He’s a man. He’s a ghost. He’s a guru.
- Nick Cave, ‘Red Right Hand’
Rae kneels down to pick up a metal instrument lying on the floor. It’s a device for cutting through the lower-quality top peat, he explains to me, to the diamond-like hard peat underneath. We’re at one of Orkney’s old farmhouses that have been turned into small museums, run by volunteer guides. Rae remembers, with a cheeky grin, coming here for a few drams of whisky, half a century ago, when a family was still living and working on this farm.
I had never heard of the Barony Mill or beremeal before I went to the Orkney Islands this summer. Something I’m ashamed to admit. Not because my name suggests that I should be better acquainted with Scottish heritage than I am. But because my obsession with grains and nerdy research into alternatives to mainstream flour should’ve brought bere to my attention much earlier.
Bere is an ancient grain. It is either a direct ancestor or distant relative of modern barley. Exactly when it was brought to northern Britain is a bit of a mystery – remnants of bowls used for crushing barley were found at the 5,000-year-old Neolithic village of Skara Brae, Orkney’s main tourist attraction – but it was certainly grown and thriving in Orkney from 1000 AD.
It’s known as ‘90-day barley’ because of its short growing season. Sown in spring and harvested in early autumn, it’s well suited to the climate here, avoiding Orkney’s hostile winters. It was a vital part of local diets until the 1950’s, though from the late 19th century it had suffered a steep decline as higher-yielding modern barleys were introduced and quickly took over. Along with cheap white flour.
This is not, however, the story of a lost food. Bere is very much alive and well in Orkney today. This is largely thanks to the Barony Mill in Birsay, a water-powered, totally self-sufficient and sustainable Victorian-era mill. They still produce flour, from locally grown bere, exactly how they have since the 1800s.
Rae worked on lighthouses for 30 years before being convinced, in the mid-1990s, to take on full-time work at the mill where he grew up helping his father. He signed off the first email he ever wrote to me as ‘Miller, trying to retire.’ I found this funny, charming. I later saw it as a fitting summation of where the Barony Mill is currently at. Moving on, but uncertainly.
The Barony Mill is only open to visitors during summer, when the mill is shut down as the barley grows. One or two volunteers will be at the mill, and if somebody turns up they can have a free tour. It’s a completely different experience from the other end of Scotland’s modern tourism spectrum: whisky tours at Orkney’s two distilleries, Scapa and Highland Park, are squeezed into 15-person, one-hour slots throughout the day, booked out in advance at £20 a pop by cruise ship passengers.
I was shown around Barony Mill by an enthusiastic, eloquent local lad called Jack. He speaks about the mill with obvious passion, deep knowledge and an eloquence unusual for his 18 years. But he’s leaving Orkney at the end of summer, to study politics in Edinburgh.
The mill’s impressive machinery, dating from the height of the Industrial Revolution, still hums, cranks and roars into life when a plain wooden lever is pulled (a highlight of the tour, especially for kids). This lifts a section of the mill race that allows the stream of water, diverted from the Boardhouse Loch across the road, to run onto the large wheel tacked onto the edge of this beautiful Victorian building.
This water powers almost the entire operation at Barony Mill, which between October and April takes in a tonne of bere grains (grown on fields around the mill) every two days, to be dried on the kiln floor then milled into flour, or beremeal. The water then runs back into the stream from which it was diverted. The only other fuel used is the outer, nutritionally-empty husks of the bere grains, which are burnt to fire the kiln.
It’s a breath of fresh air (literally, as it’s quite off the beaten track) to visit it. A feel-good story of a rare kind these days. However, bere is starting to ping up, with good reason, on the edges of the cool-eating radar. It ticks so many boxes we look for: nutrition, sustainability, tradition and taste, to name a few. Like similar small-scale artisan foods, though, a crucial question seems inevitable: do we push it and risk ruining it, or do we leave it be, and risk losing it?
Stockan’s Oatcakes are one of the Barony Mill’s two major commercial clients. The other is Argo’s Bakery, just down the road from Stockan’s in Stromness, Orkney. The Barony Mill has special 25kg sacks that are only used to supply these two places. Everything else leaves the mill, mostly to local stores on the island and health food shops in Glasgow and Edinburgh, with the odd tourist taking a souvenir, in 1kg and 750g brown paper bags. The bags proudly state, in capital letters, that this stone-ground flour of varying coarseness has ‘NOTHING TAKEN OUT. NOTHING ADDED IN.’
Stockan’s spent a lot of time, money and expertise developing an oatcake using Barony Mill beremeal. They finally launched it, to great success, in January 2016. In October 2016, it won Best New Food Product at the Scottish Highlands & Islands Food and Drink Awards. Just this summer, in August 2017, Stockan’s reached an agreement with Waitrose that will see the supermarket chain go from selling Stockan’s Orkney Beremeal Oatcakes in two of its Waitrose stores in Scotland, to stocking them in over 350 Waitrose branches across England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. That’s a significant step up.
As well as its commercial growth, the nutritional and agricultural potential of Orkney bere is gaining traction. Two examples:
Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University have dedicated extensive studies to the nutritional benefits of Orkney bere. Compared with modern wheat and barley, as well as trendy ancient grains like spelt and kamut, bere is very high in dietary fibre, vitamin B1, folate, iron, iodine and magnesium. These crucial micronutrients are low in certain population groups, including in the UK.
The Orkney College Agronomy Institute, using seed samples of Orkney bere strains collected from the James Hutton Institute in Dundee, have isolated one strain that seems naturally able to fix nitrogen in the sandy soils typical of Scotland’s islands (and other Nordic and sub-Arctic climates, such as Norway and Canada), eliminating the need for chemical fertilisers.
A whole lot more attention, and demand, is turning towards the Barony Mill, where Rae now kneels down to rifle through a wooden coffin. It’s where they store small bags of beremeal to restock those sold from on display at the mill’s main entrance. They always keep a stash of flour to sell throughout the summer, but they’re down to the last 50 kg for this year. The crops waving lazily in silky, golden fields stretching out from the mill aren’t even close to ready for harvest yet. Rae shrugs and chuckles when I ask how they’ll keep up to demand for next year.
Perhaps they’ll manage just fine, doing things the way they always have. Or perhaps in 50 years I’ll be back here, showing somebody through this building. This wonderful, three-storey stone building. Just as Rae showed me through the farmhouses. I will imagine the ghosts of Rae and his father, whose face is on the postcards on sale here for 20p, climbing up and down the steps of the mill, the distinctive nutty aroma of bere filling the air. And the ghost of his grandfather, who purchased the mill when Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary were still ruled by hereditary monarchies.
Ghosts of a time when things were done in a different way. A time, I’ll tell that somebody in 50 years, I had always thought had passed long, long before my time.
For more information on the Barony Mill and Orkney bere, including recipes, see the Birsay Heritage Trust website: http://www.birsay.org.uk/baronymill.htm