Bere (grain)

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Two-row barley and six-row bere
Field of ready-to-harvest bere, with plots of other varieties still green. Photo taken in late August.
Traditional beremeal bannock, as made on Orkney, Scotland
Hordeum vulgare subsp. hexastichum - MHNT

Bere, pronounced "bear," is a six-row barley currently cultivated mainly on 5-15 hectares of land in Orkney, Scotland. It is also grown in Shetland, Caithness and on a very small scale by a few crofters on some of the Western Isles, i.e. North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, Islay and Barra. It is probably Britain's oldest cereal in continuous commercial cultivation.[1]

Bere is a landrace adapted to growing on soils of a low pH and to a short growing season with long hours of daylight, as found in the high latitudes of northern Scotland. It is sown in the spring and harvested in the summer. Because of its very rapid growth rate it is sown late but is often the first crop to be harvested. It is known locally as "the 90-day barley."[2][3]


Originally bere or beir or bear is a generic Scots word for barley of any kind,[4] from Old English bere, "barley",[5] and was used throughout the country. Now it is used mainly in the north of Scotland.[4][6][7] It often referred to barley of a lower yield, and the phrase "bear meal marriage" usually meant one that would not bring much wealth with it.[8] Talking of the wide variety of crops in England, and crop rotation, Professor T.C. Smout writes: "In Scotland, there is no evidence of such variation possibly because the range of crops was so much smaller — often only oats or bear (a primitive form of barley)".[6]


Bere is a very old grain that may have been grown in Britain since neolithic times.[9] Another early term for it was "bygge" or "big," probably originating from bygg, the Old Norse term for barley. It became well-adapted to the far north of Britain as successive generations of farmers grew it, selecting each year's seeds from the best plants of the previous year.[10][1]

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, bere was an important crop in the Highlands and Islands region of Scotland, providing 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 advent of higher-yielding barley varieties led to a deep decline in bere growing during the 19th and 20th centuries. It survives in cultivation today thanks to Barony Mills, a 19th-century watermill, which purchases the grain to produce beremeal which is used locally in bread, biscuits, and the traditional beremeal bannock.[1]


The Agronomy Institute at Orkney College UHI in Scotland has had a research programme on Bere since 2002. The programme is aimed at developing new markets for the crop and developing best practices for growing it more easily and with increased yield. As a result of this research, several new markets (whisky, beer and biscuits) have been developed for Orkney Bere. The crop is also being grown on the island of Islay, for whisky production by Bruichladdich Distillery.

Research at the James Hutton Institute has shown that bere is particularly able to grow in alkaline soils with low metal micronutrients,[11] such as the increased manganese use efficiency demonstrated when grown in manganese-deficient conditions such as those found in the Orkney Islands,[12][13][14] resistance to the fungal disease scald,[15] and tolerance to salinity stress.[16] Bere flour has quite high levels of folate.[17]

Alcoholic beverages[edit]

Bere has a long history of use in making alcoholic beverages. Historical accounts from the 15th century onward show that Orkney produced large amounts of malt and beer, most of it probably from bere. An ancient tradition of making bere-based homebrew survives until this day on the island. During the 19th century, the Campbeltown distilleries used large quantities of bere in making Scotch whisky. In the early 21st century some distillers began experimenting again with bere, and in 2006, the UK's most northern brewery released a bere-based microbrew.[18]


  1. ^ a b c Martin, Peter; Xianmin Chang (June 2008). "Bere Whisky: rediscovering the spirit of an old barley". The Brewer & Distiller International. 4 (6): 41–43. Retrieved 2011-06-21.
  2. ^ The Scottish Government, ed. (2002). "Chapter 14: A Detailed Review of the Contribution Made to Biodiversity by Scots Bere". The Status of Traditional Scottish Animal Breeds and Plant Varieties and the Implications for Biodiversity. The Scottish Government. Retrieved 2008-11-14.
  3. ^ Theobald, H. E.; et al. (2006). "The nutritional properties of flours derived from Orkney grown bere barley (Hordeum vulgare L.)". Nutrition Bulletin. 31 (31): 8–14. doi:10.1111/j.1467-3010.2006.00528.x.
  4. ^ a b "Dictionary of the Scots Language: "DSL - SND1 BEAR, BERE, Beer, Bar"". Archived from the original on 2011-05-26. Retrieved 2008-11-19.
  5. ^ Clark Hall, J. R. (2002) [1894]. A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (4th ed.). University of Toronto Press. p. 43. ['bear']
  6. ^ a b Smout, T.C. (1972) A History of the Scottish People 1560-1830 p114
  7. ^ "Dictionary of the Scots Language: "DSL - DOST Bere, Beir"". Archived from the original on 2011-05-26. Retrieved 2008-11-19.
  8. ^ "Dictionary of the Scots Language: "DSL - SNDS BEAR"". Archived from the original on 2011-05-26. Retrieved 2008-11-19.
  9. ^ Wallace, M.; Bonhomme, V.; Russell, J.; Stillman, E.; George, T. S.; Ramsay, L.; Wishart, J.; Timpany, S.; Bull, H; Booth, A.; Martin, P. (2019). "Searching for the Origins of Bere Barley: a Geometric Morphometric Approach to Cereal Landrace Recognition in Archaeology". Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory. 26 (3): 1125–1142. doi:10.1007/s10816-018-9402-2. S2CID 149879847.
  10. ^ Jarman, R.J. (1996). "Bere barley - a living link with 8th Century?". Plant Varieties and Seeds. 9: 191–196.
  11. ^ "Understanding the living heritage of bere barley for a more sustainable future". The James Hutton Institute. 11 July 2017.
  12. ^ Cope, Jonathan; Russell, Joanne; Norton, Gareth; George, Timothy; Newton, Adrian (2020). "Assessing the variation in manganese use efficiency traits in Scottish barley landrace Bere (Hordeum vulgare L.)". Annals of Botany. 126 (2): 289–300. doi:10.1093/aob/mcaa079. hdl:2164/16314. PMC 7380464. PMID 32333775.
  13. ^ George, Timothy; French, Andrew; Brown, Lawrie; Karley, Alison; White, Philip; Ramsay, Luke; Daniell, Tim (2014). "Genotypic variation in the ability of landraces and commercial cereal varieties to avoid manganese deficiency in soils with limited manganese availability: is there a role for root‐exuded phytases?". Physiologia Plantarum. 151 (3): 243–256. doi:10.1111/ppl.12151. PMID 24438182.
  14. ^ Schmidt, Sidsel; George, Timothy; Brown, Lawrie; Booth, Allan; Wishart, John; Hedley, Pete; Martin, Peter; Russell, Joanne; Husted, Søren (2019). "Ancient barley landraces adapted to marginal soils demonstrate exceptional tolerance to manganese limitation". Annals of Botany. 123 (5): 831–843. doi:10.1093/aob/mcy215. PMC 6526322. PMID 30561497.
  15. ^ Cope, Jonathan E.; Norton, Gareth J.; George, Timothy S.; Newton, Adrian C. (2021). "Identifying potential novel resistance to the foliar disease 'Scald' (Rhynchosporium commune) in a population of Scottish Bere barley landrace (Hordeum vulgare L.)". Journal of Plant Diseases and Protection. 128 (4): 999–1012. doi:10.1007/s41348-021-00470-x. ISSN 1861-3837.
  16. ^ Cope, Jonathan E.; Norton, Gareth J.; George, Timothy S.; Newton, Adrian C. (2022). "Evaluating Variation in Germination and Growth of Landraces of Barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) Under Salinity Stress". Frontiers in Plant Science. 13: 863069. doi:10.3389/fpls.2022.863069. ISSN 1664-462X. PMC 9245355. PMID 35783948.
  17. ^ Martin, Peter; Wishart, John; Cromarty, Arthur; Chang, Xianmin (2009). "European Landraces Bioversity International Technical Bulletin No.15" (PDF). University of the Highlands and Islands.
  18. ^ Martin, Peter; Xianmin Chang (June 2007). "Bere and Beer: Growing old cereals on northern islands". The Brewer & Distiller International. 3 (6): 27. Retrieved 2008-11-14.

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