For many years the Living Field garden near Dundee grew a range of ancient (and modern) cereals, partly for interest and partly to show people what used to be grown and eaten in the northern croplands.
Now the garden is no longer in operation, the editor misses the wonderful cereal diversity that used to be on show. So a small patch in a vegetable garden, just 2 m by 1 m, was sown with old saved seed at various times in April this year.
Most of the cereal species or varieties emerged quickly and in numbers, but a few took more time and some hardly germinated. For example, only one seed of Shetland bere barley germinated (saved from 2015), but that single plant went on to produce many ears.
Here’s some photographs taken in August 2022.
A favourite, its distinct two rows on a curvy ear with very long awns. It germinated, grew and formed ears quickly, and was maturing by mid-August.
The Lawsons’ seedsmen , writing in the mid-1800s, classed it as a distinct type, different from two-row and four- to six-row barleys. They also named it fan or battledore. You can see the likeness to a fan, less so to a battledore – an oval paddle used to wash and beat clothing or a racket used with a shuttlecock.
Emmer Triticum dicoccum was one of the first cereals to be domesticated in the fertile crescent. It is no longer grown commercially in the north but emmer flour is still available from specialist merchants.
It was the slowest of all the seedlings to grow and last to put out its head or spike. By mid August the plants had reached 5 feet in height (1.5 m) each with many grains, still maturing in the hot, sunny days.
Black or bristle oat
Black oat Avena strigosa is a different species from the common oat cultivated today. It was grown widely as a livestock feed and still remains as a feral plant in some areas, gone wild.
It grows very quickly, the first to flower and set seed, most of it mature in less than three months. Where other grain crops might fail, at least black oat would give some straw and grain. The seeds are long, thin and hard, so not a people’s favourite – though it was dubbed “famine food”, eaten when all else ran out.
Rye Secale cereale has not been grown in the north on the same scale as oats and barley. Yet it germinates quickly and grows to heading not far behind black oat. The heads, or ears, are upright at first (lower left in the photographs below). Awns are much shorter than those of spratt or bere barley. As the ears mature, the awns splay out, the grains become visible (lower right) and the whole ear forms a gentle curve (upper right). The naked grains, around 5 mm long (upper left), are easy to extract simply by rubbing the ear between fingers.
Bere – a landrace of barley – is rare now in Scotland but was grown over most of the country as recently as the 1850s. It was recorded as distinct from barley in the annual agricultural record in the early 20th century, but is now confined to a few fields in Orkney.
The Living Field has grown bere for years, seed saved over each winter and sown the next spring. Some early records show a similar landrace was grown in parts of north west Europe, suggesting the bere landraces were not solely Scottish. Links to previous Living Field articles are given at The bere line – rhymes with hairline and Bere barley at the Living Field.
The grains are pale green during early filling (lower left in the panel), but become darker streaked with red. They are protected by many long bristly awns, which did not quite succeed in keeping small birds from taking the grains.
[more to be added]
Sources | links
 Lawson, Peter and Son. MDCCCLII (1852) Synopsis of the Vegetable Products of Scotland. Edinburgh: private press of Peter Lawson and Son.
A note in the Bere-line – a survey of bere barley, an old corn landrace. Distribution of bere and barley in the 1850s: bere to the north and west, barley to the east and centre. Loss of bere and many other crops from the late 1800s. Declines in crop diversity.
Previous notes in the bere-line compared bere barley and the improved two-row barleys in several collections and census records from the 1800s. By the 1850s, bere was still recognised and catalogued in terms of several variants  but most named types of barley were of the two-row form.
In the crop census of 1854 [2, 3], itself a milestone in the description of agriculture, bere occupied about 10% of the area of barley, but was still recorded throughout the country.
Distribution of bere in the 1850s
The census of 1854 was based on the pre-1890s counties, administrative areas that had been in existence, though not unaltered, for many hundreds of years [4, 5]. A map of the counties is shown at Sources below.
The areas sown with bere and barley in 1854 are shown in Fig. 1. The centre of each circle is positioned near the centre of one of the old counties. The map is partitioned into present administrative areas .
The area of each circle represents the relative area of crop in each county. The largest circle in the bere map is about 3000 acres (1,200 hectares) while the largest on the barley map is 28,000 acres (11,300 hectares). The map appears to show no or little bere or barley was grown in the western islands, but they were part of mainland counties at that time, so the crops grown there were included within circleslocated on the mainland.
Fig. 1 Distribution of bere (left) and barley (right) from the 1854 census, each circle representing the area of crop in one of the pre-1890s counties. The largest bere circle is about ten times smaller than the largest barley. The dashed line near the top indicates Shetland is displaced downwards in this depiction. Orkney and Shetland formed one area in the census: bere on the left represented by the large circle just above Orkney; the arrow on the right pointing to the small area grown with barley. Click on the map to see a larger image. Original map outline from . Source of data .
The distribution of bere confirms it was grown country-wide, from the Borders to Orkney and Shetland. Yet the areas sown to bere were very small in counties to the east and south east. It seems to have almost faded out in these places but remained strong in the north in Caithness, in the south-west in Argyll and in the northern islands, Orkney and Shetland. Bere was therefore grown in colder, wetter climates and poorer soils than could be profitably grown with the two-row types.
At this time, barley was the preferred crop in the east central and south east, which are now the typical, high-yielding grain producing regions of the country. Barley was not the major cereal in the 1800s. Oat was still grown over a much greater area. But the regions occupied by barley in the 1850s are those in which it rose to dominance in the period 1940-1960 to become by far the most widely grown cereal.
One of the main difficulties with charting the fall of bere is the absence of reliable records before and in the early 1800s.Even its decline into the early 1900s is obscure because barley and bere were combined in the annual census of area and yield .
The reasons for bere’s later decline to near extinction are uncertain and would have differed between regions. The improving two-rowed barleys were probably easier to manage and more reliable yielders than bere in most parts of the country. There were regional variations – in Shetland, for example  the barleys as a whole declined fourfold from 1890 to 1930 and then continued to fall due to a rise in rotational grass and sheep.
Many changes occurred in the 150 years from the 1854 census, including major reductions of other crops – other than grass – grown for animal feed, including turnips and swedes, forage (leaf ) brassicas, grain legumes and mashlum, a traditional crop mix of oats and beans . The loss of bere was part of that change.
Yet bere did not die out. This traditional landrace is still grown and finding high-value uses in food and drink [9, 10]. There’s hope still – buy some bere meal and get cooking!
Author/contact: email@example.com. Gladys Wright and Jackie Thompson grow the bere and barley crops in the Living Field Garden.
 Thorburn T. 1855. Diagrams, Agricultural Statistics of Scotland for 1854. London: Effingham Wilson. More at this Living Field article on Thorburn’s Diagrams. Original available in part through the web.
 For a summary of cereal growing on Shetland, its decline and potential: Martin, P. 2015. Review of cereal growing in Shetland. Agronomy Institute, Orkney College. To find the PDF online, search for ‘cereal shetland agronomy institute 2015″.
Transition Turriefield was set up in 2011 as a community run growing project, to provide locally produced fruit and vegetables in Shetland. It was established to demonstrate a reduced fossil fuel approach to food production within the isles, to reduce Shetland’s food related carbon footprint, increase Shetland’s food security and ultimately to change the way Shetland thinks about importing food.
Subsistence days …..
Before the era of cheap oil and global food transportation, all Shetland crofts had a yard to grow crops. It was the only way to have fresh vegetables. The most common produce grown, along with the cereals bere and oats, was Shetland kale, neeps and potatoes [see note below]. Produce was used as winter livestock feed, as well as supplementing the crofter’s diet of lamb and fish. These crops were hardy and coped well with the Shetland conditions.
Nowadays yards can be seen all over Shetland, lying empty and unused. Tastes have changed and, along with the rest of the western world, Shetland residents expect more variety and an ‘out of season availability’ of produce that their grandparents could never have imagined. Regular ferry sailings and flights have made food available from all over the world, twelve months of the year, weather permitting.
Encouraging island residents to consider reducing CO2 emissions, personal carbon footprints and make positive food buying choices is an uphill struggle. It is hampered by a belief by many that the alternative means a return to the kale and neep eating of the pre-1960s.
Transition Turriefield has been determined to show local food production can provide better choice, fresher produce, reduce carbon footprints and be available even when bad weather prevents supplies arriving. From the beginning the project has focused on demonstrating that a wide range of produce can be grown in Shetland at market garden scale.
Now small-scale ecological engineering
Based on a small croft on the far west mainland, the challenges for economically sustainable food production are huge. The land is designated by the EU as a ‘severely disadvantaged Less Favoured Area’, of poor land quality and suitable only for rough grazing. The season is short, weather unpredictable and the climate extreme. None of which encourages bountiful crops.
There is no doubt that kale and neeps are the easiest and most productive crops to grow. However, using innovation, along with experimentation to create micro-climates, and combining old fashioned farming methods with modern technology, more exotic produce has been made available to the community instead.
Of the 21 hectares of land belonging to the croft, approximately 1.3 hectares are suitable for vegetable production. Just under 1 hectare is currently in production and includes 500 square metres of polytunnel space and 110 of raised beds as well as outside field space. The main growing area is at the lowest point of the croft. Soil here is either deep and peaty (drained bog) with clay patches, or shallow and stoney, with clay and low in organic matter.
Soil nutrient analysis shows a pH of 6.3 with low phosphorus. Structurally the soil is compacted below the surface and low in oxygen due to the water content. Field drains and ditches have been put in and this has made a difference to the moisture content of the soil during the drier part of the season. As the land is worked season by season, effort is made to build soil and raise the growing area, improve structure, texture and nutrient content.
Muck, seaweed, ash, compost, turf
Beds have been cleared using pigs and hand tools rather than machinery. Muck, seaweed, ash from peat and wood, compost, and loam from composted turf, are added each season in various combinations and quantities depending on type of crop to be grown in each bed. Digging is kept to a minimum and is limited to using forks to aerate topsoil and improve drainage where necessary. When beds are empty they are covered with black agricultural plastic, weighed down with old tyres, to reduce weeds, and lessen nutrient leaching from increasing rainfall. Use of the plastic is new as of January 2017 and has allowed an earlier and more rapid start to our sowing/planting season. Biodegradable, corn-starch based weed suppressant has also been used on experimental beds this season and has reduced weeding markedly.
Using horse powered land-working equipment to reduce labour has been experimented with as part of the commitment to tackling climate change and reducing fossil fuel use. Strong horse working skills are required and it has taken time to learn methods and teach the horse too, but it does show potential. Unfortunately, the land has become markedly wetter over the last five years and is remaining so for longer periods. As yet it is unclear whether horse drawn equipment will be viable on the land without major soil improvements in the long term.
And perseverance pays
Even with poor growing conditions Transition Turriefield perseveres with organic practice as an essential part of reducing fossil fuel use and protecting the environment. The project is not registered as organic due to the expense of ongoing registration and the impact of maintaining wider crofting practices in a rural and remote area.
Access to organic animal feed for example, is not economically viable and accessing organic compost for seed sowing is an ongoing battle. Compromises too, have had to be made with fossil fuel reduction, for example where plastics are used for polytunnel covers and weed suppressants. Maintaining best practice, financial viability and sustainability will always be an ongoing balancing act.
Crops are grown outside where possible, keeping the limited undercover space for the produce that really needs warmth and protection. During the short summer season aubergines, tomatoes, chillies, peppers, sweetcorn, pumpkins, courgettes, cucumbers and even melons can be grown undercover. By experimenting with sowing times and cultivars and using heat and light to start seeds off early, growing conditions can be manipulated to recreate suitable conditions and a long enough season.
Timing is crucial
To achieve maximum production from the short summer season a strict sowing programme is used starting in January. Crops are sown in modules timetabled to enable plants to be ready to ‘hit the ground running’, once conditions are suitable for planting out either in the tunnels or outside. Celery and celeriac for example, are sown in the second week in February under lights and on heated mats at 18-20C, potted up, grown on and hardened off to allow planting out in the field by the 3rd week in May. Harvest begins in late September.
Without additional heat and light, conditions would not be suitable for germination until April and the plants would not mature to a reasonable size before the growing conditions became unsuitable. A similar system and timing is used for aubergines, planted in tunnels and ready for harvest from mid-July onwards.
Raised beds are used for some crops and are proving useful for manipulating conditions to increase productivity. Both garlic and parsnips have benefitted from the warmer, better drained soil in the beds. Mini tunnels are used to improve crop performance when needed. Garlic appreciates the extra heat to produce good sized bulbs unattainable in open ground. Experimenting with black plastic as an aid to warming raised beds from March onwards has enabled earlier sowings of parsnip and beetroot, with crops producing excellent sized roots. Sowing in the field cannot usually take place until end of May due to low soil temperature and waterlogging.
Produce is sold through a veg box scheme, to rural community shops, a wholefood retailer in the main town of Lerwick and local hotels. The veg box scheme operates using a Community Supported Agriculture model. Box customers commit to financial support of the project for a season as well as contributing voluntary hours to vegetable production. This has been a successful method of encouraging community participation in local food production and raising awareness food related CO2 emissions. Additional income is generated through training courses and workshops sharing the learning and supporting others to grow their own. The project works with both children and adults; schools, community groups and the local authority to raise awareness of climate change and encourage carbon footprint reduction.
The largest limiting factor for the project is the ability to grow enough produce on the site—to generate enough income to pay sufficient staff—to grow enough produce, and so on. These particular issues are no different to other, similar, small growing projects throughout the country. Though small the project already cultivates and brings to market a huge variety and quantity (10 tonne+) of crops each season. With further investment, soil improvement, increase protected growing and further experimentation, there is the potential to double the quantity of fresh produce for the Shetland community.
Author and Contact
Transition Turriefield is run by Penny Armstrong and Alan Robertson.
Corn mills in Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles; the horizontal water driven mechanism; locally managed and owned; bere and oat; the similarities of mills in in Europe and Asia.
“The praying machine of Thibet is, I believe, of similar construction.’ (Goudie, 1885-86)
Three small water mills, housed in stone huts, lie one below the other down a small waterway near Huxter in Shetland (HU 172572), west of Sandness and NW of Walls.
They must have been some advance over the saddle quern, which was still in use when Gilbert Goudie investigated Shetland’s horizontal mills in the 1880s. The mills were of a time when each family or group grew its own bere barley and oat and then ground it to meal, to eat.
The mills are small stone buildings constructed along a waterway or burn. They were locally made and owned, sometimes by several families. Goudie cites Evershed (1874): ‘No portion of the material is purchased, except a single clamp of iron”. The millstones are sourced locally.
The water is channeled off the waterway above the mill along a stone-lined lode (visible in the images below) which enters the mill to turn a paddle wheel under the floor. The mills are called ‘horizontal’ because the force of water turns the paddles in a horizontal plane, rather than vertically as in the later water wheels of the type at Birsay in Orkney.
The paddles drive a vertical iron rod, fixed so it turns the upper of two millstones (up to 3 ft diameter) in the room above. After passing through the paddles, the water then runs out to rejoin the waterway and on to the next mill.
There’s no sign of corn crops in this area today – it is all grazing. Yields of corn are uneconomical now and people can import their bread, rice and pasta from other regions, as do most others in the Atlantic croplands.
But what did bere look like? The photograph below shows a bere landrace from Eday, Orkney, grown in the Living Field garden in 2015. Bere in Shetland in the 1800s would have looked much like this – very different from today’s two-row types, but not quite a six-row barley.
But in the later 1800s, the people here probably grew mainly oat, as they did all over Scotland. But which oat – a landrace of the nutritious common oat Avena sativa or one of the black oat Avena strigosa? Those concerned with the industrial archaeology of the late 1800s rarely noted the crops.
Easier than a saddle quern
The mills were reported by Goudie to grind a bushel an hour. Depending on conversion factors, a bushel (volume) is equal to about 22 kg of bere – which is equivalent to about 15 kitchen-sized bags of flour or meal, though the actual yield of pure meal would be less because of all the chaff (husks, awns) that would have to be be discarded. So not a bad yield for an hour’s work!
Horizontal mills in history
Horizontal water mills had been in use for many hundreds of years when Goudie wrote his account. Both Goudy (1885-86) and Wilson (1960) point to the almost global occurrence of these machines, stretching from eastern Europe and Asia to Shetland and the Faroe Islands. Wilson illustrates characteristic types of mill wheel – Shetland, Irish, Alpine, Israel, Balkan – the design transferred in antiquity across the land masses of Europe and Asia, evidence of the connectedness of the northern islands to the wider world.
So how and when did they get to Shetland? These authors note that despite the similarity between mills in Shetland, the Faroe Islands and Norway, suggesting a common ancestry (9th C?), there is no evidence to confirm the direction of travel. Goudie also points to similar constructions in eastern Europe and Asia, and concludes:
“Almost obliterated as it is elsewhere, it is here still to be found in extraordinary numbers” and “… almost in Shetland only, that we find it in active operation …”.
One factor that hastened the loss of these mills was the (not untypical) action of a landowner, who constructed his own big mill, and then dissuaded families to abandon their small enterprises and pay for the use of his.
Certainly, the mills work no longer to grind meal, except as archaeological curiosities. The last one at Dounby in Orkney was taken over by The Office of Works in 1932.
But what a location! Imagine harvesting and milling bere or oat here on a fine day: sheep on coastal grazing, the Island of Papa Stour over the Bay and Vinland over an unbroken stretch of ocean to the west.
Main sources are Goudie and Wilson – both give diagrams of the mechanism