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Unearthing Scotland’s ancient Viking grain

Aberdeenshire’s windswept fields of barley are quiet now. But the ruins scattered across them are reminders of a bloody and noisy time, when this remote and windswept coastline played a vital part in Scottish history.

For eight months in 1651, out on the rocky headland, the medieval Dunnotar Castle was besieged by Oliver Cromwell’s troops, determined to destroy the ‘Honours of Scotland’ (the Scottish Crown Jewels). Yet the crown, sword and sceptre were swept away from under their noses – some say lowered to the beach and carried away in a bucket of seaweed - leaving Cromwell empty-handed.

The ‘Honours’ are now safely on display 100 miles south in Edinburgh Castle. But they are not the only prized bounty the land has to offer. The golden barley fields stretching inland from Dunnotar do not just make a beautiful scene - they have also been one of the region’s chief treasures.

Barley has been used since forever in the local beer and whisky industries. Now, it is also being heralded as a ‘super food’ with multiple health benefits.

I meet the Fergussons, a fourth-generation farming family run single handed by Andrew, whilst his mother Kate heads up the Ardmiddle Mains farm guest houses.

The beautiful rolling Aberdeenshire landscape comes alive for the autumn harvest as the combine harvesters weave their way over the rolling terrain, creating a rich patchwork of carefully groomed fields in the midst of the lush green countryside.

Andrew shows me around his 550-acre farm. It’s been tough for the farmers this year. Andrew has strict guidelines from the all-important local malt houses for their whisky and beer production. Changing weather patterns and market conditions can play havoc with his livelihood.

Traditional harvesting and threshing methods have been relegated to the dusty corners of museums, but I find a small collection sitting in the back of the Knockdhu distillery not far from the Fergusson’s farm situated in the small village of Knock, by Huntly in Aberdeenshire.

They’ve been making whisky in the same way here for over 100 years ,named after the nearby black hill known as ‘Knockdhu’ in Gaelic.

Stored in the now disused malting house a small Garvie Threshing Mill sits amongst remnants from a bygone era, historically used to separate the grain - replaced in the 19th Century by the combine harvester pulled by horses, both cutting and threshing at once.

Once the grain is threshed (removing the grain from the chaff), the malting process begins - it’s soaked to germinate and dried to stop the process - now carried out by large independent malt houses offsite.

The large kiln rooms used to dry the grain are now obsolete in many distilleries. Sometimes they are kept as store rooms or remodelled as a nod to the old ways: the Knockdhu kiln room retains the distinctive chimney above a perforated tiled platform where the grains would lay being dried by the furnace below.

The start of the process of fermentation is the same for both beer and whisky. The grains are added to the mash tun and then local spring water is added. This lets the enzymes break down the starch into sugars, which is then converted into alcohol by the yeast. The nutritious spent grain is then carted off as fodder for Aberdeen cattle and other livestock.

To make the Whisky they use towering traditional copper stills to condense the vaporised alcohol. The copper itself helps remove the sulphates from the liquid and in turn releases the flavours and aromas. Fraser Legge, who has put together the collection of vintage artefacts, explains: 'Distilling is like an orchestra - every instrument comes together to make the final concerto.’

Fraser’s eloquence is reduced to a short snigger as he hands me a copper tube and asks me to identify its use. I have no idea.
It is, he tells me, a ‘copper dog’, kept down their trousers by past employees to allow them to siphon off whisky when the governor’s back was turned.

The Knockdhu barrels neatly aligned in the warehouse are ex-bourbon and sherry oak casks, shipped in to add the colour and flavour to the whisky after the distillation process. I try a dram of their 18-year-old whisky. Aromatic spices…notes of vanilla and caramel… Delicious.

Via a quick flight from Aberdeen with Scotland’s regional airline Logan Air into Kirkwal, Orkney’s main airport, my journey continues in search of an ancient grain in Scotland’s Northern Isles. Perched between the Atlantic and the North Sea right at the very top of Great Britain, Orkney is an archipelago of 70 islands, 20 of them inhabited. Of a total population of 22,000, over 17,000 live on Orkney Mainland. The powerful waves and some of the strongest winds in Europe enable one in 12 Orcadian households to generate their own renewable electricity.

Orkney’s notoriety for their self reliance are leading the way for sustainable energy - as of 2014 they produced 104% of their electricity through renewable sources. That sustainability has ancient origins. The Barony water Mill has been using ‘hydro power’ on this site for many hundreds of years to grind grain into flour. It is now the sole mill on Orkney for Barley Beremeal, an ancient grain dating back to before the Vikings.

Farmer Marty Hay explains to me how his prized crop has been rescued from the brink of extinction. Barley Beremeal looks slightly different to usual barley, six rows as opposed to the standard two row barley and is a harder crop to harvest after the fierce wind and rain here have run their course. The fields can get flattened.

With the help of the Birsay Heritage Trust and a growing income from sales Marty’s retro crop is the talk of the town: the nearby Orkney Brewery and Scapa Whisky Distillery have begun trialling it in in some of their recipes.

Orkney Brewery’s Master Brewer Andrew Fulton shows me around and explains how the mix of Malted grains and the addition of hops adds to the aromas and flavours in their brews. After trying the Beremeal beer Andrew chuckles and describes the aromas from the final product a,s ‘Creosote-like - which surprisingly didn’t taste at all bad!’

Archaeologists found bowls used for crushing the same variety of Beremeal barley at the 5,000 year-old Neolithic village Skara Brae. The hardy cereal crop can endure difficult climates and terrain and has a short growing season. This type of barley has made a resurgence in recent years as scientists look to understand its unique properties.

The University of Aberdeen have recently been studying the health benefits of barley, which can lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Another positive impact is barley’s sustainability, in providing a non-starch/high fibre, locally grown alternative to imported rice, pasta or potatoes, with the added benefit of high protein and low gluten content.

The ancient barley has had thousands of years to become accustomed to the Orkney weather. My own evolution has some way to go. As I arrive at ‘Wheems Organic Farm’, with the wind and rain beating down around me, I try to focus on my accommodation in the distance, the outline of a small wooden pod barely visible through the barrage of torrential rain… and find myself having second thoughts.

Just last week, I had turned down the offer of a night in the cottage. Now, I am not so sure that was the right decision. I timidly ask the farmer whether the offer of a warm bed inside is still available. The wily old man with a long white beard looked me up and down and, doubtless bearing in mind my Nat Geo credentials, mutters in disdain, “You’re an adventurer aren’t you? It’s just a bit of wind and rain!’

Things don’t improve as I make my final question to my host with concerned reference to the possibility of my two-ton ‘pod‘ somehow uplifting itself and hurling me into the ocean below.

He looks at me, without replying, offering just a wincing glare that says, ‘Are you still here?’

I hang my head in shame and return to my car to collect my bags. Thinking to myself ‘Let’s not mention this momentary lapse of adventurous spirit to the Nat Geo team’.

I awoke to a beautiful morning after, to my surprise, a rather comfortable night’s sleep. The quaint campsite had a communal kitchen area with eclectic dishes and plates where I could feast upon some of the Beremeal’s products I found in the local shop. There are delicious barley shortbread biscuits and the ‘Orkney Bere Bannock’, a traditional flat bread – which has featured heavily over the years in the Orcadian diet. Ideal with a large lump of cheese!

Maybe I had no reason to be concerned. The previous night, I’d met a chap who’d slept at the mercy of all the elements in a simple one-man tent, perilously close to the cliff’s edge. The solo traveller had seen temperatures in the previous week sore to the 30s, and was ill-prepared for the autumnal deluge. As we chatted, he had clung to his hot tea as if praying to the gods, finding partial shelter under the lean-to kitchen. He stared wistfully into the distance as his tent tugged and contorted in the wind, desperately clinging to the ground.

I couldn’t work out whether he was talking to me or it was his own internal monologue that had found a voice, ‘What do you expect?’ he mused. ‘We’re in Northern Scotland
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