20th September 1921 Mackinlay & Birnie Bere Invoice


The invoice indicates a new era at Glen Mhor with the inclusion of Glen Albyn in the letterhead, after its acquisition by Mackinlay & Birnie in 1920.

As we'll see from the next invoice, this template is the standard issue for Mackinlay & Birnie, allowing the office to type in the blanks and keep a record of any transactions, details and approvals. 

At first glance, this appears to be a simple receipt, but there are some elements that are worth exploring further. Firstly, the location could be set as Inverernie, as the source of the receipt. Daviot is a small village located around 4 miles from Inverurie, which is itself in Aberdeenshire. Inverernie is the name of a moor in the area and an actual estate, which is now referred to as 'Inverarnie' following a spelling mistake that took root. However, this was a false positive, as I couldn't find any grain production, and fortunately, Alan Winchester highlighted the real source of this delivery:

'Inverarnie is in Strathnairn just behind Inverness, so interesting they're still growing bere, in 1921, until recently it had retreated to the North, Orkney Shetland Caithness and Eilean nan Iar. 

You are correct it was rapidly being phased out to be replaced by the 2 rowed varieties, though recorded in a Royal Commission of 1806 that bere established it was poorer yielding than 2 rowed.  

After the 1823 distilling act discounts were given to the distillers using bere. Distillers used it going forward, and Highland Park is mentioned in Barnard as using bere. It was widely grown, as it's a land race barley grows on poorer soil and ripens quickly ideal for Highland and Northern areas. As we go through the 1920s' and the depression, James Eadie shows the distillers going abroad for cost reasons, so this probably would make the growing of bere uneconomic.

Until the introduction of tractors, my grandfathers' main cereal was oats, feeding the people and the horses, as whisky production increased barley replaced oats. Again, the barley books would be interesting. Did the Birnies' feel that bere was worth obtaining, if available and so near a relatively small batch, as they were from farming stock and distillers, they would definitely know good grain, was this a quality thing?

The price looks good, put the yield would have been poorer. In answer to your question that would not be a surprise bere being grown here.'

I reached out to the Strathnairn Farmers Association to see if any of their members could offer information on the source grower, or even memories of bere barley being grown in the area during this time. My thanks to Willie at the Association for his insight:

'I’m afraid this is not something I am able to elaborate on. A previous generation, now gone, could have helped. The Inverernie estate was broken up into various lots back in 1996. Prior to that six farms, including Inverernie Farm, had been amalgamated into an estate in 1949 by a notorious factor by the name of Grizewood. The farm house and steading at Inverernie is now occupied by Farquhar Forbes and is located close to the local shop, Inverernie Stores.' 

The Highland Archives in Inverness do hold records of the Farr Estate (1875-1950) which includes Inverenie that detail rents and the lands, which might give us more detail into this area. I can look into this during my planned summer visit to the archive. Totally unrelated, but I visited Stirling Castle recently and their kitchen exhibit mentions bere barley and the making of a low strength beer during the 1500s and 1600s, which underlines how widespread and ancient this style of barley is.

Alan, also found it interesting that the bere shipment was put on the train given its proximity to Inverness, or around 9 miles. If you've visited Inverness, then you know the terrain becomes rugged and elevated on the final approach to the city, before a rapid descent. Possibly this landscape was difficult, or inefficient, to deliver the harvest. The Strathnairn Heritage website provides a wonderful synopsis of roads, railways and bridges in the area. The new road, which would have been in use at this time, was dotted with tolls, potentially making it a costly route for large loads. Below is a part of a larger map available on the Strathnairn site, showing the landscape and location of Inverernie and Daviot:

There is also an excellent article via raghnaidsandilands that documents the names and history of this region, and gives a sense of its remoteness and rugged environment. Possibly, it also gives us a portrayal that any barley growing wasn't on a massive scale, which combined with low yields, meant smaller orders for Mackinlay & Birnie. 

Thanks to the arrival of the Highland Railway, which John Birnie supported, this area of Scotland was now had the option of trains, made possible by the impressive Clava railway viaduct. The line offered a stop at Daviot, which explains the entry on the invoice and a quick route into Inverness, and then likely transferred by local carting firm, Donald McDonald, to Muirtown and Glen Mhor and Glen Albyn. 

The station itself closed in the 1960s, although the line remains in use, there are only a few remnants of the Daviot station as noted in this summary at Railscot and the John Boyes archive also provides more photographs.

Alan went on to discuss the style of measurement on the invoice:

'I looked at cost of transport it only equates to 8 tonnes, though it says quarters, if my calculation is correct. So, is there a mix up with bushel weight?, bere is lighter than the 2 rowed variety. Funny you will see bere mentioned as a 4 row barley or a 6 row barley, confusing, the grains are smaller, and now a number of distillers are using it again, and its being grown in other parts of the country.'

The invoice raises the question of how long bere was being grown on the mainland for? Possibly longer than we thought originally.

'When The Glenlivet bought Delnabo Distillery in 1850 the bere stacks are mentioned which would indicate grain growing at 1,000 feet, and the Cabrach grew bere at 1200 feet.It would be interesting to find out when bere was phased out.'

Reflecting on the work we're doing here with Glen Mhor, it's all about memories, stories, and documented evidence. With previous generations, we've lost so much. The only fragments are stories handed down, memories revived via descendants, and sporadic finds. Bere barley was likely grown in this area, as in much of Scotland, for hundreds of years. However, as Alan speculates, when did it end? Perhaps a more motivating question would be, can we find out or make an educated guess? I believe we can try.

What we do know, thanks to the words of William Birnie, who would have taken much from his father, John Birnie, is their preference for local barley. As part of PhD paper from R.B. Weir from 1971, 

'John Birnie's preferences that determined the firm's grain purchases and John Birnie, like most other malt distillers, held an implicit belief that home grown barley made the best whisky.

This belief was part of the craft mystique which surrounded malt distilling and originated in the malt distiller's feat that any alteration in technique would ruin his product.'

Weir also highlights that in the early 1900s, the malt distillers' trade association believed that 'foreign barley was not so suitable for Pure Malt Whisky Distillation.' And this point of view may also be held with those who actively chase the Springbank Local Barley annually, although, possibly other factors are at play in the modern era. 

Not content with the question about bere, Alan also raised several other points of interest...

'I would love to know if it was segregated in the barley loft? Which distillery got it. I bet it made a good dram, and probably Shackleton was made from bere. As usual a fascinating insight, I expect he would have bought lots of small lofts, when Tom Bruce-Gardyne wrote The Scotch Whisky Treasure, he had a page of the Cardow barley book, they were buying very small volumes from their neighbours, which fascinated myself.'

Alan makes a valid point that John Birnie was heavily influenced by his upbringing and education in Speyside. The production methods and materials used by distilleries in that era, including Cardow and Glenfarclas, would have shaped his beliefs, including the value of bere barley.

Is it possible that the impact of Prohibition is being observed among farmers, both locally and internationally? Demand for whisky and, therefore grain would have been affected from 1920 due to Prohibition. With maturing stock and the end of a legal US market, distillers may have had to cut back. Thus, locally sourced barley becomes more attractive, accessible, and affordable. Mackinlay & Birnie had a long-standing relationship with Scottish farmers since the 1890s and were committed to supporting the wider local community. However, subjective evaluations have been excluded from this statement. 

Records from Glen Mhor indicate that in 1920-1921, the distillery purchased 11,462 quarters of barley, of which 30% was sourced from foreign farmers. However, in the following season (1921-1922), consumption plummeted to 6,643 quarters, a reduction of 42%.

At this reduced level, the biggest impact is on international trade. In the previous season, 30% of foreign grain, equivalent to 3,461 Quarters, was imported. However, in the following season, only 644 Quarters were imported, representing just 9% of trade. It is unfortunate that the table ends at 1922, so we cannot determine how long this trend continued.

However, it does show us that Glen Mhor (and potentially Glen Albyn), valued bere for longer than some other distilleries. In doing so, this raises more questions, and also with the work of modern distilleries using bere once again, the opportunity to experience what it brings to whisky.