Scotland's Larder: Alister Harcus from Barony Mill, Orkney

Cat Thomson talks to Alister Harcus from Barony Mill Orkney about his daily grind, growing up on an island and about milling ancient Bere grain into flour.

Published 15th Mar 2021
Updated 31 st Oct 2023

 Alister Harcus is a hardy character who was born and bred in Orkney, but he grew up on a smaller island - Eday with a population of around 140.

"I lived there for a lot of my life and after I got married we moved onto the mainland of Orkney and I've been here 30 odd year," he said.

The reason for leaving was work, and with a young family he and his wife Nancy decided that the timing was perfect.

To explain, Eday Island children go to the Orkney mainland for secondary school (aged 12) and they stay away for a month at a time.

Alister had been through that himself when he attended Kirkwall Grammar school and he didn't want that same experience for his boys.

Alister comes from a farming background and his wife's family were crofters.

He said there was a real community spirit there, with three or four of the crofts all working together at harvest time, he said "money never passed hands, you helped them, they helped you."

Island life

Alister said, "I won't say it was hard back then, but you just did with what you had. Not like nowadays where everything has to be brand new."

He said about growing up there, "to a young boy like myself, I thought it was absolutely fantastic."

On the island, the main cereal crop grown were oats rather than barley, he said, "I even mind the first barley coming into the island.

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"A lot of crofts earned money from eggs so they grew oats because the chickens preferred them."

Barony Mill, Orkney

The mill on Eday didn't work in his lifetime, it closed after the second world war but he said, "some of the other islands had two mills, like Westray."

Social life on Eday would include big dances in the local hall for Christmas, New Year or harvest home.

He said at these gatherings, "the old ones played music or did a bit of story telling. There were definitely some old characters, now I wish that I'd written it down."

Orkney tales

He said, "I think Nancy and I were the last pair of Orcadians to get married on the island." Their sons Martin (32), Darren (3o) and Liam (24) all stay very close to home.

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He is happy the boys stayed on Orkney and said, "they never seemed to want to go away.

"I've worked on farms most of my life, after we came to the mainland I worked on a big farm at Finstown for 18 years and then I took a change and worked in a quarry.

"Then Birsay Heritage Trust approached me and asked me if I wanted to be a miller, so I came and had a look and I'm very happy at it," he said.

Barony Mill machinery
Oatmeal stone and hopper. Picture: Colin Keldie

He wasn't daunted by the mill machinery because, "we were always a wee bit behind on Eday and I worked at home with the old thrashing mill so it wasn't such a shock to the system."

The historic mill building is built 1873 and it is the last working water mill in Orkney, and the only one in the world that grinds Beremeal.

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Bere  ( pronounced Bear) is an ancient barley

Grain was discovered nearby, at the Neolithic site Skara Brae and DNA analysis has revealed it is the same type of grain they still grow now.

Bere grain grows well on poor soil and is suited to the short growing season found in Orkney, it is high in protein and low in gluten but it has a low yield.

Alister said, " the most you can get out of it is a tonne and a quarter to the acre. So you can see why farmers dinnae want to grow it."

Birsay Heritage Trust restored Barony mill in 1997, and they currently rent around 90 acres of land to grow Bere, with a lot being bought by Scapa whisky distillery for malting.

Alister mills 20 tonnes Bere grain into flour every year, "out of that I get about 75 per cent flour," he said.

It is planted in April and it is known as the 90 day barley (that is how long it takes to ripen in Orkney.)

Weather can cause issues with the harvest. He said "last year we got it off quite good, with a lot of it still standing bonnie when you went in with the combine."

Alister also said, "we are bothered to by a lot of geese in Orkney and if they land on it they will just flatten it. "

After it is harvested, the grain needs to be dried to 15 per cent moisture to store it.

It is then turned over to the care of Alister who as the resident miller, further dries the grain to around 7 per cent moisture.

All part of the milling process

The grain is spread out in the upper level of the mill and it is dried out by warmth from a fire in the floor below.

They use the husk (the outside of the grain) for the fuel, and one tonne of husk dries the next tonne of grain, so it makes environmental sense and crucially, it costs nothing.

Alister said, "it's quite clever when you think about it."

Barony Mill is run by a local committee and they open the working mill during the summer as a visitor attraction.

The machinery is powered by water from Loch of Boardhouse, Alister said, "when I'm milling I'm use 110 000 gallons of water a hour, so a lot of water."

This means they are not able to mill in the summer months as all the water is needed for the reservoir supply.

The water flows naturally downhill from the loch, and is channelled over the mill race to the overshot wheel.

Alister reckons they get a total of 40 horse power,  "I always say, it is simple but complicated."

The water wheel drives machinery and hoists which move the grain around the mill, as well as rotating three different sized sets of mill stones.

The first are called 'Shilling stones', and are made from millstone grit and probably come from the Peak District and they take off the husk.

The second are called 'Oatmeal stones' and are made of French Burr from a quarry near Paris in a place called La Ferte sous Juarre.

They were put in when the mill was built in 1873, and were purchased second-hand. They roughly grind the grain.

The third set are 'Beremeal stones' again made from Millstone grit, which comes from England.

Although originally this would have been from a quarry at Yesnaby in Orkney. They grind the rough grinding (called grap) into beremeal (flour).

In a normal year, they would expect around 3500 visitors. Alister recalls, "one day when we had 14 different nationalities in the mill."

He can tell a lot about the mill by just listening to the noise, which can tell him if it is running too slow, or too fast.

Barony Mill Orkney
There are three different sized sets of mill stones, which grind the grain. Picture: Colin Keldie

He can then alter water flow, or increase pressure on the grinding stones or reduce the amount grain being fed into the mill to make things run more smoothly.

He said, "you decide really yersel what you think is the best one."

The worst part of being a miller he said, "is the stoor." (dust)

Luckily he has his protective mask that covers his entire head and a battery pack to pump air in.

Alister said, "it is the only way. It does makes you think about the dangers of being a miller back in the old days, with no masks.

"You'd think there isn't much stoor when you come in, but lay something down and two minutes later you can hardly see it because it is covered.

Legacy and heritage

Alister was taught how to mill by Rae Phillips, who was a retired lighthouse keeper.

He was instrumental in getting Barony Mill back up in working order.

Rae had a family connection with both his grandfather and father milling here, and he had helped his father, so he knew everything about the mill and how it worked. He spent his final year passing that knowledge on to Alister.

Alister said, "Rae was such a fine lad, I really got on with him."

As now the sole miller Alister explained that it would good to get another person trained, "because if anything happens to me, there is no other body that kens what tae do."

Coronavirus has caused the mill to be closed to visitors.

He said, "if it wasn't for online sales and local shops I don't know what we would done. I think I must have posted about 3 tonne of flour all over Britain, Ireland some to American, Holland and Germany."

The Bere flour has a distinct taste Alister said, "it has a slight bite and a nutty taste to it."

It can be used to make make biscuits and oatcakes, and traditionally in Orkney it is used to make Bere bannock.

Barony Mill Orkney

How do you make Bere bannocks?

Alister said, "now you are asking questions: I don't actually make em myself but they are quite easy to make."

Recipe for success

2 c. of Birsay beremeal
1 c. of plain flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cream of tartar
salt (if desired)

Mix thoroughly, add milk, water or buttermilk to make a stiff but soft dough, roll out on a floured (mixture of flour and beremeal) board to form the bannocks (this will make 2 or 3).

Then cook on a hot, ungreased girdle 5 minutes or so each side until both sides are browned and the middle is cooked.

Practice will make perfect. Consume with copious amounts of ale (plus plenty of Orkney butter and cheese.)

It is clear Alister loves his job, and his place in the long history of Barony Mill.

Barony Mill Orkney

Barony Mill

KW17 2LY

01856 721 439

Catriona is a freelance writer based in the Scottish Borders, and a nominee for Food and Drink writer at this year's Scottish Press Awards.
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