In the 1970s historian and researcher John R. Baldwin conducted several interviews with older people from Fanagmore, Foindle and Tarbet, Alick McAskill (Fanagmore), Danny MacKenzie and Donald MacLeod (Foindle), and Mrs MacKenzie (Tarbet/Scourie), to record how they used different types of seaweed on the land.
He reported that they divided seaweed effectively into three types:
- feamainn-dubh or black wrack, mainly Ascophyllum nodosum, usually called knotted wrack in English.
- liadhag – the fronds of kelp,
- stamh – the stems of kelp (mainly Laminaria, Saccharina and Saccorhiza species).
Higher up the shore wrack would be cut using a corran, a type of serrated sickle. Lower down, when the tide was in, a scythe would be used to cut the floating stems of wrack. A crofter could cut up to five tonnes a day, before putting their haul in creels (cléibh) and carried above the high water mark.
Loch a Chadh Fi 1973
Alick McAskill of Fanagmore would harvest around 40 tonnes of seaweed a year. It would then be left for three weeks to rot, before being gathered in piles and put on rigs to warm up, before being dug in. Donald Macleod of Foindle talked about using wrack for oats, but tangle or red weed for potatoes. However, Alick MacAskill only used red weed for neeps.
The seaweed was not ploughed in directly, but rather placed in freshly-turned furrows and then covered by the turning of the next furrow. It was also important not to put seaweed directly on seed potatoes, but rather to one side, in adjacent furrows, or else there was a danger that the potatoes would become soft. For barley, the seaweed would simply be left in the furrows for a month to rot before sowing. There was a feeling that over-reliance on seaweed left the soil ‘exhausted’.
Loch a Chadh Fi 1973
The sheep also benefited from the seaweed. It was reported that the sheep that grazed on the high shore dulse were generally thought to be in better condition.
- Cairgean – carrageen – and duileasg – dulse – were both harvested for human consumption.
Danny Mackenzie of Foindle harvested seaweed (mostly feamainn dubh) between Badcall and north to Loch Laxford and Loch Inchard in the early 1970s for Alginate Industries. The rafts or circles of seaweed ready for collection by the boat from Lewis would each weigh between 4 and 6 tonnes.
Danny Mackenzie told John Baldwin that he had to be careful about cutting areas in rotation, to allow for regrowth: thus, the stumps of cut weed would stay black for a month, and then after 4-6 weeks they would start to sprout brown again, and then it would take up to four years before they’d reach cuttable length again.
The Scottish Seaweed Research Association surveyed the northwest Sutherland coast to estimate the quantities of littoral (between high and low water marks) seaweed available in the 1940s: they reported that Loch Laxford could produce 37-38 tons an acre, whereas Loch Inchard/Loch Bervie/Loch Clash should produce between 28-38 tons an acre. Badcaul Bay/Calva was estimated in the 28-34 tons an acre range, whereas Loch Glendhu was assessed at 35 tons. Thus Loch Laxford in particular had potential seaweed resources which were at least comparable with the highest yielding parts of Scotland, namely Loch Maddy and other sea lochs in Uist.
Most of this information is taken from John Baldwins article: John R Baldwin, ‘Working with Seaweed in North-West Sutherland’, in Baldwin, J. R. and Thomson, W. P. L. (eds) The Province of Strathnaver. (Edinburgh: The Scottish Society for Northern Studies, 2000), pp. 116–141.
Images: All images are from John Baldwin’s publication. Copyright John Baldwin.
Tom Tulloch describes a sweet seaweed that used to be eaten around Shetland. Dulse was also eaten. He gives Shetland names for broken-off seaweed, which would accumulate in certain geos [inlets], where it was collected for manure. Dried tang [tangles] could explode when burned and was used for pranks.
He describes the various agricultural uses for different types of weed, which could also be mixed with byre manure. He explains how seaweed rights were divided up among local crofts. People had to turn out to gather ware [weed] when it was washed ashore.
Tobhar an Dualchais: Tom Tulloch (1914-1982), Edible Seaweed; Seaweed for Manure; Shore Rights. Interviewed by Alan Bruford