From mediaeval wall paintings (murals) about 1250 at St Agatha’s, Easby, Yorkshire …. from the Labours of the Months …..
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  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.
The rigs in the images are one of several field systems around Eoropaidh and Butt of Lewis. The Canmore web site  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  and other pages on that site tell more of the history of the area .
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 .
But the most likely meaning is indicated by Fenton  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’ .
Fenton and Veitch (2011) give explanations and many references to the runrig system in different parts of Scotland.
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 . 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.’  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.
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.
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.
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 .
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 , as noted above, both names are used for the barley crop but neither is defined.
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to gk-images for allowing us to use some of their photographs.
[Began late March, edited in April and May 2017]
 Northern Lighthouse Board: Butt of Lewis Lighthouse.
 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.
 More on the history of the area at the Canmore pages for Eoropie, Teampull Mholuaidh (St Moluag’s).
 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 .
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Old Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-99: Vol XIX dated 1797 for the Parish of Barvas. Online at Old Statistical Account.
 New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1834-45: Vol XII for the Parish of Barvas. Online at New Statistical Account and also at Google Books.
 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
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 …
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.
Corn mills in Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles; the horizontal water driven mechanism; locally managed and owned; bere and oat; the similarities of mills in in Europe and Asia.
“The praying machine of Thibet is, I believe, of similar construction.’ (Goudie, 1885-86)
Three small water mills, housed in stone huts, lie one below the other down a small waterway near Huxter in Shetland (HU 172572), west of Sandness and NW of Walls.
They must have been some advance over the saddle quern, which was still in use when Gilbert Goudie investigated Shetland’s horizontal mills in the 1880s. The mills were of a time when each family or group grew its own bere barley and oat and then ground it to meal, to eat.
The mills are small stone buildings constructed along a waterway or burn. They were locally made and owned, sometimes by several families. Goudie cites Evershed (1874): ‘No portion of the material is purchased, except a single clamp of iron”. The millstones are sourced locally.
The water is channeled off the waterway above the mill along a stone-lined lode (visible in the images below) which enters the mill to turn a paddle wheel under the floor. The mills are called ‘horizontal’ because the force of water turns the paddles in a horizontal plane, rather than vertically as in the later water wheels of the type at Birsay in Orkney.
The paddles drive a vertical iron rod, fixed so it turns the upper of two millstones (up to 3 ft diameter) in the room above. After passing through the paddles, the water then runs out to rejoin the waterway and on to the next mill.
There’s no sign of corn crops in this area today – it is all grazing. Yields of corn are uneconomical now and people can import their bread, rice and pasta from other regions, as do most others in the Atlantic croplands.
But what did bere look like? The photograph below shows a bere landrace from Eday, Orkney, grown in the Living Field garden in 2015. Bere in Shetland in the 1800s would have looked much like this – very different from today’s two-row types, but not quite a six-row barley.
But in the later 1800s, the people here probably grew mainly oat, as they did all over Scotland. But which oat – a landrace of the nutritious common oat Avena sativa or one of the black oat Avena strigosa? Those concerned with the industrial archaeology of the late 1800s rarely noted the crops.
Easier than a saddle quern
The mills were reported by Goudie to grind a bushel an hour. Depending on conversion factors, a bushel (volume) is equal to about 22 kg of bere – which is equivalent to about 15 kitchen-sized bags of flour or meal, though the actual yield of pure meal would be less because of all the chaff (husks, awns) that would have to be be discarded. So not a bad yield for an hour’s work!
Horizontal mills in history
Horizontal water mills had been in use for many hundreds of years when Goudie wrote his account. Both Goudy (1885-86) and Wilson (1960) point to the almost global occurrence of these machines, stretching from eastern Europe and Asia to Shetland and the Faroe Islands. Wilson illustrates characteristic types of mill wheel – Shetland, Irish, Alpine, Israel, Balkan – the design transferred in antiquity across the land masses of Europe and Asia, evidence of the connectedness of the northern islands to the wider world.
So how and when did they get to Shetland? These authors note that despite the similarity between mills in Shetland, the Faroe Islands and Norway, suggesting a common ancestry (9th C?), there is no evidence to confirm the direction of travel. Goudie also points to similar constructions in eastern Europe and Asia, and concludes:
“Almost obliterated as it is elsewhere, it is here still to be found in extraordinary numbers” and “… almost in Shetland only, that we find it in active operation …”.
One factor that hastened the loss of these mills was the (not untypical) action of a landowner, who constructed his own big mill, and then dissuaded families to abandon their small enterprises and pay for the use of his.
Certainly, the mills work no longer to grind meal, except as archaeological curiosities. The last one at Dounby in Orkney was taken over by The Office of Works in 1932.
But what a location! Imagine harvesting and milling bere or oat here on a fine day: sheep on coastal grazing, the Island of Papa Stour over the Bay and Vinland over an unbroken stretch of ocean to the west.
Main sources are Goudie and Wilson – both give diagrams of the mechanism
Goudie, Gilbert. 1885-1886. On the horizontal water mills of Shetland. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 20, 257-97. Available online via the Archaeology Data Service: http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/psas/volumes.cfm then click on Volume 20 and scroll down to a PDF of the article.
Wilson, Paul N. 1960. Watermills with horizontal wheel. Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (London). Titus Wilson & Son ltd, Kendal. Available online: try http://www.fastonline.org/CD3WD_40/JF/430/22-526.pdf
Cruden SH. 1948. The horizontal water-mill at Dounby, on the mainland of Orkney. Search: Archaeology Data Service / Archives (shows photograph of the Huxter Mills).
Another mill of similar type at Eshaness
Fenton A. 1978. The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland. New edition 1997.
Article and images, taken 26 June 2016: Squire / Living Field; except where stated by gk images.
[Last update 15 July 2016]
A Living Field exhibit at Open Farm Sunday this year on 7 June 2015 10 am to 4 pm at the James Hutton Institute, Invergowrie, Dundee.
Plant to plate: see and touch corn (cereal) plants, ancient and modern; have a go at threshing; try hand-grinding grain; see bread, biscuits and bannocks made from bere (an old Scottish barley landrace), rye, spelt and oat.
Images above show (top) ripening ‘ears’ of emmer wheat grown in the Living Field garden, a bag of oat grain and the Living Field’s rotary quern for grinding grain into meal
Indigenous crops; Scotch Bonnet; wool, woad and indigo; Tam o’Shanter, Burns supper; staple food of the north Atlantic seaboard; tatties, neeps, oat and barley; the grey cat!
In its undying search for the truly indigenous crop, the Living Field investigated the ‘Scotch Bonnet’, to find it was nothing local at all, but a hot little capsicum, now grown in the West Indies and other tropical places and used to give some spicy heat to food.
Why then is it called the Scotch Bonnet? It seems because it looks like one. Unlike many varieties of the chillies, this one bulges and sometimes flops when it leaves the stem: to some, with imagination, it resembles a Scotch Bonnet, on a head.
The Scotch Bonnet
Now the Living Field is well disposed to the headgear named Scotch Bonnet, originally made of local fibre, usually wool, and dyed blue with woad Isatis tinctoria, which was once grown as a crop in these islands, or with the deeper indigo Indigofera tinctoria, which is imported and replaced woad. Such skill and craft go into making this one little hat: you have to rear the sheep and shear them, then wash, spin and weave the fibre, grow and harvest the woad or indigo, extract the dyestuff, dye the cloth, then form it into a shape that would fit on a head – and it was all done before electricity.
But we see the Scotch Bonnet (headgear) is also called the Tam o’Shanter, and this is, it seems, because Tam in the poem by Burns wears a blue bonnet – it’s mentioned only once, but there it is – ‘Tam’s blue bonnet’.
Now these three words do not define what sort of bonnet it is, yet those who have depicted the bonnet in drawings and paintings of the epic give it the character and shape of a Scotch Bonnet, and those such as Alexander Goudie (1933-2004) who have painted in colour give it the colour blue – woad-blue or indigo-blue.
In Goudie’s fabulous paintings, the blue bonnet is there in almost every picture. It grows in significance. Even when chased by Cutty Sark and the other infernals, the blue bonnet stays on. Even when, with diminishing sark, she grabs Maggie’s (Tam’s mare’s) tail, pulls it and leaves just a stump of hair … the bonnet stays on. Considering the state of Tam, and the number and aggression of the infernals .. you wonder how the man and mare escaped? Was there something in these blue-bearing plants that somehow made Tam and his mare go faster or the infernals slower. Doesn’t matter, because if they had caught him, there would be no recitations of the poem and much less fun at Burns Night.
The poem Tam o’Shanter is very much associated with the festivities of the Burns Supper, and through the medium of the Supper, visitors can sample some of the great staple food and drink of the north Atlantic seaboard – oat, swede, potato and barley. Together, and with offal, including lungs, and other fleshly stuff from sheep, they make the traditional meal of haggis, neeps and tatties, the barley going not so much into the haggis as into the dram for those who partake (though, on the Night, the dram can sometimes … well … go into the haggis).
Would Burns have known the main crops that now form his Supper – he was a farmer for a few years? Sheep of course he would have known. Of the three main vegetable constituents, only oat has been here for a long time and that for thousands of years. He would have known oat. The neeps, usually swede rather than the (white) turnip, and tatties (potato) are relative newcomers, arriving perhaps a few decades before Burns was born. Burns probably knew about swede and potato but might not have grown them. Barley is older than oat here and he would have known barley and certainly known its products.
So while Burns (1759-1796) is now celebrated around the world, the world reciprocated before he was born by offering the vegetable constituents of his commemorative supper – oat and barley from west Asia, swede from (probably, though it’s not certain) east Europe or west Asia and potato from Central America. What a generous world!
Sources at the bottom of the page give links to his poems and song and to the Scots Dictionary. The image of haggis, neeps and tatties (above) was taken at a Burns ‘lunch’ at the Hutton staff restaurant. For those who want to know more about the crops, below is something more on swede, potato, oat and barley.
The tatties’ tale is well told elsewhere. Briefly, potato Solanum tuberosum arrived in Britain from the other side of the Atlantic in the late 1500s, but gained little interest other than a garden curiosity until …..
“To Thomas Prentice, a common day-labourer, who lived near Kilsyth, is the honour due of bringing this useful esculent into general notice in Scotland [so wrote Lawson and Son in 1836 only 40 years after Burns’ death … and read on … ] He procured, in 1728, some “sets” from Lancashire, and bestowed considerable care in their propagation; and as their value became known, they were eagerly sought after by his immediate neighbours. By continuing the cultivation he, in a few years, saved upwards of £200, with which he purchased a small annuity, on which he lived independently to an old age, dying at Edinburgh in the year 1792.”
So Thomas got his tattie tubers from Lancashire well before Burns was born and he died only a few years before Burns did. Burns was probably familiar with the potato, but only just. His parents’ generation probably did not know it and his grandparents’ would not have known it. Yet what an explosion of genetic resources there was after that, because little over a hundred years later there were 175 recognised types of potato known to Lawson and Son (1836, 1850) and today there are great collections of genetic resources such as the one at the Hutton Institute.
In their list of 1852, Lawson and Son, seedsmen from Edinburgh, write “in modern times the turnip seems to have been re-introduced to this country from Flanders about two-hundred years ago” which is the 1650s or thereabouts, but they also state that the time of introduction and the degree of cultivation of the swede or Swedish turnip is less certain though probably later (let’s approximate to around 1700). By Burns’ time the turnip had become a commercial farm crop in some areas of Scotland. Today the turnip has the botanical name Brassica rapa and the swede Brassica napus.
Both types of turnip were used to feed horses and cattle, but also people. The swede, the same species as oilseed rape, has leaf that is less coarse and hairy than the turnip, bluey-green rather than bright green and generally a yellow-orange flesh rather than white, which colour remains when cooked and mashed. So the neeps that are eaten these days with haggis and tatties are mostly swedes. An excellent vegetable, rich, smooth and distinctive to the taste, one of the very finest of the cabbages.
Oat Avena sativa and barley Hordeum vulgare had been the staple cereals of the north atlantic seaboard for a very long time. Charred grain of barley has been found in the earliest farming settlements. Their relative popularity has risen and fallen but in Burns’ time, oat was by far the most common, and it is the meal ground from oat grains that binds the animal constituents of the haggis. Today it’s the other way round, barley is the commoner crop, though oat is the one still used in haggis. More on oat and barley can be found on this site at Garden/Cereals and in the series of articles on landraces, e.g. The bere line – rhymes with hairline.
The grey cat?
She says “Arrived, invited, for a SoSCOtchBOnnet photoshoot posing in nothing but a Scotch Bonnet – and what a bonnet! Fine wool, indigo-dyed, cost me the earth … credit card maxed out … but the editor says ‘no nudity on the Living Field web site’ and I had to keep my fur on … no fun in that. Name’s Meggie by the way, like Tam’s horse Maggie but with an ‘e’. I do photoshoots. Call me.”
Burns poetry. Best get a book of it – there are several – and read it by a fireside on a winter’s night or in a field of corn and poppies in midsummer.
Burns is accessible online, e.g. http://www.robertburns.org and http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/biography.shtml
Tam o’Shanter, a tale by Robert Burns, illustrated by Alexander Goudie. 2011. Berlinn, Edinburgh. More on the artist at http://www.alexandergoudie.org.uk at which – check under ‘paintings’ and ‘Tam o’Shanter’.
A Scot’s dictionary is handy if you are not familiar, e.g. The Concise Scots Dictionary (The Scots language in one volume from the first records to the present day). Editor in Chief: Mairi Robinson, 1985. Aberdeen University Press.
Lawson and Son’s exhibitions and lists of 1836 and 1852 are described on this site at Bere in Lawsons’ Synopsis 1852
Now here’s an informative article by Iseabail Macleod on the occurrence of names for corn from the 12th century to 1700.
The article starts with: ‘What does the terminology of cereal crops and their products in the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST) tell us about the language and diet of Lowland Scotland in the period? Her review of the records leads to the statement “Cereals … after 1550 became dominant, as the most economic way to feed a growing population. The earliest staple crops were oats and bere.” Wheat is stated as a “the food of the privileged, a cash crop and not normally consumed by ordinary people.” The author says that the best sources of information are “administrative documents, including court and burgh records, and the Treasurer’s Accounts.” (Ed – agreed, conventional histories the world over hardly mention what feeds the people.)
Wheat the food of the privileged then? Not so true today – many people eat imported wheat as white sliced or cereal nibbles, while bere is becoming a gourmet delight. (Just think) bere bannocks, made from Orkney bere-meal and pure water, cooked on a cast iron griddle wood-fire-heated, drizzled with home-grown cold-pressed lime-infused rapeseed oil and enjoyed with a glass of micro-brewed Colonsay or Arran (Source: gourmet trials in progress, Living Field).
Bere and barlie
Barley and oats have kept northern people going for thousands of years (north of the sub-tropics and mediterranean, that is) and both of these cereals appear together in DOST. But do the records tell us anything about the difference between barley and bere.
Macleod writes that in DOST, bere also occurs as bear and bair, also beir. Big or Bigg (from Old Norse Bygg) “does not seem to be in the DOST record” “though it occurs in Northern English” and more recently in Scots after 1700 (see SND).
So bere, bear and bair (also beir) were used before 1700 in Scotland, but what about barley? Macleod writes that the word barlie was used as early as about 1500 but that barlie and barley are both rare before 1700.
But were bere and barley different in those days? Hard to tell. Macleod cites the use of the term ‘barley beir’, but (we ask) was this a form of barley or a form of beir, or was it just that people sometimes used both words to mean much the same thing or simply just got confused?
The various forms of bere and barley were found in the DOST records, but the forms of bere were more common. The forms of bere were used a couple of hundred years before the Scandinavian bigg was first recorded. The article gives no firm evidence either way that bere and barley were regarded as being different things.
Macleod, I. 2005. Cereal terms in the DOST record. In: Perspectives on the Older Scottish Tongue. Eds Kay CJ, Mackay MA, pp 73-83, Edinburgh University Press. Reproduced online in the Scottish Corpus of Text and speech Document 840. http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=840
DOST = A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue. Older Scots 12th century to 1700. http://www.dsl.ac.uk
SND = The Scottish National Dictionary. Modern Scots 1700-2005. http://www.dsl.ac.uk
Scottish Corpus of Texts and Speech http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk
Standard measures for checking the dry volume of produce such as grain and fruit have been in place since trade in agricultural products began. A barrel or basket holding one bushel (8 gallon or 36.4 litre) was once commonly used in Britain. (See Light on bushel.) The following is an example of a device used in Ancient Greece and Rome.
The measuring tables at Ancient Messene
At the archaeological site of Ancient Messene in the Peloponnese, Greece, there are stone tables into which hemispheres or bowls have been carved. A notice nearby states that these measuring standards were found during the excavation in what was originally part of a communal space (the agora). The bowls were “for testing the capacity of the containers used by merchants who were selling dry fruits and grain”. Images of the tables and bowls are shown below.
The tables are sited by a wall under the letters A and B in the upper image. Table A is shown lower left; it measures more than 1 metre in length. Each table has two bowls carved into it, identified by the white ovals, lower right.
The bowls have a rough surface, and holes at the bottom which would have been fitted with stoppers. The holes were large enough for grain to pour through when the stoppers were pulled out.
There was one further table, positioned in a corner made by two walls. One of the bowls seemed to have a hollow stone hemisphere placed on top of it (image below), the purpose of which is unclear.
The ‘mensa ponderaria’ at Assos (after Tarbell)
This type of table, known generally as a ‘mensa ponderaria’ was widespread in the ancient world. F. B Tarbell gives an account of one found at Assos, an ancient site in Turkey. The table from Assos is a block of marble – 1.11 m long , 0.455 m broad and 0.21 high – in which have been excavated 5 bowls of differing volume. For various reasons, including that the surfaces of the five bowls are rough (as at Messene), it is believed they were originally lined with bronze. There is a copy of a drawing from Tarbell’s article below. A photograph of this mensa can be seen online at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (see references). The bowls are estimated to have held between 0.27 and 4.62 litre.
The largest bowl from Assos is therefore about 13% of a bushel. These capacities look at though they were designed for ground material or fine seed, for example ground spices or meal or cleaned seed of small-seeded crops. Coarser material such as fruit and husked grain contains a lot of air space that can cause packing errors when poured into such small containers.
The stone tables and bowls at Messene appeared larger than the ones from Assos (but unfortunately they were not measured during the visit). From memory, the largest bowl would hold about half a bucket or one-third of a bushel, which is getting a bit closer to the practical size for measuring the dry volume of rough grain that retains husks, such as oat and barley, or small-sized fruit.
Ancient Messene was founded 369 BC, around 2400 years ago. These durable measuring tables indicate the importance of standard weights and measures to an advanced society that depended on agriculture, and on trade in produce, and wanted to be, and seen to be, fair and to avoid having the people misled by traders and merchants.
Sources and references
Tarbell FB. 1891. A “Mensa Ponderaria” from Assos. The American Journal of Archaeology and the History of the Fine Arts 7, 440-44. Online at:
Photographs of the Assos mensa ponderaria at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts: http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/measurement-block-mensa-ponderaria-199469
The archaeological site of Ancient Messene, search at http://www.visitgreece.gr
Barley Hordeum vulgare has been grown here as a crop for many thousands of years. Some of the earliest charred remains of seed found in neolithic settlements were of barley. It has not always been the most widely grown corn – oat had that status a century ago – but now barley covers more acres than wheat and much more than oat, its main products whisky and animal food.
Most modern varieties of barley are supplied by seed merchants. The seed for each variety is grown and bulked under controlled conditions that minimise impurity and keep the line genetically uniform, so each has a particular ‘look’ and growth characteristics and suitability for different uses. At one time however, all our crops were maintained as landraces, as seed from one harvest saved for the next. (See What are landraces?) Few landraces remain and one of those is bere barley.
Where did bere come from?
Like all our corn, or cereal, crops, barley started life in the eastern Mediterranean or west Asia when crops were domesticated from wild grasses around 10,000 years ago. From there it came west and north reaching the croplands around 5000 years ago, well after the ice retreated. The earlier Living Field web site had the following paragraph –
“Imagine the small bags of seed, carried overland step by step, century upon century, from its site of domestication to the east of what is now Europe, and then by small boats to Iberia, then Brittany and north to the stone age settlements of the north-east Atlantic coasts, or else by other routes through central Europe and across the North Sea. How many times must those bags have perished and how many times must the boatman have reached dry land to see the seed rotted and the crops fail. And yet, 5000 years or more later, we still have a landrace of barley, known as bere (sounding in the north more like bear than beer) and still grown for special food and drink.”
When you see or experience the seas around Orkney (images above) and the other islands, you wonder how our early settlers managed to get here carrying bags of grain in their small boats.
Does any of that ancient barley remain?
Is there a continuous ‘bere line’ from the stone age? There can be no certainty. Landraces can be erased by natural calamities, or by peoples moving or changing their way of life. When a seed stock was lost, it might have taken centuries for new seed to be brought in. Later, waves of migrants from south and east would have brought their own seed with them. Where the new seed came from is not clear. What we can say is that the bere still grown today is very different from modern varieties.
In Lawson & Son’s catalogue of 1852, bere or rough barley, was listed among the four-row barleys. Most of the barleys at that time were two-row. The number of rows refers to the alignment of grain on the ear, obvious when you see it in two- and six-row types.
The four-row types, as Lawson and Son suggest, are probably better classified as structural variants of the six-row types. But the four-rows look different from the six-rows, so on the Living Field site, we will continue to call bere four-row. In the rough and tumble of subsistence agriculture over the millennia, the bere landrace, maintained as harvested seed saved from year to year, must have contained at various times, as well as the four-row, two- and six-row types within it. Purity is not a feature of landraces.
Bere has now almost disappeared except in some remote corners and most commercial fields you will see are two-row. Yet bere has great significance as a traditional crop, a true heritage and a possible source of genetic material for future crops.
Barony Mills, Birsay Orkney, showing interior, old grinding wheel, tackle, water wheel with new wooden paddles, 2011 (Squire)
The Orkney bere
A landrace of barley is still grown and used in a few places, notably in Orkney, where fields are gown each year to supply grain to the Barony Mills, near Birsay (images above). When the grain starts to fill and ripen, it has strong, characteristic red bands on the outer husk of the grain (images below) and long, tough awns.
As in most barleys, the protective coating around the grain does not fall off after harvest (as it does in modern wheat, for example), so the husks and awns have to be removed to get the bere meal (flour). Once, bere grain and other corn was ground between stones, then in stone saddle querns and later by hand-turned stone wheels, one on top of the other, and then by great mechanised grindstones powered by wind or water.
The Barony Mills in Orkney grind local bere grain into flour by great water-powered wheels. The Mills sell bere meal to the public (web link below). Bere grain is also sold to a few distilleries to add that something to the malt whiskey.
Barony Mills is an excellent place – an essential visit for anyone interested in rare grain and flour and living industrial heritage; and if it’s spring or summer, ask for directions to the bere fields.
The Living Field’s bere crops
The garden has grown bere for several years. The crop is grown in the Garden as a landrace – seed is harvested, saved over the winter and sown the next spring.
The bere seed germinates quickly, after just a few days, and once outside is vigorous in its vegetative phase and then flowers and seeds profusely. As a seed stock it does not give any problems and requires no special treatment. As with all seed, it has to be kept dry between harvest and the next sowing.
The red striping on the outer husk, or covering of the grain, is visible upper right and lower left below. The seeding ‘ears’ tend to bend and together the awns form an asymmetrical fan, visible in the image at the top of the page and in the one upper left below.
Each year, a few two-row plants emerge in the bere. They could be impurities introduced from commercial varieties grown in the garden? We take them out to preserve the general bere character.
Growing bere and other landraces in the Garden has been rewarding for the team and brought great interest among visitors. We start it off in April, it begins to flower in early June and is ready for harvest usually in August. It does not seem to have changed much in the last 180 years: Lawson and Son, in their experimental trials of 1835, record they sowed it on 7 April and it matured on 12 August after 127 days.
The Living Field’s original bere seed was given to us by the Agronomy Unit at Orkney College. For which, many thanks. Barony Mills, Birsay, Orkney, also gave us a couple of bags of grain. We have bought flour from them for demonstrations at various open days. Thanks to miller Rae Philips for advice.
Gladys Wright, Linda Ford and Jackie Thompson grow the bere crops and maintain the seed stocks for the Living Field garden. Text and images by Geoff Squire (unless stated).
Sources and references
Dickson C, Dickson J. 2000. Plants and people in ancient Scotland. Tempus Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire.
Fenton A (ed). 2007. The food of the Scots. Volume 5 in A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology. Publisher: John Donald. (Describes the many uses of bere meal).
Fenton A (ed). 2011. Farming and the land. Volume 2 in A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology. Publisher: John Donald. (Many references to growing bere.)
Lawson P and Son. 1852. Synopsis of the Vegetable Products of Scotland. Edinburgh: Private Press of Peter Lawson and Son.
Bere on the Living Field web site
The bere line – rhymes with hairline – random notes on the origin and nature of bere, including Thorburn’s Diagrams – acreage and yield or bere and barley in the mid-1800s, and Bere, bear, bair, beir, bygg – names for bere in Old Scots, (also links to article with old names and for other cereals).
What are landraces? – introduction to crop landraces.
Barony Mills, Orkney: http://www.birsay.org.uk/baronymill.htm.
Argo’s Bakery, Stromness: http://www.argosbakery.co.uk
And see the page on miller Rae Phillips at Slow Food UK: http://www.slowfood.org.uk/ff-producers/producer-rae-phillips-barony-mills-beremeal/
Orkney College, Agronomy Institute: http://www.agronomy.uhi.ac.uk
SASA Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (previously Scottish Agricultural Science Agency or ‘East Craigs’): Scottish landraces and traditional varieties
The botanical or latin name Hordeum vulgare is used on this web site to cover all types of two-, four- and six-row cultivated barley. Some taxonomies separate the two- and six-row as different species, but where does that leave the four-row? Others suggest they are are better classed as sub-species of Hordeum vulgare.
[Last update 13 September 2016]
Before modern genetics and breeding, before the world’s great stores of genetic resources were built and before the purity of crop varieties could be certified using DNA tests, most crops were kept as landraces.
Seed of wheat, oat, barley, beans and all the other crops was usually highly variable, the individuals genetically different. When sown in a field in a year, those individuals that survived and yielded the most were those best fitted to the conditions. These fitter plants contributed more to the harvested seed than their less fit neighbours. Samples of seed were kept and then sown the next season. Again, plants that were most fitted survived and reproduced.
Gradually the nature of the seed changed by this repeated selection to track the local environment and growing conditions. This would have happened as the early cereals, legumes, fibres and oils were carried westwards and northwards from their Asian centres of origin to the margins of the Atlantic. Landraces evolved to cope with low soil fertility, a cold wet winter and the local pests, and would have split into recognisable types, known to belong to an area of land or method of farming.
But with little warning, a crop could be wiped out by extreme events, the farmers left with just a fragment, or none, of the seed they had nurtured for years, decades even. Maintaining a landrace was no easy matter. Many would have disappeared, others changed to adapt to new conditions.
Landraces are not a thing of the past. They are common in Africa and large parts of Asia today. Under-used and under-researched crops such as bambara Vigna subterranea exist mostly as landraces, each typical of a region and maintained by seed saved from one year to the next.
Not so long ago in our Islands, crops were maintained as landraces, and the practice persists (see below), though most crops are now sown from bags of named varieties, each bought from a seed supplier, certified and uniform and generally high yielding.
More on this web site: Landrace 1 – bere
The Lawson list of 1852
The Synopsis of Vegetable Products of Scotland, prepared by the Edinburgh seedsmen Peter Lawson and Son in 1852 consists largely of named ‘types’ of cereals, legumes, fibres, fruit and all the other crops, but the types are not what would be considered true varieties today. Among the wheats, there were 142 types recorded, the barleys 42 and the oats 53 – each named with usually some note on their origin.
Some of the types on the list were recently imported, for instance, from the Baltic, from France, from the low countries, from England. But many of the notes suggest types were found and maintained by individual farmers in specific regions.
So there is the Hopetoun wheat “the produce of single ear of an unusual size … discovered in 1832, on Mr Reid’s farm of Drem, East Lothian … [which was passed through several farming hands and] … is now pretty widely distributed amongst growers ….”.
Or the St Madoes barley “discovered, in 1838, by the Rev. Mr. Noble of St Madoes, in a field of the Dunlop [another type of barley]; and is evidently of a very different kind … a recommendation in damp climates …” .
And then Dyock’s Early oat ” originally raised by a Mr Dyock, near Aberdeen, and has been grown in the vicinity of Brechin …. it is hardy, early, very prolific, and exceedingly well adapted for the higher corn lands”.
Most of those old cereal types are no longer with us, lost in the march towards modern varietal uniformity, but what the Lawson list shows clearly is the vigour and intent of farmers working 100-200 years ago in their search for better crop seed, better for their region and purposes, better adapted to their conditions; and then the bulking and trialling of a new type over a few seasons, and the passing on of the good material to others.
Are there landraces still?
A few farmers save seed – it avoids buying it every year. (Possibly many more save it than would admit!) Yet not many landraces remain here – the traditional barley, bere, was recorded in the Lawson list as a four-row type, “chiefly grown in the Highlands of Scotland and in the lowlands on exposed inferior light soils”. Bere remains with us in a few places, notably Orkney.
There are also landraces of wheat and rye in certain collections and black oat must still persist mainly as a landrace.
The Living Field grows bere, and landraces of wheat, rye and black oat every year to compare them with modern varieties. We save seed at the end of the year, keep it safe over the winter and sow it as a new crop next spring. All four types germinate well and grow fast. They are different from their modern relatives, often taller, rangier, weedier.
Articles on the cereal landraces will appear on the Living Field web site in the coming weeks.
Lawson P and Son. 1982. Synopsis of the Vegetable Products of Scotland. Edinburgh: private press of Peter Lawson and Son.