When faced with some unpredictable Orkney weather we had to abandon our plans for Skara Brae. This was a devastating blow but after just a few minutes waiting patiently outside the stunning Maeshowe we were fairly drenched despite taking precautions. A prolonged period outdoors would have been counter-productive and hampered our enjoyment of the Brae. Normally, June heralds good weather for Orkney but the gods were against us that day.
Thankfully there is plenty to see and do indoors, away from the harsh winds and driving rain. We regrouped and given our interest in Scottish food and culture headed towards Barony Mill. After the adversity, this turned out to be one of our most memorable experiences on Orkney.
The locals are known as Orcadians and they are a pretty resourceful and friendly bunch. Throughout history they’ve managed the difficulties that nature has thrown their way and in doing so developed their own culture. Being self sufficient over the centuries is important and the land was put to use for growing crops and livestock. Navigating Orkney today these traditions continue and every piece of land is put to work.
At one time there were over 50 mills in Orkney providing an essential service for local communities. These mills were found within village boundaries and residents always preferred to use their own mill. The number of mills meant that time spent travelling and transporting by horse and cart was cut down dramatically. Today only Barony Mill survives and is located in the North West region of Orkney – you will see many other mills either converted or fallen into disrepair as you explore Orkney.
The existing Barony mill dates from 1873 and the informative website confirms that the remains of older mills adjacent are next in line for restoration. Outside the working mill there are huge grinding stones some of which date back 250 years and can still be used in most cases. Thanks to the resident miller (host, guide and entertainment), the tour of this working piece of history was fascinating. You can you see/hear/feel the mill at work; the building harnessing the power of the water with its wheel and the milling equipment spread out over 3 floors breaking into action. It is a testament to human engineering, skill and dedication that something so natural and powerful was harnessed and still works as efficiently today.
From the moment we landed on Orkney we had noticed the mention of beremeal in many traditional recipes and in the local bakeries. Being from the mainland this was a new ingredient to us although from a whisky enthusiast perspective I had read the Arran press release and 2012 regarding their use of bere for a special bottling. It is a staple feature in Orkney life, having come from Norway originally, its tenacity to grow in difficult environments was ideally suited to the islands. Normal barely or corn, would not survive on Orkney so the farmers adapted to this new crop. Bere is very popular and improves many staple dishes – it also makes great shortbread. This visit heightened my interest in how this ancient ingredient would taste when used in whisky so expect an Arran purchase shortly. A Shetland brewery also makes an ancient form of the ale using bere but that is elusive.
Exploring each floor, observing the machinery and photographs took us back in time to another era. The tour is free and is highly recommended as a break from the National Trust sites and in our case the weather. The miller along with the mill itself brings the craft and skill to life, with plenty of humour and anecdotes. Donations are accepted, which after the tour and visitors book you will gladly contribute to. On sale is a book of recipes for beremeal at £1 and the chance to buy some of the meal itself along with biscuits and other flours. The demand across Orkney is strong for this resource so while some tourist shops may sell the odd bag of beremeal they were hard to find during our trip. Instead head towards to the mill and pick up some direct along with a great insight into this working example of Orcadian history.