Maria Scholten, Regional Coordinator for the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, has been working hard with crofters this year to bring more of the heritage grains back into rotation. Hear about her work and how to get involved:

We began our grain work early this year with a visit to Uist to learn about grain landraces and develop the interest in growing heritage grain in five Highland communities, from Lochaber to Assynt. The aim was to reintroduce heritage grain and revive the lost the skills associated with grain growing. We teamed up with a project run by the James Hutton Institute and Soil Association Scotland, which was concentrating on experiments in intercropping. They agreed to include the crofters’ heritage oat (Coirce)  mixture in their experiments, giving us a fantastic opportunity to get these oats back into use. Easter weekend we held a sowing & talks day at Shieling Project with BBC  Alba filming about sìol arbhair.

The corn field at The Shieling Project showing some of the challenges facing the reintroduction of heritage grains. This field had not been cultivated for possibly over a hundred years. Bracken pressure was enormous and removing bracken and stones took a lot of work. The pigs were working on bracken removal in the adjacent field preparing it for next growing season. Another wide-spread challenge on crofters’ fields is the acidity of the soil. Some crofters also faced constant deer predation but The Shieling Project has efficient deer fencing, erected to protect their wood planting and now much needed to protect the corn.

Mid-summer we held a Heritage grain & intercropping day on Lismore with Peter Martin talking about bere and Maria Scholten about Hebridean landraces. We also were able to see a local crofter’s work on corn. Late summer saw the same core group learning more about bere, rye and oats on a visit to Arable Scotland. A barley geneticist at the James Hutton Institute also took an interest in the project, keen to make bere and other traditional Scottish barley seeds available for community groups next year.

In  autumn, harvest time created new challenges as we concentrated on how to harvest and thresh the seeds. Much of the old equipment traditionally used for these purposes is out of circulation, and finding the right machinery can be very tricky. The Wheat We Eat event at Blackhaugh Farm used a thresher from heritage grain organisation Scotland The Bread. Footage from this day can also be seen in the BBC Scotland documentary: Part 2: harvesting and threshing with the STB thresher

Finally, we returned to the beautiful Strathfarrar Glen for another well-attended event at the Shieling Project. We had crofters from Caithness to Assynt and Skye join us, thanks to wide publicity through the Scottish Crofting Federation.

The recently purchased second-hand wooden seed separator-cleaner inspected by grain-growing crofters at the Shieling project.

The enthusiasm shown by crofters in heritage grains has encouraged Ali Karley from the James Hutton Institute to continue the heritage grains and intercropping  project with an expanded group of crofters into 2020. Working in collaboration with SeedSovScot and advertised through the Shieling project, we hope to increase the area grown with bere (Eorna), the traditional Scottish barley, considerably and will also explore how we can further support machinery rings for small-scale grain growing. SeedSovScot has been measuring interest in a Participatory Plant Breeding training for those grain growers keen to learn about seed plant selecting as well as developing locally adapted ‘new landrace’ varieties.

With close collaboration between the James Hutton, Soil Association Scotland and the unique focus of the SeedSov-Highlands on seeds, bringing back the sìol arbhair – the heritage grains  to Scotland’s highlands is becoming a reality. Stay tuned for more exciting news about the blossoming heritage grain movement in Scotland!

Join the  sìol arbhair network in the Highlands : sign up for next year’s events,  express your interest in growing Eorna – bere – next year – mail