Tag Archives: oats

Mashlum no more! Not yet

The mixed cereal-pulse crop known as mashlum. Decline after 1950 yet still grown in a few fields. The question of crop mixtures in prehistory.

An earlier article Mashlum – a traditional mix of oats and beans [1] suggested that the mixed cereal and pulse crop known as mashlum had died out in Scotland but no ….. an email from a farmer in Fife, Douglas Christie, confirmed that it was still grown on his farm. Here is a photograph.

Earlier we had related an account from 1925 [2] on the difficulties of growing mashlum and also the benefits. Mr Christie reports that the mixture worked very well, that chemical and nitrogen fertilizer costs were drastically reduced, but that he had to pick the field carefully as some weeds would be difficult to control.

He also overcame some of the problems in sowing and harvesting a mixture reported in earlier accounts from the 1920s. He has a drill  that can sow (direct drill) the two crops at the same time and a grain dresser that can easily separate the two crops after harvest,

Since hearing from Douglas Christie, the Living Field has noticed on Twitter that several farmers in the south of the UK are also working with mixed cereal-pulse crops. A further question arose in correspondence as to their antiquity.

Mashlum in the crop census

That mashlum merited a separate chapter in the 1925 Farm Crops [2] shows how seriously it was taken. It first appeared in the agricultural census [3] under the heading ‘vetches, tares, beans, mashlum for fodder’ between 1902 and 1919. The category in the census then changed slightly to ‘vetches and mashlum for threshing’ which declined to a low point in 1939 (grey symbols in Fig. 1). Presumably the need for fixed nitrogen during shortages caused vetches and mashlum to increase in area almost 10 times during the war years.

Most of this increase was in mashlum, which in the 1940s and early 1950s became the most widely grown legume crop in Scotland – covering more area than beans and peas – and was listed in the census simply as ‘mashlum for threshing’ (orange symbols in Fig. 1) , that is, grown and harvested for seed.   After a few years, it declined again in the early 1950s and had almost died out by 1960. In 1961, mashlum disappeared from the census and any remaining fields were combined with ‘other crops for stockfeeding’ (green symbols to the right of the trace in Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 The area sown with mashlum and related crops in the agricultural census in Scotland, 1902-1978 [3]. Mashlum was listed as a separate item in the crop census from 1944 to 1960 (orange). Before that it was part of ‘vetches, tares, etc.’ up to 1919 (light blue-grey), then vetches and mashlum for threshing (grey). Any crops remaining after 1960 were counted as part of ‘other crops for stockfeeding’ (green symbols).

The period from the late 1950s to the 1980s was the time of rapid increase in the use of mineral nitrogen fertiliser.  The cereal-pulse mix became uneconomical.

Despite its temporary revival in the 1940s, mashlum, as all other legume crops, was grown on a small part of the arable surface in the 20th century, generally less than 1% of it.

Cereal-pulse mixtures in prehistory?

A question then arises as to how old is the practice of sowing mixed  cereals and pulses. The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST) finds that mashlum, in the spelling mashloche, was in use more than 500 years ago [4], but that in itself tells little of the crop’s ancestry. Was the method handed down from earlier Bronze or Iron Age  farmers to the medieval period or was it brought over by the Romans or early Christians?

The archaeological record in the north of Britain is thin on peas and beans: there is one record of field beans in Scotland  – also known as horse bean and Celtic bean, now faba bean.  Peas and beans appear far less frequently than cereal grains, but this difference is often attributed to the methods of cooking them: beans are less likely than grain to be charred and hence preserved. In an authoritative survey beans and cereals were examined in 75 locations in southern England [5].

At some archaeological sites, beans and cereals, such as emmer wheat, are found together and in numbers that suggest they were both grown as crops for food. Descriptions of the finds at Foster’s Field, Sherborne in Dorset  for example, include the line that beans ‘may have been grown as a mixed crop with barley or as part of a crop rotation system’ [6], a statement repeated in the broader survey [5].

The archaeologists agree that presence itself does not mean anything definitive about how the crops were grown – whether alone, in broadcast mixtures, or in rotation or sequence. It is not hard to imagine, though, that cereal-pulse mixtures have been used from the earliest times. Imagine a household or village had some cereal and some legume seed, not enough to be sown alone, but together they would make a field.

And the same farmers would have known, as all farmers up to the mid-1950s have known, that cereal and pulses together do better on poor soil than cereals alone because of the nitrogen-fixing ability of the pulses, and if the pulse is faba bean, then also the support offered by the stronger bean stem.

Common sense tells that they would have grown mixtures but there is no definitive evidence.

Sources, references

[1] Mashlum – a traditional mix of oats and beans posed some questions about the crop grown as a sown mixture rather than a line intercrop.

[2] O’Brien DG. 1925. The Mashlum Crop. In: Farm Crops, edited by Paterson WM, pages 297-302, published by The Gresham Publishing Company, London.

[3] Crop census records for the main crops from early in the century to 1978 are available online as Agricultural Statistics Scotland from the Scottish Government web site at Historical Agricultural Statistics. Mashlum is sometimes included with other pulses and forages but is given as a separate crop for the period indicated in Fig. 1 above.

[4] DOST Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue cites the crop in the spelling mashloche from the 1440s at http://www.dsl.ac.uk/entry/dost/mashloche.

[5] Treasure ER, Church MJ (2017) Can’t find a pulse? Celtic bean (Vicia faba L.) in British prehistory, Environmental Archaeology, 22:2, 113-127, DOI: 10.1080/14614103.2016.1153769. An excellent paper on the occurrence of field bean in Britain.

[6] Jones J. (2009) Plant macrofossils. In Best J, A Late Bronze Age Pottery Production Site and Settlement at Foster’s Field, Tinney’s Lane, Sherborne, Dorset.  Archaeology Data Service 2009: idoi:10.5284/1000076. Many of the source papers on the topic are only available free to academic data services, but this one is available online through the link. 

Peasemeal Beremeal Oatmeal

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

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

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

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

Peas as crops and food

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

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

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

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

Decline of peas

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

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

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

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

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

Peasemeal-beremeal-oatmeal bannocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yield and environmental benefit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources, references, links

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links to related articles on the Living Field web site

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

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

Contacts

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

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

 

 

Mashlum – a traditional mix of oats and beans

Part of the series on crop diversity. A traditional legume-cereal crop no longer grown in Scotland [*]. Sown as a mixture, grain harvest usually threshed and the mix ground to a flour for food and animal feed. Sometimes harvested green as a fodder. Needs less nitrogen than a cereal alone. Could it be grown economically today as a nutritious, high-value, low-input crop?

[*Update, 26 June 2018: it is still grown in Scotland. See Sources, References below.]

Mashlum is a crop once widely grown, or at least widely known in northern regions. The term has been applied to any kind of crop mixture of cereals and grain legumes (pulses), but was most commonly used in Scotland for a bean-oat or pea-oat mix.  The combination is said to provide some stability of yield in bad years, while the meal has a higher protein content than oats alone.

Oats and faba beans (Living Field collection)

The word, derived from mash (meaning mix), has been reported in Scotland in the form masloche from the 1440s onwards, then from the 1700s as mashlum, and is said to be similar in meaning to the old English meslin and the French mestillon or mesteillon [1, 2, 3].

In most instances, the crop was harvested when both grains were mature, the product then ground into meal. The dry leaf and stem, or straw, was also used for feed, but contained much less protein.  It was also grown as a green fodder, the whole crop harvested and again used to feed animals.

Some uses of the word [1] suggest the meal was used to make a type of bread – masloche bread. The Food of the Scots [3] relates that the mixture of oats, barley, rye, peas and beans was  cultivated for bread in Dumbartonshire (1794), while several records from diverse parts of the country indicate cultivation of mashlum for the making of pease-bread or bean-bread.

Because of the properties of the cereals used, the bread did not ‘rise’ but remained flat, hence a  flatbread. Mashlum flatbread was made by combining the flour of various cereals and pulses then baking it on a hot plate. In one recipe ‘bere meal was mixed with about a third to a quarter of pease or bean meal , and baked with salt and water, but no raising agent, into round cakes about an inch thick’ [3].

Why grow it – the benefits

There are few records of where and how frequently the crop was grown. It existed in various combinations well before the 1700s’ Improvements period and persisted to modern times, still recorded in the census as a distinct crop up to the 1960s. By the later 1800s, it occupied one or two percent of the total area cultivated for grain (see below)

There is little quantitative evidence of its benefits, but they include the following which refer to the bean-oat mix in the later 1800s and early 1900s [2]:

  • the bean, a nitrogen-fixing plant, has a higher nitrogen and protein content, providing in many cases a more nutritious food than oats alone;
  • the stronger bean plant supports the weaker oat and reduces the chance it will fall over (lodge) in rain and wind;
  • the mixture is less prone to reduction in yield or failure in bad years than beans alone;
  • while some mineral or organic fertilisers were usually applied early in the crop, the N-fixing ability of the bean means the whole crop needed less added nitrogen fertiliser than oats grown alone;
  • it could be used to feed a range of animals – commonly cattle but also horses
  • it was an important part of the staple human diet in some regions.

Benefits of the mix as a habitat for farmland plants and animals were unrecorded. Was it high yielding? Again, there are few records, but by the late 1800s and into the 1900s (and converting from yield cited in hundredweight per acre) a good crop was said to yield around 2 tonnes per hectare [2] which is similar to that of cereals at that time. Investigation to date have found no evidence of whether the mix gains an advantage in yield over the two species grown separately.

Portions of faba bean and oats that contain a similar amount of protein [2]. The white rectangle indicates the amount of oats that would equivalent in weight to the beans.
What were the problems?

Growing two crops in the same area is never straightforward:

  • the oats and beans had to be growing in phase, so that one did not dominate or reduce the other, and so that they could be harvested together – the beans were usually slower, so in some places they were sown before the oats, which means two sowing operations in the same field;
  • they both had to be of a similar dryness at harvest to be stored for drying together in the field;
  • the stronger bean also offered support for birds that fed on the ripening oats.

A highly nutritious crop, therefore, needing less mineral fertiliser – but why was it not a major crop and why did it die out? There are no clear answers, but it probably comes down to the problems in managing two species in the same field and competition from higher-yielding cereals.

After the 1960s, yields of the cereals grown alone began to rise through intensification, which included increasing the dose of mineral nitrogen fertiliser. If the mashlum had been heavily fertilised, the legume would have ceased to fix its own nitrogen.

Mashlum no more!

During the 1940s and up to the 1960s mashlum was important enough to be recorded in the annual agricultural census. In the mid-1940s, it occupied more land than beans alone and than legume forages, but even then, it covered little more than 1.5% of the area of the grain crops combined (oats, barley, wheat, mixed grain and a little rye). By 1960, its area was reduced to 0.2% of that of total cereals. It disappeared from the annual census summaries as an individually reported crop in the 1970s and became part of a general legume-based category of fodder, also including vetches and tares.

The 1980s was a time of great change, notably winter (autumn-sown) crops increasing in area and yield, and during this period, mashlum’s time probably came to an end. It may still be grown in small pockets, like bere barley is in Orkney.

Could it make a comeback?

There is great interest in cereal and legume mixed crops. They need less agrochemical inputs than the same species grown alone. Beans and oats have a higher nutritional value than most common cereals. There would need to be a benefit of growing them together rather than in different strips or parts of the same field and then combining them after harvest.

It might help to plot the future of mashlum if the reasons for its low coverage in the early 1900s and its demise by the 1970s were understood. Simplicity, convenience and economics tend to dictate the shape of farming at any time. Managing two crops, especially if one is faba beans in a variably wet climate, will be problematic until technology overcome issues in harvesting and processing. Public demand for highly nutritious crops relying less on agrochemicals could nevertheless stimulate a revival.

Contact/author: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

Sources, references

[1] Dictionary of the Scots Language. Of the two searchable resources, the word Mashlum appears in the Scottish National Dictionary 1700- at  http://www.dsl.ac.uk/entry/snd/mashlum where it is defined as ‘a mixture of various kinds of grain and legumes such as oats or barley, peas and beans, etc., grown together and ground into meal or flour for baking purposes.  In the form mashloche (and related spellings) it appears in the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue from the 1440s at http://www.dsl.ac.uk/entry/dost/mashloche.

[2] O’Brien DG. 1925. The Mashlum Crop. In: Farm Crops, edited by Paterson WM, pages 297-302, published by The Gresham Publishing Company, London.

[3] Fenton A. 2007. The Food of the Scots. Volume 5 in A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology. Edinburgh: John Donald. Mashlum appears in Ch 17 Bread and Ch 14 Field crops.

Additional note: after publishing this article, Douglas Christie from Fife sent a photograph and some notes on his recent and current bean-oat crops. For an update on the story see: Mashlum no more! Not yet.

The Mill at Atholl

The historic watermill at Blair Atholl. Absence of corn growing in the surrounding area today. Extensive field systems and enclosed land in the mid 1700s. Andrew Wights 1780s descriptions of innovation, enterprise and crop diversification. Part of a Living Field series on old corn mills.

The watermill at Atholl [1] offers a welcoming break to journeys along the A9 road, offering – in addition to the working mill – coffee and freshly baked bread from a variety of grains. In 2017, the mill and its bakers gained some deserved exposure on a BBC2 television programme, Nadiya’s British Food Adventure, presented by Nadiya Hussain [1].

The remaining corn mills in the north of Britain tell much about the phasing in and out of local corn production over the last few centuries. The Living Field’s interest in this case lies in the mill’s history and location, being a substantial building but presently in an area that has no local corn production. In this, it differs from Barony Mills in Orkney which lies within an area of barley cultivation that still supplies the mill [2].

The images above show the water wheel fed by a lode that runs from the river Tilt to the north, the main grinding wheel (covered, top l), hoppers feeding the wheel and an old mill wheel. The watermill’s web site [1] and the explanation boards in the mill itself describe the history of the building and workings of the machinery.

The Atholl watermill was a substantial investment, but what strikes today is the absence of corn-growing (arable) land in the area. When visited in 2017, very few fields were cultivated.

What do the historical maps tell us?

The information inside the mill states that it was present at the time of Timothy Pont’s map of the 1590s [3]. It is there on his map, just south of ‘Blair Castel’. But Roy’s Military Survey [4] of the mid-1700s gives the best indication of the possible extent of cropped land in the area. Features on the Roy map (copied below) include ‘Blair Kirk’ (church) which still stands at what is now known as Old Blair and ‘Tilt Bridge’ on the road that ran north of the Garry; then areas of enclosed land or parkland, bounded by tree lines; and the Mill, shown within the white circle in the upper map, with its lode clearly leaving the River Tilt to the north and flowing past the mill to enter the River Garry upstream of where the Tilt joins it.

The Roy Map shows what appear be clusters of field systems on both sides of the Garry, depicted by short parallel lines suggesting rigs, some indicated by white arrows on the upper map. The lower map has been displaced to show more field systems around Aldclune.

Later, on the first edition of the Ordnance Survey 1843-1882, the village of ‘Blair Athole’ has started to take shape, the corn mill is marked being fed by a Mill Lead originating at a sluice off the River Tilt. Later still, the Land Utilisation Survey 1931-1935 shows arable land remaining, consistent with the location of many of the field systems on Roy’s map.

Therefore crops, and they must have included corn, whether oat or barley, were grown in the region and presumably fed the mill, but more information on what was grown was reported by Andrew Wight, travelling 30 years or so after Roy.

Andrew Wight’s survey of 1784

Mr Wight’s surveys of agriculture in Scotland in the 1770s and 1780s again provide rare and sometimes surprising insights. He meets and reports on mainly the improvers, the landowners and their major tenants, less so the householder and small grower. Yet he was there at a crucial time in the development of food production and able to present a unique and consistent account throughout mainland Scotland.

Part way through his fourth survey [6], he spent the night in Dalwhinnie, then on travelling south towards lowland Perthshire, he stopped at Dalnacardoch, commenting that the innkeeper was a ‘spirited and enterprising’ farmer. There he reports a “clover field, dressed to perfection; an extraordinary sight in this barren country” and also “turnips in drills in perfect good order, pease broadcast, bear and oats with grass-seeds”, and notes ‘great crops of potato are raised here’. [Ed: bere is a landrace of barley.]

On ‘Athol House’ (near the mill) he concentrates on the animals, various breeds and hybrids of cattle, and also sheep; but on the tilled land, he writes the “Duke’s farm is about 700 acres arable; of which not more than 120 are in tillage, the rest being hay or pasture.” The rotation is “turnip broadcast, barley, oats and turnip again”. So corn crops – barley and oats – occupied 2/3 of the 120 acres, equivalent to 80 acres or 32 hectares (abbreviated to ha, 1 acre = 0.405 ha). It is uncertain what this land yielded at that time, but assuming it was 1 t/ha or one-fifth of todays typical spring cereal harvest, then that’s 30 tonnes of corn annually. By itself it does not seem enough for such a big mill.

Again, it is unclear whether tenants and crofters are included in the stated area, but they were probably not. For example, later he mentions tenants, including the innkeeper and farmer at ‘Blair of Athol’ who grew corn for his own local consumption. The extent of other corn land cultivated by small tenants, for example, on the field systems shown in the maps above, is not mentioned.

Mr Wight continues in his appreciation of the standards as he moves south, finding after Killicrankie and towards Faskally, an enchantment of orderly farmland. On the road south to Dunkeld, he writes ‘hills on every side, some covered with flocks, some with trees and small plantations, mixed with spots of corn scattered here and there; and beautiful haughs variegated with flax, corn and grass.’

Driving along the A9 road today, the land flanking the Garry seems impoverished and the climate inhospitable for crops, but Wight presents an entirely different view: innovation, improvement, and diversity of plant and animal husbandry. As in many upland areas, the land reverted to poor pasture, in some instances as recently as the 1980s. Why? Higher costs of growing crops, low profit margins, easier alternatives based on better transport connections and ready imports of cereal carbs.

Sources, links

[1] Blair Atholl Watermill and tearoom. Location shown on map, right. http://blairathollwatermill.co.uk (check web site for opening). The mill and its bakers were featured in 2017 on BBC2’s Nadiya’s British Food Adventure.

[2] Living Field articles on water-driven corn mills: 1) Shetland’s horizontal water mills and 2) Landrace 1 – bere (Barony Mills, Orkney).

[3] Pont maps of Scotland ca. 1583-1614, by Timothy Pont http://maps.nls.uk/pont/index.html

[4] Roy Military Survey of Scotland 1747-1755 http://maps.nls.uk/roy/ The web site of the National Library of Scotland (NLS) allows educational and not-for-profit use: acknowledgement given on the map legend.

[5] Land Utilisation Survey Scotland 1931-1935. “The first systematic and comprehensive depiction of the land cover and use in Scotland under the supervision of L. Dudley Stamp” http://maps.nls.uk/series/land-utilisation-survey/ See also
https://digimap.edina.ac.uk/webhelp/environment/data_information/dudleystamp.htm

[6] Wight, Andrew. 1784. Present state of husbandry in Scotland Volume IV, part I. Edinburgh: William Creech. The sights noted above, between Dalwinnie and Dunkeld, are described at pages154-165. [Available online, search for author and title.] Other reports of Mr Wight’s journeys are given on this site at Great quantities of Aquavitae and Great quantities of Aquavitae II.

 

 

On the edge

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

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

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

lf_ntsmgs_dgfmg_rsnbttlws_gk_1100

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

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

lf_ntsmgs_dglws_lkngwst_gs_1100Extensive field systems

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

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

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

lf_ntsmgs_dgfrmnglws_lzbd1_gk_1100
Looking inland towards Eoropie, one bed running across, and the others up and down, March 2017 (gk-images)

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

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

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

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

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

lf_ntsmgs_dgfrmnglws_lzbd2_gk_1100
Looking uphill from the shore, the central rig about 5 m wide (gk-images)

Historical records

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

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

Martin Martin’s visit in the 1690s

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

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

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

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

lf_ntsmgs_nthdglws_rckcst_gs_1100
Coastal rocks, resting place of seabirds, south-west of the Butt of Lewis, looking west (Squire/Living Field)

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

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

Old Statistical Account, 1797

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

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

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

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

lf_ntsmgs_gdelws_bchsndstm_gs_1000
On the beach, Eoropie – wide stream in the foreground, flowing across the beach from inland; hazy light due to sand from the dry part of the beach blown inland (Squire/Living Field)
New Statistical Account, 1836

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

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

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

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

Modern field strips

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

lf_ntsmgs_frmgdg_crftlws_gs_1100
Draining and de-stoning croft land (upper); sheep on long strips of grazing land demarked by post and wire fences (lower): both north-west Lewis (images by Squire/Living Field)

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

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

A note on bere and barley

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

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

lf_ntsmgs_dglws_br_gs_1100
Landraces of bere (barley) from Eday and North Uist grown in the Living Field garden in 2015 (Living Field)

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

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

An achievement

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

eoropiedunesparklogo

Information at eoropiedunespark.co.uk

 

Effect on corn yields of the 2016 winter flood

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

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

lf_nm_1701_wntrfldcrs_gs_1100

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.

lf_ntsmgs_1701_wntfldyld_gs_750

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.

lf_nm_1701_wntrfldyld_gs_750

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.

lf_nm_1701_wntrfldsl_gs_1100

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.)

Resilience?

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

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

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

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

Signs of things to come?

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

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

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

More on this in future articles …

Sources, references

Links on this site

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

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

The late autumn floods of 2012 – after the bad harvest

Rainfall

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

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

Cereal and oilseed yields

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

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

Contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

Bere bannocks

This recipe is an adaptation from the booklet ‘Barony Mills – Bere Meal Recipes’ from Birsay, Orkney.

Ingredients

lf_brbncks_gk1_550a100 g beremeal

60 g self-raising flour

40 g rolled oats

2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

250 ml milk

What to do

Mix all the dry ingredients together then add enough milk to make a soft dough. Turn out onto a board coated with beremeal/oat. Flatten by hand until about 1 cm thick, then make rounds using a pastry cutter (7 cm). Bake in the centre of the oven at 170/180 degrees  C for about 10 minutes, then turn the bannocks and bake for 5 minutes. Alternatively, bake on a dry griddle or pan on the top of the cooker for about 5 minutes each side. This makes a batch of about 8 bannocks. Alternatively, shape into a large round, mark out 8 segments and bake for about the same time.

Notes

The original recipe was used by the Creel Restaurant, St Margaret’s Hope. In addition to the beremeal,  it  used 100 g plain flour and no rolled oats. I have substituted this with 60 g self raising flour which gives a bit more ‘lift’ to the product. The rolled oats also seems to make the bannocks lighter, almost a cross between bread and a scone!

The crucial thing in baking bannocks is to get the proportions right – proportions of the dry constituents with the right amount of raising agent, in this case baking powder.

Barony Mills is Orkney’s only remaining working mill – and a water-powered one at that. It produces traditional Orcadian beremeal, a speciality flour with a nutty brown colour and a distinctive flavour, which has been used in this recipe.

Recipe by Granny Kate

Links on this site

Seeded oatcakes with bere meal

The bere line – further links and pages on the history and uses of bere barley

Landrace 1 – bere – for information on the Orkney bere landrace

Feeding the Romans

Thoughts on a visit to the exhibition Roman Empire – Power and People McManus Dundee, on 14 March 2015.

This fine, informative display gave evidence of the Roman presence north of the Antonine Wall (between Forth and Clyde) around 2000 years ago. They set up marching camps and lines of communication, patrolled a long and complicated frontier, built great fortresses, then retreated. Yet few things remain to tell of their everyday life.

One was scale armour, known as lorica squamata [1], fragments found at the site of the fort at Carpow, near the junction of the rivers Tay and Earn in Perthshire. These small samples, linen cloth as backing, sown with 1-2 cm wide sheet-bronze scales, are stated to be the best preserved of this type of army gear in north-west Roman europe. They are rare intact because the linen cloth usually rots and disappears. Someone might have worn this armour to help protect them from a thrown stone or spear or a body blow from wood or metal. It is not known whether the fibre plant flax Linum usitatissimum used to make the linen was grown locally or even whether the cloth was made here [2]. There was a trade in linen throughout the empire.

Another was an amphora (a clay pot), reconstructed from pieces found at Carlungie, Angus, lying in one of the dwellings adjoining an earth-house or souterrain, used as an underground storage chamber. Amphora such as this were used to move wine, oil and other essentials round the empire. A note by the exhibit told the amphora was from Gaul (France) and contained French wine. Who brought it here is not known, but you can imagine the party.

The Tay from the bank opposite the site of the Roman legionary fortress of Inchtuthil looking west, a landscape probably little changed (Squire/Living Field)

Forts and fortresses along the northern frontier

These exhibits were some of the few fragments remaining in this area from the massive resourcing of the empire’s northern frontier. The Romans made Britain a province in 43 AD and by the 70s AD had established fortified lines and supply routes through (what are now) Perthshire, Angus, Aberdeenshire and Moray. They patrolled well north of the Antonine Wall, which itself is more than an hour’s car-drive north of Hadrian’s Wall in northern England.

They built and manned forts close to transport routes by land and water from the south and east, as at Carpow, and camps and signal towers along the Gask line that ran north of Stirling and continued north east along fertile Strathmore as far as the east coast near Stracathro, and from there, dog-legging north and north west across Aberdeenshire to Moray. A long way to march. A long way from home.

Surprising is the size of some of the garrisons. The one at Carpow, close to the Tay estuary and not far from the North Sea, and thought to be occupied between 180 and 220, was designed to hold 2000-3000 people. The massive base at Inchtuthil – a legionary fortress – by the Tay river west of Meigle (image above), commanded the way north from Perth and was estimated from its dimensions and excavated buildings to house 20,000 to 50,000. A small town! To do its job today, it would need to be sited a few miles farther west to command the A9 and railway from Perth to Inverness.

Roman Inchtuthil existed only for a few years in the AD 80s before it was purposely abandoned. Even if not fully occupied, these garrisons must have held thousands to tens of thousands of people, many of whom were soldiers with big appetites.

Across the Tay to the site of the Roman legionary fortress at Inchtuthil on the raised ground beyond the tall trees (Squire/Living Field)

How to feed thousands of soldiers

They all had to be fed. They would have brought and tended some of their own livestock and perhaps grown some crops and vegetables nearby, but the staple food would have been grain – wheat, barley or oat. (There was no maize, potato or turnips then.) Just think how many packets of porridge oats would be needed to feed all those men every morning [3], and that grain would have had to be transported over long distances from the south or else stolen or coerced as tribute, or tax, from local people.

The SCRAN entry states: “The Roman army was adept at self-sufficiency. At Inchtuthil the legionaries exploited local resources of wood, stone, gravel, and clay to build their fortress. They manufactured their own lime, bricks, and pottery on the spot. Food and other raw materials such as leather would have been obtained from the natives, probably in the form of tax. The massive granaries at Inchtuthil hint at the scale of such levies.” And these granaries, or grain stores, were big, as shown by the diagrams and aerial images made during archaeological digs (online references below).

The exhibition says that when the Romans came the area was populated by farming communities of native tribes, scattered and based around fortified hill tops. This was the late Iron Age, so agriculture would have been widespread, but even so it would have been very hard pressed to support tens of thousands of soldiers in addition to the existing people. Imagine working hard all year to grow crops and then when they were harvested, you had to give away a lot of the grain for the privilege of having the Romans living nearby. The invaders can’t have been popular and presumably that is why they had to build these lines of communication and massive fortresses.

Coppiced birch, last cut 20-30 years ago, near the site of a Roman signal tower in Strathmore (Squire/Living Field)

In conclusion

The Romans did not stay long. They arrived (in what is now Scotland) in the 70s (AD), which is about one thousand nine hundred and fifty years ago, but they were gone in less than 150 years. Their leaving is said to be the result of things happening elsewhere in the empire. Rome was too stretched – but (you have to ask) – was it the midge!

The iron age skills of growing crops and tending stock continued to the present time. So did working hard all year and giving away the harvest to those wealthier or more powerful. The Romans had no monopoly on oppression. It became endemic to northern agriculture.

Notes

[1] Squamata is the scientific name now given to reptiles that have scaly skin, the lizards and snakes.

[2] Flax is one of the oldest fibres plants, grown in Britain for several thousand years, see the Living Field’s page on Fibres.

[3] A packet of porridge oats weighing one kilogram contains 25 servings. To make 1000 servings would take 40 packets, and 10,000 servings 400 packets; and that would be just for one breakfast.

Ploughed land, line of trees through to stubble fields, near the site of the Roman fort of Cardean, Strathmore (Living Field)
Ploughed land, line of trees through to stubble fields, near the site of the Roman fort of Cardean, Strathmore (Living Field)

Sources and references

Introduction including material for schools

BBC Primary History http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/primaryhistory/romans/romans_in_scotland/

SCRAN Trust: information on the fortress at Inchtuthil and on   grain stores http://www.scran.ac.uk/packs/exhibitions/learning_materials/webs/56/Inch.htm http://www.scran.ac.uk/packs/exhibitions/learning_materials/webs/56/Garrison.htm#granary

See also links to SCRAN for Carpow and Gask Frontier from the above pages.

Looking south-east across arable and grazing land from the site of a Roman signal tower, Strathmore (Squire/Living Field)
Looking south-east across arable and grazing land from the site of a Roman signal tower, Strathmore (Squire/Living Field)
Books and articles

Jones, RH. 2012. Roman camps in Britain. Amberley Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK. Available as ebook via Google Books.

Hoffmann, B. 2013.The Roman invasion of Britain – archaeology versus history. Pen and Sword Archaeology, Barnsley, UK.

Wolliscroft DJ, Hoffman B. 2006. Rome’s first frontier: the Flavian occupation of Northern Scotland. Tempus publishing.

Archaeological investigations and records (RCAHMS)

Carpow: http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/30081/details/carpow/

Inchtuthil: http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/28592/details/inchtuthil/

Contact

geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

Photographs on this page taken early April 2015.

Towards the site of a Roman signal tower, now occupied by planted Scots Pine, bulb field in the foreground (Squire/Living Field)
Towards the site of a Roman signal tower, now occupied by planted Scots Pine, bulb field in the foreground (Squire/Living Field)

 

Seeded oatcakes with bere meal

A recipe by for oatcakes made with wholemeal flour, rolled oats and bere meal, with a few extras.

Ingredients

90 g bere meal
50 g wholemeal flour
140 g porridge oats
1 teaspoon sugar, 8 twists of black pepper
1 large teaspoon salt
10 g butter or margarine (optional)
75 ml good oil like olive oil or Scottish rapeseed oil
Experiment with seeds like black onion seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, golden linseed – just a handful.
Boiling water (variable)

What to do

Heat the oven to 160-170 degrees C and grease a large baking tray.

Add the dry ingredients to a bowl and mix well. Add the chopped butter and mix in by hand, as if you were making pastry. Add the oil and then mix together using a spoon or by hand.

Add boiling water, a small amount at a time until the mix comes together as a round ball. Flour the surface and roll out the dough to about 1 or 2 mm. Using a plastic or metal cutter, cut rounds and place them on a baking tray.

Bake for 20 minutes then turn over and bake for a further 10 minutes.

Cool the oatcakes and then eat with cheese or humous! Delicious! The above recipe makes about 30 oat cakes.

Comment

Beremeal has a distinctive flavour – along with haggis and whiskey, one of the distinctive tastes of northern cornland. You can replace some of the bere meal if you wish with medium pinhead oatmeal and follow the same instructions.

Alternatives
Try adding a handful of chopped fresh herbs like parsley or thyme instead of seeds.

Beremeal sourced from Barony Mills, Orkney.

Recipe by Grannie Kate

For more on bere barley and crop landraces Bere line – rhymes with hairline