Bere Pioneers – The Agronomy Institute of Orkney College-UHI


Bere is important.  There are three fundamental reasons for this.

1) The Future. According to the James Hutton Institute, Bere represents “a source of genetic diversity for (barley) breeders to tackle issues of agricultural sustainability post environmental change”.

2) The Present. The commercial opportunities it presents right now. Consumers are increasingly interested in traditional and regionally distinct food and drink. Products made from Bere, (whisky, beer and bannocks for example) are desirable and premium. The range of Bruichladdich single malt whiskies are the perfect exemplar of this.

3) The Past. Bere had a vital historical role in the development of Scottish agriculture and commerce. It has been a staple crop in Scotland for at least a thousand years, and research is ongoing to determine whether that date should be pushed back to the dawn of agriculture in these islands – some 5-6,000 years ago. Bere was also the primary raw material used in the distillation of uisge beatha, the forerunner of Scotch whisky, still perhaps this country’s most iconic global export.

Bere has been a focus for the Agronomy Institute of Orkney College-UHI since it was set up in Kirkwall in 2002, when a small area of land managed by the Institute was sown with the ancient six-row barley. At that point in time, the main aim was to build up a stock of seed for future research and very little machinery was available to work with the crop.  In keeping with the heritage status of Bere, the AI team used an old-fashioned reaper-binder to cut and bind the plantsinto sheaves which were left standing in the fields for a couple of weeks to dry further. The sheaves were then gathered in and built into the beautiful corn stacks which used to be such a feature of rural countryside before the advent of combine harvesters.  In times past the stacks would be broken down and threshed as the grain was required through the winter. In the photo below you can see John Wishart, Raymond Kirkness and Arthur Cromarty operating an old stationary thresher, with the straw being fed into a baler.  The baler is of course a modern luxury…

Bere grains showing how difficult it is to remove the awns

Back then, as now, the straw was valuable as bedding for farm animals. Or even people. Arriving on Islay in the 1990’s, I had the honour to become friendly with a great island entrepreneur. Although a successful and wealthy man by the time he retired, he was born in a black house and spent most of his teenage years working with horses on an Islay farm. He slept on straw in the hayloft above the stables, a period of his life of which he was very proud.

The Agronomy Institute quickly built up a stock of seed barley and by serendipitous coincidence, came into contact with Mark Reynier, then managing director of Bruichladdich. Mark was determined to explore the flavour potential of using different varieties of barley to distil whisky and he persuaded Dunlossit Estate on Islay to experiment with the new (old) crop using Bere seed supplied from Orkney.  The man from Dunlossit who had the unenviable task of trying to work with the Bere, again with minimal equipment and even less experience, was the stalwart Jim Logan, a true Islay Bere pioneer.  Jim managed to bring five harvests of Islay Bere home – but it was difficult, difficult work.  Jim has now retired from Dunlossit and happily still looks back and laughs at the times they had trying to get the recalcitrant grains to behave.

Bere may have caused more than its share of headaches for Dunlossit and distillers alike on 21st century Islay, but the story has a happy ending. Two happy endings in fact. The Agronomy Institute took up the reins for Bruichladdich and now manages the Bere supply chain for us.  Back on Islay, back in those pioneering days was the young Raymond Fletcher. Raymond may no longer be growing bere – but he is now one of our most successful and experienced growers of conventional barley.  Every cloud really does have a silver lining.

Photos: John Wishart and Peter Martin

Our latest Bere release is Bruichladdich Bere Barley 2008:Islay Grown.

We have now released five single malts distilled from Bere Barley including Bruichladdich Bere Barley 2009. Small amounts of this can still occasionally be found in Global Travel Retail outlets around the world.

hand threshing the first small harvest 2002

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