Arable farming on Orkney

The windswept lands of the Orkney Isles lend themselves to limited agricultural practices.

Apart from the raising of beef cattle, the only arable crops likely to be grown in Orkney are Oats, Barley and Wheat.

Traditional Orkney Chair

Traditional Orkney Chair

Ancient crops of Bere barley and black oats were grown in Orkney up to the start of the 20th century.

A cereal crop high in protein, these were mainly grown for animal feed.  The durable straw was and still is used for making the backs of traditional Orkney chairs.

Black Oats (Avena strigosa)
The Scots name for oat is ‘ait’ or ‘ate’.  Black Oats are also known as the Bristle Oats and are particularly hardy plants, ripening from August to October.

Black Oats can be grown in acidic, heavy clay and nutritionally poor soils and once harvested can be stored for several years.

The straw has a wide range of uses including bio-mass, fibre, mulch, paper-making and thatching.

Bere Barley
Pronounced “bear,” this six-row barley, cultivated mainly in Orkney, Scotland, is thought to be the oldest cereal in continuous commercial cultivation in the British Isles.

Grains of such barleys dating back to about 3000 BC have been found at Unstan in Orkney and are thought to have been brought to the British Isles by Vikings. In earlier days it was also called “bygge” or “big,” probably originating from bygg, the Old Norse term for barley.

Bere is adapted to growing on acidic soils. Often referred to as to 90 day Barley, it can be sown in the spring and due to the long hours of summer daylight in the Northern Hemisphere, can be harvested in the summer.

Records from the 16th to 18th century, indicate that Lairds required a large portion of their tenants rent to be paid in Bere Barley.

Field of wheat in Orkney

Field of wheat in Orkney

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, bere provided grain for milling and malting and straw for thatching and animal bedding. It was also exported from Orkney and other ports in Scotland to Northern Europe.

The Agronomy Institute at Orkney College UHI in Scotland started a research program on bere in 2002. Aimed at developing new markets for the crop and  best practices for it’s cultivation.  The crop is also grown on the island of Islay, for whisky production.

Wheat (Triticum aestivum)
Wheat has only recently started to be grown in Orkney.

A collaboration with Barony Mill and JF Groundwater, Baker & Grocer and European TRACE project is researching the potential of growing various wheat varietes with a view to producing a local flour for baking.

More information

Orkney Wine Company – Wine made from local produce

Agronomy Institute at Orkney College UHI

European TRACE project – Tracing the origin of food