for rope and string or used regularly in craftwork to make home decorations. Something Corny , based in Aberdeenshire, gave demonstrations and workshops through the day. The photos below shows some of their raw materials and a finished wall hanging.
Barley is rarely used in bread today but was once widely eaten in Scotland as a flatbread or bannock. Its use in food has been promoted by the Living Field for some years . It’s a nutritious corn. And people from the Rowett Institute, Aberdeen were present to talk about their research on barley landraces in human health and nutrition .
One of their posters described how a variety of barley from Tibet – a black barley – was being hybridised with other varieties and landraces at the James Hutton Institute. Tibet and its hybrids are high in fibre and miconutrients, and also in beta-glucan which may lower cholesterol.
The organisers and hosts put on a great show, well attended and well appreciated. Here’s hoping that milling and baking with local wheat grows and thrives.
Links and further information
 Scotland the Bread: local grains, cereal landraces, milling for flour, baking, community, food, campaigning for healthy, nutritious bread.
 Bowhouse – Connecting you to your local produce – a venue in St Monans Fife.
 The heights of landrace wheat and modern wheat are compared on the Living Field’s Cereals page. Ed: it looks like the long stems in the photograph above were tied with old-style, orange baler twine – brings back memories of sunburn and sore backs from lifting those small rectangular bales before the big round ones became standard!
 Elaine Lindsay practices and teaches straw work at Something Corny based at Inverurie, Aberdeenshire – check the online workshops.
For many years the Living Field garden near Dundee grew a range of ancient (and modern) cereals, partly for interest and partly to show people what used to be grown and eaten in the northern croplands.
Now the garden is no longer in operation, the editor misses the wonderful cereal diversity that used to be on show. So a small patch in a vegetable garden, just 2 m by 1 m, was sown with old saved seed at various times in April this year.
Most of the cereal species or varieties emerged quickly and in numbers, but a few took more time and some hardly germinated. For example, only one seed of Shetland bere barley germinated (saved from 2015), but that single plant went on to produce many ears.
Here’s some photographs taken in August 2022.
A favourite, its distinct two rows on a curvy ear with very long awns. It germinated, grew and formed ears quickly, and was maturing by mid-August.
The Lawsons’ seedsmen , writing in the mid-1800s, classed it as a distinct type, different from two-row and four- to six-row barleys. They also named it fan or battledore. You can see the likeness to a fan, less so to a battledore – an oval paddle used to wash and beat clothing or a racket used with a shuttlecock.
Emmer Triticum dicoccum was one of the first cereals to be domesticated in the fertile crescent. It is no longer grown commercially in the north but emmer flour is still available from specialist merchants.
It was the slowest of all the seedlings to grow and last to put out its head or spike. By mid August the plants had reached 5 feet in height (1.5 m) each with many grains, still maturing in the hot, sunny days.
Black or bristle oat
Black oat Avena strigosa is a different species from the common oat cultivated today. It was grown widely as a livestock feed and still remains as a feral plant in some areas, gone wild.
It grows very quickly, the first to flower and set seed, most of it mature in less than three months. Where other grain crops might fail, at least black oat would give some straw and grain. The seeds are long, thin and hard, so not a people’s favourite – though it was dubbed “famine food”, eaten when all else ran out.
Rye Secale cereale has not been grown in the north on the same scale as oats and barley. Yet it germinates quickly and grows to heading not far behind black oat. The heads, or ears, are upright at first (lower left in the photographs below). Awns are much shorter than those of spratt or bere barley. As the ears mature, the awns splay out, the grains become visible (lower right) and the whole ear forms a gentle curve (upper right). The naked grains, around 5 mm long (upper left), are easy to extract simply by rubbing the ear between fingers.
Bere – a landrace of barley – is rare now in Scotland but was grown over most of the country as recently as the 1850s. It was recorded as distinct from barley in the annual agricultural record in the early 20th century, but is now confined to a few fields in Orkney.
The Living Field has grown bere for years, seed saved over each winter and sown the next spring. Some early records show a similar landrace was grown in parts of north west Europe, suggesting the bere landraces were not solely Scottish. Links to previous Living Field articles are given at The bere line – rhymes with hairline and Bere barley at the Living Field.
The grains are pale green during early filling (lower left in the panel), but become darker streaked with red. They are protected by many long bristly awns, which did not quite succeed in keeping small birds from taking the grains.
[more to be added]
Sources | links
 Lawson, Peter and Son. MDCCCLII (1852) Synopsis of the Vegetable Products of Scotland. Edinburgh: private press of Peter Lawson and Son.
A summary of various articles on bere and other barleys from the Living Field project. First records of barley in the late stone age (neolithic). Structure – six-rowed, two-rowed (and four-rowed?). Origins of bere uncertain. Its name – from bere to bigg. Bere not exclusively Scottish – similar forms reported from mainland Europe in the early 1800s. Geographical distribution mostly to the north in the 1850s. Bere’s decline in the 1900s.
Bere – an ancient grain
Bere is one of a group of cereal or corn crops grown at the Living Field garden near Dundee . It is a landrace of the barley group. As a landrace , it is maintained from year to year from saved seed – and has been for centuries in Scotland. Each year, plants suited to the climate will leave more seed than others less suited, so gradually the characteristics of the population may shift. The bere grown in a particular region may become adapted to the climate and soils of that region.
The Living Field got its bere seed from Orkney – from the Agronomy Unit at Orkney Collage and from Barony Mills – and though very little bere is now grown outside a few fields in Orkney, collections held at the James Hutton Institute include bere and other landraces from several northern locations. Bere is quite distinct from other old barley varieties such as Spratt and Old Cromarty.
Barley originated to the east of the Mediterranean Sea. Seed was gradually brought across Europe until it eventually reached Britain 5000-6000 years ago . Barley ears with grains are first recorded at neolithic or late stone age settlements, and repeatedly through Bronze and Iron ages and onwards . They are best preserved where the ears holding the grain had been charred in a fire.
Bere and similar types of barley therefore have a long history in these Islands. Yet it is unclear whether those grown by neolithic settlers started a line that led directly to the bere recorded in the 1800s and that present today. There was repeated migration of people from Europe from the earliest times, and it is not hard to imagine that seed would have been brought across the sea on many occasions.
Bere and other barleys have been one of the main staple grains of the region, along with oat and pea . These ancient grains have sustained people for thousands of years, even up to the early 1900s. Today, bere is a heritage crop, but now getting needed recognition as a source of breeding material and a nutritious food.
The rest of this article presents some of the history of bere, including its fate after the 1700s, its relation to barley and the degree to which these two crops have been considered different.
Structure – six-row, two row, four-row, naked and clothed?
To appreciate the various records from pre-history to the present, it is necessary to know a little of the structure of the barley ‘ear’ that holds the grains. Cultivated barley is defined by the row-structure in the ‘ear’. Grain sites are formed in triplets, on both sides of the ear’s rachis, a kind of stem. There are types in which all grains in the triplets fill. As the two set of triplets fill along the length of the ear, they form six vertical rows and are named six-rowed. There are also types where only two of the six fill, and these are named two-rowed. The unfilled grain sites appear as little ‘pegs’. The difference is clear when 2-rowed and six-rowed are shown side by side as in the photographs below.
Bere is generally included within the six-row group, because all six grains form and fill, but bere types have also been named 4-rowed, for example by the Lawsons, Edinburgh seed merchants, working in the 1800s , and also in a modern definitive UK flora . In the four-rowed class, six grains form, but the outer two (the lateral ones) on opposite sides of the rachis merge into one row, so there are two rows of central grains and what appear to be just two rows of the four outer grains. The structure of bere can change on the same ear, leading to the Lawsons naming bere six- and four-rowed barley [5, see also 6].
The distinction is also made between naked barley in which the grains do not adhere tightly to the surrounding protective tissue, and hulled barley, in which the protective layers remain and are difficult to separate off.
The barley that has been found at prehistoric sites is six-rowed and variously naked or hulled. Bere today is mostly classed as a hulled barley, but as recently as the 1800s naked 4-rowed were still cultivated .
Bere in the historical records – is it uniquely Scottish?
The word bere and its variations have been in use for at least 9 centuries. Macleod  writes that in the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST), covering usage from the 12th century to 1700, bere occurs also as bear, bair and beir. The other name by which it is known, big or bigg (from Old Norse Bygg) “does not seem to be in the DOST record” which implies it was pre-dated by bere and not recorded in use before 1700. It is also unclear whether bere and barley mean the same or different things in these early writings. Macleod cites the use of ‘barley beir’ for example.
Bere and barley were both in common usage in records of the agricultural improvements after 1700, for example in Andrew Wight’s account of travels around Scotland, 1778 – 1784  and in the Old Statistical Account, 1791-1799 . Sometimes both names are used when referring to crops at the same location, implying they were regarded as different crops, but at other times the distinction is unclear.
By the early 1800s, the published information on crops had been greatly expanded, especially through the various descriptive lists prepared by the Lawsons’ seed company in Edinburgh, notably in 1836 and 1852 . Most of the barley varieties were named under two groups. One they define as Four-rowed, of which there were 12 types, some local and some from overseas including those named African, Bengal, Himalayan and Peruvian. The second group, recorded as a different species  was Two-rowed or Long-eared barley of which there were 26 types, again some sourced overseas. They also distinguished what they called true six-rowed, comprising one or possibly two types and an unusual form named Spratt (which is shown among the images on this page).
Common Bere was among the four-rowed and was also named Barley, Bigg or Rough Barley. So the Lawsons are implying that bere was also referred to as barley among farmers and merchants. It seems that around that time, the term ‘barley’ referred to two-rowed types, but could also be used for the four-rowed, and was therefore a general name for all cultivated barleys, whereas ‘bere’ referred to the local representative of the four(six-)-rowed types.
One of the most interesting pieces of information in the Lawsons’ account shows that Scotland’s ‘common bere’ was by no means unique. One other type, named Victoria bere, was stated as being received from the Belfast Botanic Gardens in 1836 and undergoing improvement by field trialling and selection. Another type, named Square, was received by the Lawsons from M. Vilmorin and Co., Paris, and had the following character: “Differs from the Common Bere in being three or four days sooner ripe, and having a thinner skin; properties which it may have acquired by being grown successively in the more genial climate of France, and is probably the same variety.” It is likely but not certain that Square was grown in France but the authors report ‘it was cultivated extensively in some parts of Germany’.
So even as recently as the mid-1800s, bere was not seen to be a uniquely Scottish form of barley. Something very like it was grown elsewhere in Europe. Also, they include in the four-rowed group, two naked types – the Naked or Siberian (“Ear similar in shape to the Common Bere, but rather more distinctly six-rowed … “) and an earlier form named Old Scottish Four-Rowed Naked, neither of which were much grown at that time.
In the Lawsons’ account therefore, naked and hulled forms of 6- or 4- rowed barleys were still grown in the mid-1800s, as they were in the neolithic.
Occurrence in the 1850 agricultural census and later
The area and yield of crops in Scotland were first recorded in a major agricultural census in the 1850s. The statist Thomas Thorburn presented averages of sown area and yield for each of the Old Counties and they have been were arranged by the Living Field on a map of Scotland .
The circles on the maps below represent the area of crops placed at the centres on the old counties. For reference, the internal boundaries show current administrative areas. Bere is shown on the left and barley on the right. Over the whole country, barley occupied about 10 times more area than bere, but at that time even barley covered a much smaller area than the main corn crop, oat. Bere, though present in most counties, was mainly grown in the north.
Distribution of bere (left) and barley (right) from the 1854 census. Each circle represents the area of crop in one of the pre-1890s counties. For a circle of given size, crop areas are 10 times greater for barley. Orkney and Shetland formed one area in the census: bere represented by the large circle just above Orkney; the arrow on the right pointing to the small area grown with barley. Full description at Thorburn’s Diagrams .
The 1850s census recorded yield in bushels, a measure of dry volume. A bushel does not necessarily measure the same weight in different grain lots since it varies with the density of the grain and the amount of chaff . Converting census records from bushels and using the same conversion for both bere and barley indicates that bere yield was 80-90% of barley yield over Scotland as a whole but similar in northern counties at 1.5 to 2.0 t/ha. (Modern barley yields are typically 5 to 6 t/ha.)
The agricultural census continued in the 1880s, after a break. By 1912, bere occupied 5.4% of the total barley, so quite a bit down as a proportion of the total from the 1850s. The total barley itself was only 20% of the area sown with oats.
During the 1920s, 1930s and up to 1944, bere was still mentioned in the census, its area was not given separately but included with barley. In the 1950s bere was no longer mentioned – barley area alone was given alongside oats, wheat and rye.
[To be updated as further information on bere becomes available.]
 The Living Field article Bere in Lawson’s Synopsis summarises work by the Lawsons, seed merchants working from Edinburgh in the 1800s. Their main works are: (1) Peter Lawson and Son 1836. The Agriculturist’s Manual. Edinburgh, London and Dublin, (2) Lawson and Son. 1852. Synopsis of the vegetable products of Scotland. Edinburgh: Private Press of Peter Lawson and Son. Copies are available online via the Biodiversity Library and Google Books.
Of the four-rowed types they write – “middle grains on each side forming a distinct straight row; lateral ones forming a kind of double row towards the base, but uniting so as to form one row towards the extremity of the spike; so that instead of being named four or six-rowed, they might with more propriety be named four and six-rowed barleys.”
On the definition of naked: “The difference in naked and other barleys, consists in the palea, or husk, separating from the grain in thrashing, as in common wheats.”
 Stace C. 1991. New Flora of the British Isles (second edition 1997). Cambridge University Press. The following appears: “Usually the three fertile florets per triplet produce 6 vertical rows of caryopses in the spike, but in some cultivars the 2 lateral rows of triplets on opposite sides of the rachis are superimposed producing four vertical rows (Four-rowed barley)”.
 Wight, A. 1778-1784. Present State of Husbandry in Scotland. Extracted from Reports made to the Commissioners of the Annexed Estates, and published by their authority. Edinburgh: William Creesh. Vol I, Vol II, Vol III Part I, Vol III Part II, Vol IV part II, Volume IV Part II. All available online via Google Books. For more at the Living Field on Wight’s observations – Great quantities of Aquavitae, Great quantities of Aquavitae II and The Mill at Atholl.
 The taxonomic naming of barley in not consistent. The Lawsons named four-rowed as Hordeum vulgare and the two-rowed as Hordeum distichon, as does Stace  who commented that they were ‘better amalgamated’. Most authorities today [e.g. 13] group them as one species, Hordeum vulgare, and distinguish the forms as sub-species.
 The Living Field article Thorburn’s Diagrams gives a summary of the 1850s crop census: Thorburn T. 1855. Diagrams, Agricultural Statistics of Scotland for 1854. London: Effingham Wilson. The Living Field article Bere Country gives maps of bere and barley in the 1850s based on Thorburn’s county averages. For more explanation of bushels and other measures of dry volume: Light on bushel and Grain measures in Ancient Greece.
 Wallace, M., Bonhomme, V., Russell, J. et al. Searching for the Origins of Bere Barley: a Geometric Morphometric Approach to Cereal Landrace Recognition in Archaeology. J Archaeol Method Theory26, 1125–1142 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-018-9402-2
All the bere and barley – except those photographed in Orkney fields – were grown at the Living Field garden at the James Hutton Institute near Dundee by Gladys Wright and Jackie Thompson. Geoff Squire assembled the text above.
“There is made of barly a certaine kinde of drinke …. and a meate that is good for sicke persons, called mundified barly.” (L’Agriculture et Maison Rustique 1593)
More than Aquavitae
The Library of Innerpeffray  holds a book, named L’Agriculture et Maison Rustique (1593), that tells of, among other things, how to grow crops and use their products. Touch, open, read ….. and you will get to the page on mundified barly or barlie .
As in many sources from the 1500s through to the early 1900s, barley was viewed as a nutritious food – a health-giving corn, much more than a raw material for alcohol. The book gives instructions on preparing the barley and in one case adding fruit juices or seeds.
Boil it till it burst
Preparation begins with rough barley grain and converts it one way or another to the consistency of papmeate. One method is to boil it, beat it, strain it …. and then the surprise …. add to it various juices or seeds as available. Here’s the original, the spelling kept where possible :
The almonds referred to were presumably still juiceful, well before maturity (unlike those top right in the photo below). Other sources  offer slightly different methods of preparation and and suggest adding grape juice. Probably the juice of any fruit or sweet vegetable leaf would do.
To wet it but not to make it swim
The second process seems more involved. Wet it but not so much that it swims, beat it, force off the husks, chafe it between the fingers, dry it in the sun, put it back in water, boil it to bursting, strain it. So stressful … ! Here is the original.
Much more than Aquavitae – but was it bere
So there is in this account – and there is in many accounts from barley-country everywhere – procedures and recipes to convert this life sustaining grain to a food or healthy drink!
In temperate climatic regions unsuitable for wheat, the meal or flour from barley and oats was the main source of carbohydrate. (The equivalent crops in tropical Africa, for example, are the sorghums and millets).
In Scotland, bannocks , a form of flatbread made from barley with oatmeal and sometimes peasemeal, sustained the populace before it came to rely on traded cereal products in the later 1900s. After being cooked, bannocks remained in shape, flat and round, and so could be carried about.
The book says little about the varieties of barley that were mundified. They could well have been similar to ones grown here – the landrace known as bere  and more modern (for that time) cultivated forms.
Varieties resembling Scottish bere were known from parts of Europe. Lawson and Son (1836, 1852) refer to a form of bere grown in France and Germany and also a bere-like, naked six-row barley said to have come from mainland Europe . If they mundified in Scotland, they could have added local wild fruits in season (not melon or grapes) or even kale-juice.
Maybe the Living Field will try to mundify? More to follow on barley as a food and health drink …..
 The Library at Innerpeffray. On a visit to The Library in September 2019 (GS writes), I was handed a book L’agriculture et maison rustique. The title page credits Charles Estienne and Jean Liebault. The book examined was dated 1593. Online sources list one edition printed in London 1600 with a variant of the title – The Countrie Farme – credited to Charles Stevens and John Liebault, and translated into English by Richard Surflet, Practitioner in Physicke. The book appeared in Latin, then in several languages and editions. Available online – see Dumbarton Oaks or search for the title.
 To Mundify: the Shorter Oxford Dictionary (third edition) indicates this is now rare or obsolete, descended from mundificare (latin) and meaning to cleanse, to purify, to free from noxious matter.
 The letter ‘u’ was written as ‘v’ and the letter ‘s’ has the appearance of a tall form of ‘f’. Barley appears as barlie and barly.
 Some examples. The title page of Dictionarire Oeconomique gives it written by M. Chomel in 1725: it advised the use of mundified barley or ‘barley water’ to counter various ailments (including Hectick-dever, for which the author also suggests small meals of frogs, snails, tortoise or good fish and ‘Asses Milk’). For another ailment, the preparation is a tisane of barley and marsh-mallow. In A garden of herbs by ES Rohde (1922), another 1600s source is given for a slightly different method of preparation, but the author calls it a Hordeat as well as mundified barley.
The 2018 summer of low rainfall was one of the driest on record. Cereal grain harvest dipped but did not fail, loss of production caused more by conditions in the previous winter than the summer drought. A further example of grain harvest’s resilience to untypical weather in the north-east Atlantic.
The long summer of unusually low rainfall in 2018 parched much of the grassland and stunted many of the cereal crops. The wheat and barley appeared to suffer in many places. A record low for grain output looked set to happen. Yet the yield figures suggest a remarkable resilience to what turned out to be unusual weather for the region.
First the rainfall …. How low was it?
Daily rainfall records for East Scotland
The Met Office provides a valuable series of historical rainfall data. The analysis here uses the daily series for regions of the UK from 1931 . The Met region ‘East Scotland’ is the one where most of the wheat, barley and oats are grown. The period in 2018 from April to the end of August joins that of several other years in being unusually dry – 1955, 1976, 1981, 1984, 1995, and 2003 all had rainfall below 200 mm (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1 Total rainfall between 1 April and 31 August for the East Scotland region in all years since 1931. The line just below 200 mm is the value in 2018. Years of low summer rainfall are arrowed. Data source: Alexander & Jones, 2001 .
There is little sign of any major trend in either low or high rainfall over the main summer period. Many of the other years after 2000 were much wetter than 2003 and 2018. The highest point in recent times was the very wet 2012, which had more rainfall than all other years except two. What distinguishes 2018 is the pattern of rainfall.
Many of the years having low summer rainfall had a fairly wet May, as evident in the steep rise in cumulative rainfall in 1976 and 2003 in Fig. 2. The same sort of thing happened in 1955 (not shown). This rainfall in May probably fills the soil enough to allow the crops to last through a dry June and July at which point most of the season’s growth has occurred.
Fig. 2 Cumulative summer rainfall, East Scotland from April for four dry years including 2018 (symbols). Data source: Alexander & Jones, 2001 .
2018 had a wetter April then most other dry years but then low rainfall until late July. Although 1984 had the lowest rainfall overall, 2018 had the lowest from late April through to mid-July, which is when the solar income is large and when the crops are bulking. Summer rainfall in 2018 would have been less than in 2003 if it had not been for that rain in late July and early August.
So did this low rainfall during crop bulking have an effect?
Yield figures for 2018
Each year the Scottish Government provide absolute records of crop-areas (i.e. all fields counted) and estimates of yield per unit area based on data from a range of sources. The final estimates are published in December .
The wet year of 2012 provides a comparator: most crops but particularly wheat, oats and oilseed rape produced a low yield per unit area that year because of waterlogged soil and low solar income . Total cereal output was lower than in any other year of the past two decades.
The records show 2018 yields were no worse. Wheat yield per unit area (t/ha) was down to near the 2012 value but most of the other crops showed little fall in yield (Fig. 3). When expressed as a percentage of the average of recent years, the simultaneous dip among crops in 2012 was not repeated in 2018 (Fig. 4).
Fig. 3 Grain yield of wheat (red), oats (black) and oilseed rape (blue) over the last 20 years.
Was anything different about 2018. Total cereal output (the sum of wheat, barley and oats) was low, in fact just above the 2012 value, but this was due to reduced land areas sown with cereals, mainly winter barley which was sown in the autumn of 2017 before the summer drought of 2018. Sources in  state ‘Winter barley area dropped by a fifth due to poor weather conditions. This, along with a four per cent drop in yield resulted in production decreasing by 24 per cent.’ The greater effect therefore occurred before the winter and ‘was a result of the difficult weather conditions in late 2017.’
Fig. 4 Grain yields in Fig. 3 as a percentage of the average over the period, wheat (red), oats (black), oilseed rape (blue).
It appears therefore that yields per unit area – the best guide to the effect of weather on the summer bulking conditions – were not strongly affected by the 2018 drought.
Caution is needed because the yield figures are an estimate, i.e. not measured for all crops. Some crops were not harvested for grain at all, where the weather ‘resulted in a number of farmers choosing to whole-crop due to the low yield and quality .’ (Whole-crop means to take all the crop for feed without separating the grain.) Some of the poorest yielding fields might have been removed from the estimate of yield therefore.
Could grain yields collapse in this region?
Drought leads to zero crop yield in many countries. Even in parts of Australia, where standards of agronomy and resource-use are high, recent droughts have led to total failure of cereal crops that are not irrigated.
So could crop failure occur here? In principle yes. But it would have to be a much drier year than any since the records began in 1931. Given there is no discernible trend towards low summer rainfall and that most years between 2003 and 2018 were wet, and two of those years – 2014 and 2016 – produced among the highest mean yields ever in this region, there are certainly no indications that summer droughts will become a feature of the Atlantic maritime cropland.
Then again, you can’t trust the weather …. .
 Daily rainfall series from 1931: Alexander, L.V. and Jones, P.D. (2001) Updated precipitation series for the U.K. and discussion of recent extremes, Atmospheric Science Letters doi:10.1006/asle.2001.0025. Further information at the Met Office’s Hadley Centre web site: https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/hadobs/hadukp/
The north-east Atlantic seaboard has grown three main grain crops – oat, barley and wheat. All originated in the east Mediterranean or west Asia, but all find the climate here good for their growth. Most years that is.
The fall in output of the main staple grain crops in 2018, and before that in 2012, due to unusually bad weather, raised many questions as to how food and alcohol production would be affected if the climate continued to vary between wet and dry. The crop in 2012 suffered from cloudy skies causing slow plant growth, and then very wet soil that made harvest difficult. That in 2018 suffered from lack of water mid-May, at just the point when the crops were starting their main phase of growth.
Yet in neither year did production collapse. Total grain output from wheat, barley and oats fell by little more than a tenth of the average. Perhaps the varied needs of the three grains give cereal production here its ability to withstand years of bad weather. Historical change in this combination of grains may tell much about how agriculture can cope with the future.
Here, we look back over 150 years to see that the balance of the three grains and other crops has undergone major change, most of it not due to the weather, and ask whether the three grains give production some resilience – a capacity to withstand shocks, to adapt and continue.
1900: decline in grain output, a move to grass
In and around 1900, and for many decades before that, oats was by far the most widely grown grain crop in the northern part of Britain. In the crop census for Scotland , oats occupied more than three-quarters of the cereal area, and barley most of the rest. Wheat was minor. Few other cereals were grown – a little rye and some ‘mixed grain’ usually consisting of oats and barley.
It was a time of great change, most of it considered negative for home production. The area sown with cereals decreased as did that of the ‘root’ crops (turnips and swede) and also the grain legumes (peas and beans). They all gave way to grass, to feed cattle and sheep, with the result that the country was far from self-sufficient in grain at the time of WWI.
From privation to food security: 1945 – 1990
The areas grown with cereals and other arable crops kept on falling until the start of WWII when the need for home-grown food and feed caused some of the grass to be re-ploughed and sown with arable. The proportional areas of the three cereals remained the same, except for a little more wheat.
Yield per unit area had not changed much from 1900. Something had to happen. The privations of the war years and reliance on imports to feed the country spurred government into action. Plans were laid to raise farming output, but it was well over 10 years before there was any improvement in yield.
The phase of ‘intensification’ really began in the 1960s – machines could plough deeper, mineral fertiliser was readily available and new crop varieties were introduced able to allocate more of their mass to grain rather than straw. By the 1980s, yields had more than doubled. This result of intensification was a major achievement, reproduced in many parts of the world (The Green Revolution).
The largest single change here during that time was a shift from oats to barley and wheat. They were more profitable than oats and could now be grown to higher yield and over large areas with the fertiliser and pesticides that became readily available. Most of the wheat and about 20% of the barley were autumn-sown winter crops. They were able to survive the cold of winter and be ready to bulk up on the sun’s energy as early as May, and so were higher yielding than the traditional spring varieties.
By the 1970s, the country could have fed itself from home production, but then a rise in global trade meant that cereal food could be imported on the cheap. Home production became almost irrelevant to peoples’ consumption of cereal products except oats.
The great levelling : 1990 to the present
The seemingly unstoppable rise in grain yield slowed in the late 1980s. The brakes were on – for various reasons (which will be looked at another time). Yields per field and total grain output from the country have hardly changed since. They go up, as in the favourable weather of 2014, and down as in 2012 and 2018, but their present trajectory is level.
It’s the same for grain output in much of Europe, and crops farther afield, such as oil palm, also suffer: years of expansion and rise in output are followed by a levelling.
The levelling presents a major problem for science and crop management. 2014 gave the highest average yields ever in the region expressed as grain mass per unit field area. There is still potential for increase. The maximum on-farm yields are much higher than the average. Possibly modern varieties, able to yield well in good years, are over-sensitive to bad years.
Lessons from the past
The great swing in the mid-1900s from mostly oats to mostly barley was caused by markets and new opportunities for trade. Science and technology provided the means but the markets drove the change. Government strategy was to gain self-sufficiency in food, but that sufficiency ultimately came from outside.
There was no real strategic plan for home -grown production and there does not seem to be one now. That farming can switch between the three grains (and between grain and grass) should make agriculture less at risk of future catastrophe, whether due to climate. volcanic eruption or blockade. But the country should not wait to see what happens.
The resilience afforded by oats, barley and wheat should now be planned into the future of farming here. The Common Agricultural Policy did little to challenge current markets and the dominance of the few major influences. Post-CAP there is an opportunity to set targets for home-grown cereal food as distinct from cereals as substrates for animal feed and alcohol. Tinkering round the edges will do little. Major structural change in land use is needed.
Some previous posts on this web site have looked at the effects on crops of unusual weather in the past decade . Future articles and notes will look at how farming used the three grains to the lessen the damage caused by the 2018 drought. We’ll also be starting a major series of articles on the options for future sustainability, with reference of course to lessons from the past 5000 years.
 A longer version of this article is available as on the curvedflatlands web site: Resilience in a three-grain production system, where full reference is given to the government statistical records from the late 1800s to the present and commentaries on trends in areas and yields of the three grains.