Magnus Spence lives and works a small 63 hectare farm called The Northfield, on the island of Burray. He is one of three farmers on Orkney who grow Bere barley for the Agronomy Institute in Kirkwall thus providing a supply chain for Bruichladdich to distil our fascinating series of “Bere barley” single malt whiskies from this ancient grain.
In this day and age a farm the size of The Northfield is no longer viable when only producing beef for the commodity market, but inspired by the farming principles espoused by Tony and Elizabeth Bown of Orkney Organic Meat, Magnus regularly analyses his soils and crops to monitor the balance of nutrients in order to avoid unnecessary fertilizer applications and to pick up any trace element deficiencies which may affect the health of his cattle and cereal crops. Sadly the soil at the Northfield is too light and sandy to lend itself to ‘Certified Organic’ production but Magnus is working towards a low input, low intensity, low impact system which aims to be ‘only a certificate short of Organic’. Coupled with his other ventures his aim is to create a sustainable enterprise which reflects his attitudes and principles in regard to life’s basic essentials of energy and food production.
In addition to beef farming and growing Bere, Magnus is a share holder in an entirely locally owned company who erected an 850kw wind turbine on his farm back in 2004 which was the first ‘community’ project of its kind in Scotland. The turbine he says: “can provide sufficient renewable energy on a windy day to supply all of the households in Burray and South Ronaldsay provided the inhabitants don’t all want a cup of tea at the same time.” Whilst he once spent many years trying to make “probably the smallest fish farm in the world” work for him in the Bay of Weddell, he now dives for scallops part-time and has an outdoor activities business where he invites folk to come paint balling, light gunning and clay shooting, takes visitors on trips around Scapa flow and rescues whales!
The farm is dramatically located close to the famous Churchill Barriers that were constructed during WW2 by Italian prisoners of war following the disastrous sinking of the Royal Oak in Scapa Flow on a calm, moonlit 14th October 1939 by Commander Prien who had skilfully navigated U47 around the blockships in the channels between the islands and torpedoed her at anchor depriving Britain of 839 sailors and marines who had mostly been lying asleep in their bunks.
The area has probably been farmed for at least 2,500 years and is of considerable historical and archaeological interest. Two of the distinctive Scottish Iron Age structures known as ‘brochs’ can be accessed from The Northfield – although please ask Magnus before visiting them as there may be livestock issues….