Tiree is often referred to as Tir an Eòrna in Gaelic, meaning ‘land of barley’.
Is tìm dhomh dusgadh gu seinn mu ‘m dhuthaich
Le oran ur a chur an clo uimp
O ‘n dh’ fhag na baird i cho fad air di-chuimhn’,
Gu ‘n seinn mi fhin dhuibh mu Thir an Eorna. (Cameron 1932: 388)
Barley was the first grass seed to be domesticated, arriving on the island with the Neolithic farmers around 4,000 years ago. The oldest variety of barley had six rows of seed, although four-rowed barley or ‘bere’ was later introduced.
In 1549, Dean Munro wrote of Tiree that ‘nae cuntrie may be mair fertile of corn.’ At that time, a large portion of the landlord’s rent was paid in grain; in 1541 a tenth of the oat harvest and half of the barley grown went to the landlord.
However, when Martin Martin visited Tiree in 1695 he noted that despite the fact that Tiree ‘has always been valued for its extraordinary fruitfulness in corn, yet being tilled every year it is become less fruitful than formerly.’
Some seventy years later, in 1768, James Turnbull was commissioned by the Duke of Argyll to survey the island and recorded the following information:
Barley, small oats and rye are all the different kinds of grain that are sown here, the greatest quantity of which is barley. There have been sown annually at a medium for four years past 547 bolls and 3 pecks of barley, 507 bolls.2f.1p of oats, & 16 bolls.0f.3p of rye, the produce of which at a medium for said time after one boll sowing are as follows, viz. barley 03b.2f. 0p, oats 02b.2f.0p, rye 03b.2f.0p, this produce includes the seed. A poor increase considering the nature and appearance of the soil, but by observing the disadvantages attending their present method of husbandry, as already mentioned, much better cannot well be expected.
He found the average yield at the time was an increase of three times in the seed planted. This compares to yields today on the island of twenty times.
Tiree suffered severely from sand blow, which was hugely detrimental to the crop growing. In 1768 there were 1,624 acres of blown sand on the island caused by overgrazing, ploughing the machair and pulling marram grass to make rope.
In the same year it appears as though whisky production was thriving, with around fifty distillers on the island at that time. James Turnbull noted:
The most of the barley that is now sold by the tenants is purchased by the distillers here, which they convert to whisky, there being no less than fifty distillers in the island. Their whisky is bought up by the inhabitants of the neighbouring islands. This trade no doubt is advantageous to the tenants in general as it is a means of bringing money into the country, but will in time be attended with disadvantages to the island if they are not restricted to a smaller number.
The main disadvantages of the over producing of the whisky on Tiree were, as described by James Turnbull, the dwindling supply of peat on the island as well as the effect that whisky had on the islanders.
The 1st disadvantage attending the present method of distillery will sooner or later be a speedier waste of fuel that the island at present produces than otherwise there would be if there were fewer distillers, a great many peats and turf being burned on this account by several of the distillers who probably are nothing the better of this trade!
2nd, by having so many stills at work in the island makes the whisky very plenty, and by which the people drink more of it than otherwise they would do, which is a means of spoiling their morals and keeping them idle. Therefore by reducing the number of distillers there is a great probability even then for the tenants getting as high a price for their barley as they do at present and will put a stop to the annual consumption of a great quantity of peats & turf, which by their present method is used. Frugal regulations relating to the fuel in this island ought to be attended to, but more of this hereafter when speaking of the Moss.
The Rev. Dr John Walker wrote of Tiree in 1771:
Modern barley (Eòrna gallda or Lowland barley), which is two rowed, was not introduced in Tiree until after 1771, at least.
The two rowed Barley [Modern barley or Eorna Gallda (Lowland Barley) as it was know in Tiree] should undoubtedly be introduced here, notwithstanding the Fears which the Inhabitants express, of its being more easily shaken [in the wind], than the Square [four row] Barley, and therefore less fit for their climate…Their oats likewise, require as great an alteration. For they sow at present, only the small grey Oat [coirce beag], though both the Soil and the Climate would answer for white Oats [coirce mòr] as well as in most parts of Scotland…Their Soil in general is light, dry, and sandy, in which all kinds of Grain do sooner degenerate than in any other. Their Grains accordingly are of the smallest Size (Walker 1771).
Dr Walker also said that:
[Tiree’s climate] is sufficient to produce very quick and early crops. In 1762 [a field of barley]…produced a crop in 35 days, being sown the 28th of April and reaped the 22nd of July…Some years ago there was an Instance of a double crop…A Field of Bere [Barley] having been reaped very early in July, it was immediately sowed again with the same Grain. And from this, there was a pretty good crop reaped about the middle of October. The only instance perhaps known in Britain of two white crops having been reaped off the same Land in the same season.
This relates to the old Gaelic saying on the island: ‘Mur ‘b e eagal da mhail, bheireadh Tiriodh da bharr’ (If it was not for the fear of two rents, Tiree would produce two crops in a season).
More recently, most probably from the late 19th century onwards, seed was soaked in formalin to kill blight before sowing, and it was sometimes almost sprouting before it was sown. An Iodhlann (Tiree’s Historical Centre) recorded a story, told locally on Tiree by Duncan MacPhee of Scarinish, that on one summer morning the crofters from the township went to sow a field below Beinn Got known as Croit Eachainn Mhic Siorraidh with barley. When they returned home that evening they could see the green sprouts showing from Scarinish.