Today, the word ‘kelp’ is most commonly used to refer to several species of red, brown, and yellow seaweed, but in industrial contexts it refers to a glassy, oily product created by burning dried seaweed. Kelp was, and remains, an important source of sodium, potassium, and iodine, used in the processes of glass and soap manufacture, as well as in medicine and as a thickening agent in foods and toothpaste. From the 16th century, the major source of these chemicals was barilla, imported from Spain. Made by burning glasswort, barilla was purer and chemically more consistent than rival products, such as the kelp ash produced in Ireland and the Scilly Isles, but war on the Continent in the 18th century made supplies unreliable at a time of growing demand, to the benefit of local producers of kelp.
As the price of Scottish kelp rose from around £3 a ton in 1750 to a high of over £20 in 1810, more and more communities turned to kelp production, and at its height the industry employed around 10,000 families across Scotland. But in the decade following the Battle of Waterloo, with the lifting of punitive duties on Continental imports, prices collapsed: even the highest grade of kelp had fallen back to £3 a ton by 1827. The communities who had come to rely on kelp production for an income suffered great hardship, which contributed in turn to the subsequent history of emigration and clearance.
Imprints in the sand
Kelp production itself leaves few obvious or distinctive marks in the landscape, says Kevin Grant in his article on the subject published in the Scottish Archaeological Journal (see ‘Further reading’ box on p.23); hence the archaeology of this important industry in Scotland is in its infancy.
In October 2020, though, a new collaborative doctoral award between Historic Environment Scotland and the University of Glasgow, funded by the AHRC, commenced to address this. Only recently have sites relating to the industry been identified and excavated – consisting principally of the specially built kilns in which the dried seaweed was burned to create kelp.
On the other hand, the infrastructure built to support the industry has left a more visible legacy in the form of roads, temporary dwellings, and landing places. Formal roads, particularly those capable of taking a cart, were rare in the Hebrides at the start of the 19th century. On South Uist, which forms the basis for Kevin Grant’s study, the kelping boom led to a solid road being built in 1799 to link the western shores with the port on the east coast at Loch Aoineart. Known as ‘the back road’, to distinguish it from the main north-to-south road running along the island’s western shore, it was constructed by removing peat until a solid foundation was revealed, and then laying down gravel and small stones.
This road itself reflected new patterns of movement arising as a consequence of kelping, as large numbers of people, ponies, and carts moved from the western to the eastern shores according to the season. Settlement in the post-medieval period on South Uist was largely based along the west coast and fertile ‘blacklands’ in the centre of the island, with a small township associated with the port at Loch Aoineart. Kelping meant mass annual movement to and from the arable lands of the west to the sheltered and rocky bays of the eastern shores from spring to autumn. When kelp was ‘in bloom’, from around the middle of June to the middle of August, seaweed would be cut in huge quantities by people living in temporary shelters or bothies on the shore. Agricultural work – cultivating land, managing crops and livestock, and the harvest – had to be fitted in between and around kelp-production activities.
The dwellings of the seaweed gatherers are important to the archaeology of kelping because often they are the only direct remains of the process to survive. During fieldwork in 2015, a site was identified that looked like a good candidate for the seasonal home of a kelper at the sheltered outlet of the small burn called ‘Allt Alisary’, near Rubha nan Clach, on a tiny patch of flat ground so close to the coast that it was depicted as foreshore by the Ordnance Survey. On this small patch of ground lay the well-preserved footings of a small building measuring around 2.5m by 1.75m. The character of the remains, which contained little stone, suggests this was a turf-built structure. On a small flat area of almost-marine grass, just to the west of the hut, is a little patch of feannagan, cultivation ridges probably created to grow potatoes.
Struggle and sorrow
Kelping was far from being a free-for-all activity. Seaweed resources were very valuable and the gathering of it was highly regulated. Estate owners prospered from the rental income and from buying and selling on the resulting kelp. Tenants employed subtenants and cotters to assist in the work. The turf hut at Allt Alisary was probably the home of one such kelp worker, perhaps temporarily sited here during the spring and summer, before returning to agricultural tasks in the west. An account published in 1831 gives us an idea of what that person’s life might have been like for
a man and one or more of his children, engaging from morning to night in cutting, drying, and otherwise preparing the seaweeds, at a distance of many miles from his home… often for hours together wet to his knees and elbows; living upon oatmeal and water with occasionally fish, limpets, and crabs; sleeping on the damp floor of a wretched hut; and with no other fuel than twigs or heath.
Contemporary sources suggest that it took anywhere between 10 and 20 tons of seaweed to make one ton of kelp; documents in the National Records of Scotland show that around 24 tons of kelp were sold by just six tenants on one small loch in 1813, which means that some 430 tons of seaweed had to be cut, brought ashore, dried, and processed. Production increased even further at times of falling prices, when more kelp had to be made to produce the same income. The scale of the operation was vast, and large numbers of people were involved in the cold and back-breaking work of harvesting the seaweed using a small, saw-toothed, sickle-like tool called a corran. Heather rope was used to tie the harvested seaweed together to create a raft to float the cut mass ashore. On Loch Aoineart, structures tentatively identified as seaweed ‘traps’ were also created, which may have been used to hold the kelp before it was brought ashore for drying.
This involved laying the seaweed on the ground to dry in the sun, turning it regularly. Purpose-built ‘drying walls’ were also used in some areas. Kilns took the form of long trenches or stone-lined pits, built close to where the seaweed would be landed and dried. It was at this stage that the kelp was sorted – to remove sand, rock, and debris that would lower the price – before ‘burning’ (in reality smouldering) using peat and heather as fuel. The burning could take up to a day, depending on the weather conditions and the dryness of the kelp, and required constant watching while stirring using a long wooden pole with an iron hook on the end. The resulting thick slurry was covered and left to cool and solidify.
The final stage of the process was collecting and shipping the finished kelp. Kevin Grant argues that the Gaelic-speaking seaweed gatherers and kelp producers were reliant on the surveyors employed by the estate owners for the sale of the kelp to the English-speaking buyers whose vessels came to Uist from Glasgow, Hull, Leith, or Newcastle. The surveyors would inspect the kelp and agree on a price that would be set against the rents of the labourers.
These estate officers undoubtedly stood to make a profit, and the tenants rarely received enough to offset their entire rental costs, with the result that their debts to the estate grew every year. This period is remembered in today’s community as one of great suffering and difficulty, particularly when the kelp trade collapsed, something captured in a song by the Uist-born poet Dòmhnaill Iain MacDhòmhnaill, called ‘Oran an Fheamnaidh’ (‘Song of the Seaweed Gatherer’, originally written in Gaelic), based on local traditions and stories of kelping in the century previous to his birth:
Mo mheòirean piante gun sian ach tòchadh;
Thig stàbh na liathaig am bàrr lem spìonadh,
’S gur ann mum bheul a bhios a crìoch a’ bhòidse
’S e mhadainn choirb-fuar le gaoith ’s le stoirm
A bhith trial a dh’fheamnadh thug searbh-bhlas dhòmhs’ air
My fingers ache – nothing but blisters;
When the leafy tangle yields to my heaving,
It ends up in my face.
Biting cold mornings with wind and storm
Soured my taste for collecting seaweed.
Further reading Kevin Grant (2019) ‘“Oran an Fheamnaidh” – song of the seaweed gatherer: an archaeology of early 19th-century kelping’, Scottish Archaeological Journal 41(1): 63-85.