The Wey Hid Wis


BREWING DAY - Johina Leith

Brewing day was a big day. Nearly every household brewed ale for New Year's Day (Newer day) and the peat cutting. Some farming folk sometimes brewed for hay time and harvest as well, but the ale that was brewed then was not considered so good, possibly because it was made weaker.

In my youth I have often taken ale and porridge when milk was scarce in winter. One did not go to a shop and buy a pint of milk then. I very much preferred milk with my porridge, even kirn milk. One Orkney lady that I have heard of said that, "Ale and porridge was the thing to mak' a man."

Brewing was always considered a woman's job, but now I know several men who do the brewing. Hard, spring water was considered the best ale. Brewing day was another time when water had to be carried and also the fire had to be on its best behaviour.

One had to make sure that the kirn was in order and not gizzened [dried out and not watertight], especially if the weather was dry. Another thing to be watched was that the sowans and the brewing did not clash. [The same kirn had to be used.] The water had to be carried from the spring well, as spring water [rather than rain water] was supposed to make the best ale.

The water was taken to a boil and then a "chake" [mug] of cold water added. A thermometer to measure180°F would have been a luxury. [The water for brewing had to be just below boiling point.]

While the water was heating, a handful of sheaf had to be washed and set over the plug and the brewing stone, also washed, set on the top of the head of the sheaf. The sheaf was to keep the malt from blocking the tap, I have seen straw used but the sheaf was tidier. Now the malt was put in and all was ready for the water. Barm had to be looked for, probably borrowed, as barm used to be carried from house to house.

After the 1914-18 war, yeast was beginning to be used instead of barm. A man of my acquaintance, when he was a boy, was sent for barm with a pint pail. The lady, giving him the barm, said, "Noo, hurry on home wi' hid or hid'll maybe no go." The boy ran so hard that, by the time he got home there was very little barm in the pail. The road was mostly uphill and a fair distance. I know it well.

Barm was sometimes critical as the least touch of grease or oil would keep it from working. After all the work of brewing, it was very provoking if the ale in the kirn "gaed gulfa" and would not come to a head. This did not happen often however, the more seldom the better.

Orkney now has two breweries, The Orkney Brewery and the Highland Brewing Company, whose award-winning beers and ales are widely available through the UK but if you live further afield or just want to try your hand, here are some recipes.

The Stenness branch of the SWRI (Scottish Women's Rural Institute) was one of the first to produce a little book of members' recipes. It was published in 1967, to mark the Golden Jubilee of the SWRI, and cost 2/6. Dozens of cookery books have been published in Orkney since then; they begin with soups or starters, Stenness began with ale.

Ale (Traditional Method) - Mrs Leith, Snr

The "Kirn" is prepared by having a sheaf, head down and held firm by a flat stone, to act as a strainer. Mask or infuse 17½ lbs malt with 5 gals water at 180°F (in practice boiling water with some cold added will do.) Let this stand for 3 hrs. Keep warm, if allowed to cool the taste will be spoiled. Drain off and add 2 gals boiling water and let stand for 1½ hours.

Put both washes together and boil for 1 hour with 3 ozs. hops and 2 lbs sugar. (Put in a muslin bag for convenience). If desired, a third wash may be taken but this will be "pleenk" (thin).

Cool to blood heat and put in 1 oz yeast (or barm) and leave to work. When the head has subsided, run over into a clean receptacle. Add a little sugar to come to a head again. Repeat a second time, taking care each time not to disturb the sediment. When this has subsided, the ale should be bottled with a little sugar (¼ teaspoon) in each bottle and cork tightly.

Half this quantity is easier to handle.

Dad can remember his Aunt Lily, who didn't have any straw, using a big handful of long-stemmed weeds, which did just as well. Alexander Fenton in The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland 1978, described the use of the brewing stone more fully.

"The vat had been prepared in the meantime by taking a handful of oat straw and spreading it across the tap opening in the bottom. A half-moon shaped stone was laid over it to keep it in place, the straight side lying on the bottom and the curve against the round of the vat lying at an angle of about 45°."

The tap, or bung, on the kirn was known as the 'cock-and-pail'. According to the Scottish National Dictionary this means spigot and faucet.]

Grandma also gave a recipe for Heather Ale, which she described as very old.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a poem called Heather Ale, based on the legend of the Picts refusing to reveal the recipe, that includes the lines

I can't say whether Grandma's recipe fits this description, as I only remember her making the traditional ale.


Fill large pot with heather in full bloom. Cover with water. Boil 1 hour. Strain into tub.

Measure liquid and for every 12 bottles add 1 oz ginger, ½ oz. hops, 1lb honey or syrup.

Boil 20 minutes, strain again into tub, let stand till lukewarm, add cup of barm, cover with cloth till next day. Skim, bottle and cork.

F Marian McNeill, author of The Scots Kitchen, The Scots Cellar and The Silver Bough was born and brought up in Orkney; her father was the Free Kirk minister in Holm. The books recorded Scottish food, drink and folklore and her recipe for Orkney Ale differs slightly from my grandmother's


See that the kirn or cask is spotlessly clean (or the barm won't work satisfactorily) and put in the malt. Bring the water almost to boiling point, but it must not be actually boiling when used. (You may add two or three pints of cold water to take it off the boil.) Pour the hot water over the malt, cover lightly, and let it mask for three hours. Strain into a pan, add the hops (which may be tied in a muslin bag to save straining) and a pound of sugar, and boil for an hour. Return the liquor to the kirn, and when it has cooled to blood heat, add the barm, which may be 'started' by sprinkling with a little sugar or by frothing in a little of the warm liquor, some more liquor being added before it is put into the kirn.

When fermentation has ceased (usually after two or three days) skim off any surface barm, allow to settle, and bottle. Half a teaspoonful of sugar may be added to each bottle. See that well-fitting corks are used.

Let the ale stand in a cool place until it recovers a little 'life'

Marian MacNeill experimented with heather ale as well, once while on a visit to Harray, my grandmother's home parish. World War II interrupted her investigations but she gave this recipe, described as a basis for experiment.

Crop the heather when it is in full bloom - a good large quantity. Put the croppings into a large-sized pot. Fill up with water, set to boil. Boil for one hour. Then strain into a clean tub. Add one ounce of ground ginger, half an ounce of hops and a pound of golden syrup for every dozen bottles. Set to boil again and boil for twenty minutes. Strain into a clean cask. Let it stand until milkwarm, then add a teacupful of good barm (brewer's yeast). Cover with a coarse cloth till next day. Skim the barm from the top and pour gently into a tub so that the barm may be left in the bottom. Bottle and cork tight. It will be ready for use in two or three days. This makes a very refreshing and wholesome drink as there is a good deal of spirit in heather.