The Ancient Roots of Orkney’s Bere Barley

The first ever conference about bere barley is being held in Orkney today (Thursday 29th June) at UHI Orkney College. The event is being attended by over 60 invited guests from a targeted audience: everything from distillers to archaeologists. Everyone who has enjoyed the distinct substantive Orkney bere bannock knows how good bere meal is but there is more to this humble grain than most of us realise.

Professor Peter Martin

Professor Peter Martin (F Grahame)

Professor Peter Martin of the Agronomy Institute based at the Orkney College campus of the University of the Highlands and Islands has been working in collaboration with Dr Tim George and Dr Joanne Russell of the prestigious James Hutton Institute. Pulling their work together and sharing their knowledge is highlighting many interesting areas which could lead to developments in bere barley production.

The Agronomy Institute (A.I.) is self funding and since 2002 Professor Martin has been developing the potential of Orkney’s bere barley. This ancient form of barley is still grown on a few farms in Orkney, some for the Barony Mill, Birsay, some for the (A. I) and one organic farmer in North Ronaldsay grows it as silage. The flour made from the bere grain is used in our local bakeries but is also exported south where artisan bakers are now incorporating it into their specialised production lines.

Professor Martin has also found new markets for the grain with brewers and distillers. Bruichladdich single malt whisky Islay uses bere barley in its production process boasting ‘our barley is no mere commodity’ and believes it gives a distinctive flavour to their whiskies. Swannay Brewery  , Orkney “for us brewing is the intersection of art & science” also uses 100% bere malt in its Scapa Bere.

But there is more to this humble grain…..

Dr Russell and Dr George

Dr Joanne Russell and Dr Tim George of the James Hutton Institute (F Grahame)

Funded by the Scottish Government Dr Tim George and Dr Joanne Russell of the James Hutton Institute are examining the genetic diversity of bere barley. The James Hutton Institute is a “globally recognised research organisation delivering fundamental and applied science to drive the sustainable use of land and natural resources.” Their research has opened up even more interesting aspects to bere barley.

They have sequenced the barley genome (there are 34 types of barley) and with this knowledge can look at the diversity of barley across a wide range. This is where the science gets intriguing. Most modern barley is a 2 row type but what we have in the north of Scotland is a 6 row type. The 2 row barley is the original form of the cereal but a mutation, most probably caused by cultivation, created a 6 row form. This is the kind we have in northern Scotland. There are three distinct geographical groups of bere barley in Scotland: the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland. The other types of  the 6 row barley variety are found in Nordic countries.

And now we come to where science meets archaeology because bere barley is an ancient grain but how ancient and where did the grain we have in Orkney  originate from?

To answer these questions 200 grain samples have been taken from archaeological sites across Orkney and from different eras. These samples are being examined using two different processes and with the collaboration of researchers at the University of Sheffield and Manchester. At Sheffield University the 3D scanning technique of morphometrics is being used to examine these tiny charred grains from Orkney looking at the size and shape of the remains. The samples are then examined at Manchester University where DNA is extracted from them.

Questions which may be answered with this research are:

  • was the grain used by Orkney’s first neolithic farmers bere barley and if so was it of the 2 row type or the 6 row type?
  • If it was of the 2 row type, when did the change to the 6 row variety occur?
  • If the Neolithic farmers used the 6 row type which is found in the Nordic countries is this where those early settlers came from?

(I think of the research already done on the origins of the Orkney vole and how it must have travelled to Orkney with those first farmers- no doubt in amongst the grain.)

So from the amazing collaborations taking place not only across different academic institutions but also across different specialisms we can learn so much more about our Orkney history.

There’s more….

The Orkney variety of bere barley is very quick growing. Experiments using “speed breeding” techniques have demonstrated a 2 week difference between the Orkney variety and that of the Western Isles. Why is this important? The gene which produces this difference in flowering can be extracted. Early flowering of cereal crops is extremely important in areas of the world where drought is a factor. If the crop can be harvested before the drought sets in then it could help farmers in those areas. The 6 row bere barley is also good at growing in poorer soils and in fact does better with fewer to no inputs like fertilisers.

Dr George explained that there has been a shift in plant breeding across the world with increasing interest in looking back at the older varieties of the major cereal crops. Dr Russell added that all 4 major cereals: rice, maize, wheat and barley have been sequenced. She said: ” Now we can pinpoint the gene we can do the work more quickly”

Professor Martin explained that not so many farmers grow bere barley in Orkney. There are problems with it being a tall crop and when wet it is more difficult to harvest as it falls over. What he is doing,however, is finding new markets for bere barley and there are farmers in Orkney who are benefitting. He explained that the big distillers are reluctant to experiment and stick with the modern grains but  the smaller ones like Bruichladdich have been very successful winning the 2009 Scottish Food and Drink Award for Innovation.

Many local businesses in Orkney both today and in the past have helped the Agronomy Institute by purchasing and using the bere barley they have produced: Richard Shearers, Barony Mills, Groundwaters Bakery, Swannay Brewery, Orkney Wine and Orkney Distilling to name but a few. Professor Martin thinks that using local ingredients in our Orkney food and drink products is extremely important.

paper making

Photo (F Grahame)

The event today (Thursday) will also showcase another aspect of bere barley with its use in paper making.  The health aspects of bere have also yet to be fully investigated including whether the valuable nutrients it extracts from the soil are then passed on through human consumption.

Orkney’s bere barley: ancient crop for the future.

Reporter Fiona Grahame

bere barley panel

photo F Grahame


1 reply »

  1. A visit to the Barony Mill, Birsay, is a must if you’re interested in that sorta thing. I’m now going to try to place my Tripadvisor review for the Barony Mill – this may or may not work!

    Fiona- Next-Door’s bere barley shortbread is a treat too – it’s not for sale, but there are recipes available.

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