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Back to the Future: Understanding the heritage of bere barley for a more sustainable future

Public event
29 June 2017, 8:45am - 6:00pm, Free
at Orkney College, East Rd, Orkney, Kirkwall KW15 1LX & Barony Mill, Orkney KW17 2LY
for farmers, agronomists, industry, scientists and policymakers
Bere barley plot (c) James Hutton Institute

Bere barley is a six-row barley currently cultivated on small holdings in Orkney, Shetland, Caithness and on a very small scale by a few crofters on some of the Western Isles. Bere is thought to be Britain's oldest cereal in continuous commercial cultivation and may have been brought to Britain by Vikings in the 8th century or even from an earlier wave of settlement. In its early days it was also called "bygge" or "big" probably originating from the Old Norse term for barley. It became well-adapted to the far north of Britain as successive generations of farmers grew it, selecting each year's seeds from the best plants of the previous year. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, bere was an important crop in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, providing grain for milling and malting and straw for thatching and animal bedding. It was also grown for export to Northern Europe. The advent of higher-yielding barley varieties led to a sharp decline in bere cultivation during the 20th century. It survives in cultivation today thanks to Barony Mill, a 19th-century watermill, which purchases the grain to produce bere meal which is used locally in bread, biscuits, and the traditional bere meal bannock.

On Thursday 29th June 2017 we will host an event which emphasizes the heritage value of bere barley and its potential for providing value to Scotland as a primary resource for novel high-value products, based on this heritage, and as a source of genetic diversity for breeders to tackle issues of agricultural sustainability post environmental change.

The day long event will demonstrates to the audience a number of key messages: 1) How we use bere now, 2) How we used bere in the past, 3) How bere evolved and got to be in Orkney and 4) How we could use bere in the future for food and drink products, alternative products and as a source of genetic diversity to solve global problems. The audience will include a range of stakeholders from growers, land managers, charitable trusts, scientists, industry, funders, regulators and policy makers who will be given an insight into state-of-art in the research on and application of this fascinating Scottish heritage resource.

The event will take place at a number of venues around Orkney (Orkney College, Barony Mill and the Bursay Community Hall) and we currently have 45 people registered to attend the event. The day will include interactive tours of the Barony Mill and field sites, talks from scientific experts and commercial representatives, finishing with novel product testing. Experts will come from the James Hutton Institute, University of Highlands and Islands, University of Copenhagen (Denmark), Rowett Institute, Aberdeen University and Manchester University.

The Agronomy Institute at Orkney College, University of Highlands and Islands (UHI) has had a research programme on bere since 2002. The programme is aimed at developing new markets for the crop and developing best practices for growing it. As a result of this research, several new markets (whisky, beer and biscuits) have been developed for Orkney Bere. The crop is also being grown for whisky production by Bruichladdich Distillery, whose Bere Single Malt won an innovation award from Scotland Food and Drink in 2014. The agronomy institute has recently been collaborating with the James Hutton Institute and the University of Copenhagen to work on the importance of bere barley as a resource for future crop sustainability and this work will be highlighted by the event.

Event programme

08:45 – Meet at Orkney College, Kirkwall to get bus

09:00-09:45 Bus to Birsay Community Centre (Local History Tour – Scott Timpany, UHI)

09:45-10:15 Welcome and introduction to bere barley and coffee – Tim George and Peter Martin

10:15-10:35 Terry Brown, University of Manchester - Archaeological evidence of bere barley in Orkney – Who used to use it?

10:35-10:55 Joanne Russell, The James Hutton Institute -  Genetics of bere barley – A valuable genetic resource for the future? How did it get here?

10:55-11:15 Wendy Russell, University of Aberdeen – Benefits of bere barley in human nutrition – How we can use it feed people today?

11:30-12:30 Barony Mill tour and talk

12:30–13:15 Bus back to college (Local history tour – Scott Timpany, UHI)

13:15 – 14:00 Lunch at Orkney College

14:00 – 14:30 John Wishart, Tour of the field trial

14:30 - 14:50 Tim George, James Hutton Institute – Traits for sustainable agriculture from bere barley – How we can use it to solve environmental problems

14:50-15:10 Sidsel Birkelund-Schmidt, The University of Copenhagen, Denmark – Bere barley and manganese efficiency

15:10-15:40 Coffee

15:40-16:00 Peter Martin, University of Highlands and Islands – Ways to commercialise the use of bere barley – How we can use bere barley in the future

16:00-16:30 Carl Reavey, Bruichladdich, Islay – Use of bere barley in the production of a single malt.

16:30-18:00 General discussion, paper making demonstration (Jean Duncan, CECHR University of Dundee) and tasting of bere barley products (beer, whisky, bannocks, risotto, etc)

For more information on the event please contact Tim George at

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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.