Tag Archives: oats

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.

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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].

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 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 Granny Kate

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