Bere Barley

Bere Barley (Hordeum vulgare L.)

The six-rowed spring barley called 'bere' has been dated back to the 8th century and is likely to have been introduced by the Norse (Jarman, 1996). It has been used both as food (bread) and beverages (beer, ale, whisky) as well as feed. Historically associated with Scotland, there was no evidence of any cultivation on mainland Scotland at the time of the compilation of the National Inventory (Scholten et al. 2004). On the Outer Hebrides, bere barley was rarely grown for human consumption and its cultivation had decreased to an estimated six to twelve crofters. In 2006 however it was observed here in several fields mixed in with oat and rye. Very few crofters grew it as single stand.

On the Northern Islands, Shetland cereal cultivation has seen a steep decline as sheep production increased, with the consequence that both bere and Shetland oat (Avena strigosa Schreb.) cultivation almost ceased a few years ago on both island groups, but for a couple of farmers. A project was initiated to encourage and increase the cultivation of heritage crops such as bere and small oat. The project, run by the Shetland Organic Growers Group, was targeting 15 farmers to grow 4 hectares of cereals in 2004.

Orkney is the only location where bere barley is still grown for human consumption; i.e. for bere meal production, used for making traditional biscuit (bannock) for tourists. Meal is ground at the Barony Mills in Birsay.

Some farmers also grew bere for animal feed. Bere's nutritional value has recently been investigated by the Agronomy Institute at Orkney College UHI (Theobald et al 2006) as part of a wider project into its marketing potential. The two traditional beverages associated with bere; beer and whisky, have both been reintroduced successfully in 2006: ale by an Orkney brewery, beer by a Shetland brewery and whisky from a distillery on Islay. In 2012 a limited edition Arran Malt was produced in conjunction with the Agronomy Institute at Orkney College UHI, using Orkney bere. For more information see the Agronomy Institute website.

Results from a recent PhD project (Southworth 2007) indicated that there were three significantly different and isolated sub-populations of bere being grown Scotland: the Shetland islands, the Orkney islands and the Western Isles (outer Hebrides).

The greatest proportion of genetic diversity was found within populations, probably resulting from geographically isolated founding populations diverging over a long time. However, exchange of seed between growers may also have contributed to high variation within populations. The greatest diversity was found in the Western Isles.

There is a clear need for in situ and ex situ conservation both within each of the sub-populations and of individual populations in each island group.


Jarman, R.J. (1996) "Bere barley: a living link with the 8th century", Plant Varieties and Seeds, 9(3), 191-196.

Southworth, C. (2007) The use of microsatellite markers to differentiate UK barley (Hordeum vulgare) varieties and in population genetic analysis of bere barley from the Scottish islands, PhD thesis Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh.

Theobald, H.E., Wishart, J.E., Martin, P.J., Buttriss, J.L., and French, J.H. (2006) "The nutritional properties of flours derived from Orkney grown bere barley (Hordeum vulgare L.)", Nutrition Bulletin, 31(1), 8-14, available from:

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