Photo story: from barley fields to whisky barrels in rural Scotland

In the Aberdeenshire peninsula and the islands of Orkney, large swathes of countryside are coated in golden barley fields. This ancient crop, with its roots in Neolithic times, is key to producing Scotland’s world-famous, legendary whisky.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020,
By Pete Goding
The golden fields stretching inland from Dunnottar Castle on the Aberdeenshire coast are not just a ...

The golden fields stretching inland from Dunnottar Castle on the Aberdeenshire coast are not just a beautiful scene — they are also one of the region’s chief treasures. Barley has been used since ancient times, and is a key component of the region's local beer and whisky industries.

Photograph by Pete Goding

Farmer Andrew Ferguson has strict guidelines from the all-important local malt houses for their whisky and beer production.

Photograph by Pete Goding

The Fergusons’ 550-acre farm, outside the town of Turriff, comes alive for the autumn harvest: the combine harvesters weave their way over the rolling Aberdeenshire terrain, creating a rich patchwork of groomed, golden fields. Andrew Ferguson harvests in line with the strict guidelines of the whisky- and beer-producing malt houses he sells to.

The Fergusons are a fourth-generation farming family run single-handedly by Andrew, whilst his mother Kate heads up the Ardmiddle Mains farm guest houses.

Photograph by Pete Goding

The beautiful rolling Aberdeenshire landscape comes alive for the autumn harvest as the combine harvesters weave their way over the rolling terrain, creating a rich patchwork of carefully groomed fields in the midst of the lush green countryside.

Photograph by Pete Goding

While the current building at Barony Mill dates to the late 19th century, the mill has been using ‘hydro power’ on this site for many hundreds of years to grind grain into flour.

Photograph by Pete Goding

Further north, located between the Atlantic and North Sea, Orkney is an archipelago of 70 islands. Pummelled by fierce winds, agriculture isn't without its challenges here, but the elements offer unique opportunities on these isles. Here, the Barony Mill has been harnessing the power of water for three centuries (the current mill dates to 1873) to grind grain into flour. It's the sole working water mill in the islands and grinds an ancient barley species called beremeal, which was coaxed back from the brink of extinction by farmer Marty Hay. Today, it’s ground into flour at the Barony Mill, and Orkney Brewery and Scapa Whisky distillery have begun trialling it in their recipes. 

A highland bull takes a rest in his paddock as golden fields of barley roll away into the distance. 

Photograph by Pete Goding

Farmer Marty Hay is responsible for reviving interest around beremeal, the historic grain produced at Orkney's Barony Mill. 

Photograph by Pete Goding

Knockdhu Distillery, in the small village of Knock, not far from the Fergusons’ farm, has been making whisky in the same way for more than a century. The oak barrels neatly aligned in the warehouse are former bourbon and sherry casks, shipped in to add flavour to the whisky after the distillation process. Distiller Fraser Legge, who has amassed a small collection of vintage distilling artefacts at Knockdhu, says, “Distilling is like an orchestra: every instrument comes together to make the final concerto." 

Barony Mill is now the sole mill on Orkney for beremeal, an ancient grain dating back to before the Vikings

Photograph by Pete Goding

The start of the process of fermentation is the same for both beer and whisky. The grains are added to the mash tun and then local spring water is added, which lets the enzymes break down the starch into sugars.

Photograph by Pete Goding

Once the barley grain is threshed from the chaff, the grain is sent to large offsite malting houses, arriving at the distillery as malted barley. The malt is ground, then added to the mash tun and soaked in hot spring water. To make anCnoc Whisky, Knockdhu Distillery uses giant copper stills for the process of vaporisation and condensation. The nutritious spent grains are then carted off to be used as fodder for Aberdeen cattle.

The barrels used to store Knockdu's whisky are former bourbon and sherry oak casks, shipped in to add distinctive colour and flavour to the whisky after the distillation process.

Photograph by Pete Goding

Loganair flies to Aberdeen and Orkney from a number of major and regional airports. Camping pods at Wheems Organic Farm in Orkney start from £30, while rooms at Netherdale House, near Huntly in Aberdeenshire, start from £90. Tailor-made tours are available from Select Scotland Tours.        

More info: visitabdn.com  orkney.com  visitscotland.com 

Published in the May/Jun 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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