Islandness


IN BARLEY / JULY 2019 / by Kate

Any island story is deeply intertwined with land, family and friendship. The story of bere weaves across the islands of Orkney . Everyone knows each other in the chain and they are eager to help one another; to share in the pride and the story of this ancient grain.


Being an islander nurtures a fiery pride in me. Historically, we have all had a ‘make-do-and-mend’ mentality. We still do. An island community can’t survive without it. It is a global trait, yet I have not felt a greater chest-swelling pride as much as I do across the Scottish isles.

The Orcadian. Island newspapers seem to be still one of the strongholds of news in print. Tidings of hatches, matches and dispatches around the farmhouse table or a glancing look into the latest in island happenings to the passing visitor.


Bere fields are spread across Orkney.  Spells of ‘thumping’ rain mean that some barley is starting to lodge but farmers remain positive. Don’t fight what you can’t change but be prepared for a harder harvest.


Orkeny residents John and Peter of the Agronomy institute with Northfield farmer, Magnus Spence. Chat drifts from bere barley mildew to Magnus’ hiatus from trampoline training due to an achilles injury after chasing a calf. A parting remark suggests this green-rooved, paint balling, sailing, clay pigeon shooting, electric car owning farmer also has an aptitude for fiddle playing.


Bere grown on Orkney falls to many uses. The 146 year old water powered mill at Barony sits amongst its own fields. Run by volunteers they proudly open the water wheel and let the mill run for us.

Peter tells us we would be without the original bere seed if it were not for the Barony millers.


A small amount of our farmer’s and UHI bere malt that isn’t used for Bruichladdich is shared with Swanney brewers on the northern tips of the Orkney mainland. Father and son team Rob and Lewis produce a small batch of bere beer onsite at the farm brewery. Amdist the chaos of renovations and expansion they take time to catch up with us on the year’s progress and the probability that some bere will got to the local craft vinegar maker, Sam.


Wherever you seem to find one person pouring heart and soul into something, like Sydney Gauld at Quoyberstane continuing to grow bere for us,  you oft find another. On the corner of the bere field, nephew Kevin grows oats. Kevin hand sows, rears and harvests the oats then stores them to dry in the attic of his workshop on the farm. The straw is saved and used to create the backs of his traditional style Orkney chairs. “Can we go and have a look in your shed?” “It’s not a shed it’s workshop!” I hear a proud uncle rightfully exclaim behind me.


It seems so different to Islay to see fields stretch flat to the ends of the island, teetering along the cliffs. So much of Orkney farmland is given over to barley growing. The majority is for feed barley or seed, just a little for malt. John tells me that Orkney alone produces more barley than it’s northern neighbour of Iceland.


Ian Sinclair, our bere contractor on Orkney. Like any island contractor the phone is always ringing for help on the next job, the next field, the next haul, the next day. Immediately likeable, Iain is quick to thank us for our Islay hospitality earlier in the year. “I thought it would be a lot like the western isles but oh it’s not.” “Too right! Watch it!” “Oh no it was just wonderful. You’ve barely got roads there mind, that one on the way to the airport, oooh”. Well, we can’t win them all. But a friendly conversation on the friendship between isles stirs up a little more pride within me.


If there’s one thing that can be said is familiar across any island is the sheer joy of a long summers’s day to get the smalls dried in a stiff sea breeze.


Islandness is a metaphysical sensation that derives from the heightened experience that accompanies physical isolation.

Islandness is a sense that is absorbed by islanders through the obstinate and tenacious hold of island communities, but visitors can also experience the sensation as an instantaneous recognition. Islandness thus helps maintain island communities in spite of daunting economic pressures to abandon them.

[ P. Conkling, Maine.  2007 ]


Bruichladdich Distillery
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