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Issue 73 - A cash crop

Scotland Magazine Issue 73
February 2014

 

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A cash crop

A look at the history of kelp

Inter clan warfare and the absolute power of the chiefs ended in 1747 with the Abolishment of Heritable Jurisdictions following the Rising of 1745.

Inoculations against smallpox came into general use in the late 18th century and were particularly popular in the Highlands and Islands; beforehand outbreaks could kill up to 15 per cent of the population. And the potato provided an easily grown means to sustain life.

It has been estimated that it provided 80 per cent of the nutritional needs of the Highlander’s diet. As a result, the population expanded. In the 50 years to 1830 the number of people in, for example, the Outer Isles doubled.

Pressure on land was exacerbated because chiefs and proprietors no longer measured their wealth in the number of fighting men on their estates but by their rent receipts, which they needed to maintain an aristocratic lifestyle in London or Edinburgh.

A century earlier, the potato would have enriched them, as it would have supported more warriors in their private armies. But now these young men, by the tens of thousands, joined the Highland regiments in the British army.

When they returned home from the wars they often found their families had gone from their little farms. Sheep were most landowners’ solution to increasing their revenues across much of the Highlands. This meant removing the excess population, often to poorer land on the coast where they were encouraged to try fishing.

But Highlanders never showed much interest or aptitude in catching fish. They left the harvest of the seas to the Dutch who exploited this resource almost unchallenged until well into the nineteenth century. However on the shore itself lay a fortune – kelp or seaweed. But it was a fortune wasted.

Seaweed had always been gathered from the shore and spread on the fields and lazy beds as a fertiliser and now it became a cash crop.

The product of kelp was an ash that contained a rich brew of salts, such as potash and soda that was used in the production of soap, alum – a dye fixative – and glass.

The kelp industry on the west coast of Scotland had its beginnings in the mid 18th century and prices received for the product bumped along at a couple of pounds a ton.

The main source for these vital chemical compounds was Spain from where they had been imported for centuries. There it was derived from shore-growing, salt-tolerant plants that were specially cultivated for the purpose.

It was also shipped from the New World. In the latter half of 18th century, import taxes and wars in America and in Europe, culminating in the struggle against Napoleon, cut off these supplies and Scottish kelp came into its own.

The kelper’s year began in winter when gales ripped seaweed from the rocks and piled it up on the shoreline. A watch would be kept for tangles of weed still out to sea and harvesters would plunge into the surf to circle the wrack with ropes and haul it towards the shore. Similarly at low tide, they would cut the weed, pile it up and drag it towards the beach as the tide came in.

The stacks of kelp would then be carried above the high water mark and heaped up on large stones to allow air to circulate beneath to begin the drying process. It was hard, bone-chilling work, in clothes that would never have had a chance to dry.

In summer the weed would be spread until it had desiccated sufficiently to be placed in pits over a burning peat or straw and allowed to smoulder for a day, constantly raked, until it had been reduced to ash that consolidated into a hard white or blue-grey mass. This was the product.

When its manufacture first began its value was £1-2 per ton. At its peak it could be sold for £20.

In 1790 South Uist brought in £2,200 in rents to its proprietor, Macdonald of Clanranald. Ten years later his income from the island had risen to £15,000 a year and the increase was entirely due to the profit on kelp.

Such augmentations applied up and down the West Coast and the Islands where seaweed was most plentiful. Those who made the stuff were paid up to £3 a ton. The proprietors then pocketed the difference.

For the tenants, the money received was sufficient to pay their rents and leave a little to buy in provisions. The uncertainty and labour of raising cattle to sell for cash or making cheese or butter was removed.

For the landlords it meant luxury. Many borrowed heavily, confident that the sale of kelp would allow them to service their debts in future. Virtually none of this bounty was invested back into their estates.

Tenants themselves were busy in summer manufacturing kelp and had no time to tend to their fields. The potato kept them alive while the land deteriorated.

Then came Waterloo, the defeat of Napoleon and peace. Industry was crying out for sodium carbonate and import taxes were reduced. Supplies from Spain returned; cheap potash came from Germany; the value of kelp crashed. Clanranald’s income from South Uist dropped by two thirds.

By 1830 it had ceased to be economic to produce kelp at all. Tenants were left without an income on land that had been neglected for a generation. A swathe of the old proprietors had to sell their estates to outsiders with even less of a reason to consider the welfare of the tenants than their predecessors.

Little more than a decade later the unthinkable happened when the potato crop failed. The resulting misery and destitution was only resolved by emigration and the passing of the Crofter’s Act of 1888, which finally gave those who remained security of tenure on their little farms.