The last working water powered mill on Orkney is in the north west corner of the mainland at Barony, near Birsey: a fascinating building where beremeal and oatmeal are produced. It is also a fine example of the use of alternative energy, something regarded as a modern need but this one dates back to 1873 when the mill was built. Today, as Orkney bere, wheat and oats are milled, no electricity is used in the process: water power is king here. Even the kiln room is fired with husks left over from the milling process. It burns hot, relatively smokeless and is readily available!
The top floor of the mill. Noteworthy is the hoist which lifts grain up to a fanner, of which there are two, the primary function being to blow the husks away from the kernel after the first grind to dehusk.
It takes a great deal of power to shift those stones and operate all the other equipment that makes up a fully functioning mill. A wheel measuring 4 metres in diameter turns at 12rpm to provide all the energy the mill needs. The following sequence of pictures shows the mill wheel filling with water as it starts up.
At their peak, there were 40 working mills on Orkney. Once you get an eye for them, it’s possible to see old mill buildings dotted about as you drive around the mainland, most of which now have other purposes. A good example is Tormiston Mill which is now the Historic Scotland visitor reception for Maeshowe. The small museum shows parts of the former mill on the first floor. Back at Barony, adjacent to the main building, is evidence of two other water wheels.
Beremeal from Barony Mill is an old variety of barley, low in gluten and very suited to growing quickly in short seasons with long daylight hours. It is grown on Orkney as well as Shetland and the Western Isles. Buying beremeal is one good reason for visiting the mill, as if any were needed. I use it to make bere bannocks which are good, filling low GI food; great with cheese and Orkney beer. Speaking of beer, (which I do often) there is a bere beer brewed on Shetland.
Bere bannocks in the making in my own kitchen: 2 cups of bere meal, 1 cup of Orkney wheat flour, one tsp each of baking soda and cream of tartar and you are nearly there. Season with salt, mix and add goats milk to make a stiff dough. Roll out on a floured surface and cook on a dry griddle for a couple of minutes a side before wrapping in a clean tea towel to cool.
A done job – unassuming but very tasty – with cheese, honey, pickles etc. Try with onion marmalade and venison, for example. Fortunately, bere is making a comeback in the face of modern high yielding barley varieties and I will confess to the additional bags of beremeal tucked safely away in my freezer which will have to last until my next trip to Orkney.