Grains of truth: a history of Scotland's traditional cereal crops, oats and barley
Oats and barley have been Scotland’s main cereal crops since the Middle Ages, simply because, unlike wheat and maize, both are willing to grow in our damp, sun-deprived climate. Gordon Davidson traces their fortunes.
Things were going great for oats in Scotland until they legalised whisky. Before 1823, oats had enjoyed two centuries as a staple food grain, having relegated barley to animal feed. But once Scotch whisky was legitimised, barley’s fortunes shot up. Oats were usurped as farmers switched to growing spring barley for malting.
The money on offer prompted the breeding of new, higher yielding barley strains and the crop moved away from its hardy origins, becoming something of a racehorse – a great earner, but vulnerable to disease and adverse conditions.
Having slogged along in barley’s shadow for a century or more, oats are enjoying an upswing in fortune as a cheap and cheerful superfood – something granny knew all along.
The organic boom has also favoured oats as, closer to their wild genetic roots, they grow with less artificial help and are particularly resistant to the diseases that plague the more refined barleys and wheats. In the seven-year rotations used by organic farmers, oats are effectively biological bouncers, able to clear a field of disease and fungal problems.
Organic oats are now taking a novel route to the market via the mobile Stoats Porridge Bars, often to be found standing alongside the burger vans at Scotland’s music festivals.
In contrast to this renaissance, barley growers have been hit by the global market. The multinational maltsters, with ready access to imported barley, have pushed down the farmgate price. Officially, the big players insist that around 90 per cent of the barley used to produce Scotch whisky is still grown domestically. But they refuse to guarantee that domestic origin, arguing that without imports to fall back on, the whisky industry is only one bad harvest away from disaster.
Scotland’s recent horribly wet summers have only fuelled the fierce disagreements over the price on offer to those farmers willing to take a risk and plant for the malting market – and much saber-rattling over the long-term veracity of the term ‘Scotch’ if local growers carry through their threats to abandon the crop.
But, among the independent distilleries some operations have made a virtue of their small size by leaping back several centuries and sourcing barley from their farming neighbours. Islay’s Bruichladdich distillery, for example, now offers individual caskings traceable to barley grown on the island itself.
● For more on oats and Scottish suppliers see www.allaboutoats.co.uk