Seaweed has had many uses to the natives of Scotland from food to fertiliser. In the 18th century a new use for seaweed appeared out of nowhere, and less than a century later it disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. The burning of seaweed was intended to produce an alkaline substance, mainly sodium carbonate, for use in soap and glass-making. This industry became a significant labour and economic activity for much of the highland coast and especially on Lord Reay’s estate in the second half of the 18th century and into the second decade of the 19th century.
Most brown seaweeds were suitable for this treatment, although the large kelp species from the Laminarales order, such as sugar kelp, were the most productive types for this process. The Seaweed was first laid out to dry and then burnt in an open kiln until the alkaline ash formed at the bottom of the pit. The advent of the Napoleonic wars and their precursor conflicts with revolutionary France had the effect of cutting off or making previous sources of sodium chloride unreliable, which were the principal alternatives to kelp ash as a raw material for glass-making in particular. The price soared from around £8 a ton in the 1770s, to a high of £30 a ton in 1810.
Like so many other large proprietors whose land included deeply indented sea lochs, Lord Reay saw the opportunity, even if he was slower than many others to capitalise. The first mentions of kelp-making on the Reay Estate date from the 1730s, but the first serious attempt to profit from this rich resource came in 1754. Donald Forbes, the tacksman of Ribigill near Tongue, was entrusted with the responsibility of organising kelping across the estate. In 1764 he took over the manufacture under the terms of a lease from the estate, covering all of Eddrachilles and Durness parishes. However, it was notable that the lease terms explicitly stated that the needs of the agricultural tenants for seaweed to provide manure for their land before cultivation must take precedence over this enterprise.
In the 1780s the minister for Eddrachilles, Rev. Alexander Falconer, sought to make use of the seaweed below his glebe land in Upper Badcall, only to be told that this belonged to the proprietor and the latter’s lessor. The disappointed cleric fought for his rights to the seaweed all the way to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, where he ultimately lost.
Kelp-making became a much more business-like proposition when a consortium of Peterhead merchants got involved in 1773. The most prominent and active of these being James Anderson. Anderson, and later his son of the same name, built a harbour and base at Rispond, taking over several tacks in the surrounding area. The revised lease stated that the terms included the
“sea-ware and tang growing upon the shores of the estate of Reay, running from the bay of Torisdale to the bay of Kylscow, comprehending the west side of the former, and the east side of the latter, for the purpose of manufacturing the same into kelp, according to use and wont, reserving always to the tenants of the estate of Reay, the liberty of using and cutting so much of the said sea-ware and tang as they shall find necessary for manure to their several possessions, conform to use and wont.”
They also constructed storehouses at Rispond, almost certainly partly for storing kelp ash for subsequent transport to southern markets, at Laxford and Kylend.
Scotland’s Seaweed Industry – Holley McCoy
Kelp Pits Garvie Bay : Copyright Holley McCoy
Kelpers Bothy Loch of Rieff: Copyright Holley McCoy
Seaweed Drying Wall Garvie Bay: Copyright Holley McCoy
Kelp Making in Orkney 1880s 1: Copyright: Edinburgh Central Library, Source: Edinburgh and Scottish Collection, Edinburgh Central Library, I. F. Grant Photographic Archive. Am Baile: 38525.
Kelp Making in Orkney 1880s 2: Copyright: Edinburgh Central Library, Source: Edinburgh and Scottish Collection, Edinburgh Central Library, I. F. Grant Photographic Archive. Am Baile: 38526.
Kelp Wagons in Orkney 1880s: Copyright: Edinburgh Central Library, Source: Edinburgh and Scottish Collection, Edinburgh Central Library, I. F. Grant Photographic Archive. Am Baile: 38524.
Malcolm Grey, ‘The Kelp Industry in the High-Lands and Islands’, The Economic History Review, Vol. 4, (2), (1951), pp.197-209.
Eric Richards,’Structural Change in a Regional Economy: Sutherland and the Industrial Revolution, 1780-1830’, The Economic History Review, Vol. 26, (1), (1973), pp. 63–76.
John Baldwin, ‘Working with Seaweed in North-West Sutherland’, The Province of Sutherland, (Edinburgh, Scottish Society of Northern Studies, 2000), pp. 116-142.
Tobar an Dualchais
John Donald MacDonald (1919-1986), A detailed description of kelp-making. Interviewed by Donald Archie MacDonald (1929-1999) https://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/track/99471?l=en
Angus MacKenzie (1897-1984), Kelp Work. Interviewed by Donald Archie MacDonald (1929-1999)https://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/track/70463?l=en