History of The Western Isles Industries - THE KELP INDUSTRY

Seaweed - Western Isles - Kelp
Kelp Making - Kelp Industry in The Western Isles - The Isle of Lewis - The Isle of Harris

Kelp making was the changing or conversion of seaweed into ash - which was used in many things - particularly the production of soda and iodine.

Kelp produces an alkali which was used in the manufacture of soap and other commodities and even today kelp is still used extensively in the production of soap and glass.

Alginate which is derived from the seaweed is also used as a thickening agent in ice-cream, jelly and even toothpaste.
Herring Industry Fails - Kelp Making is more successful in The Western Isles
As it was realised that the "herring" industry could not be relied upon (the herrings would actually be really plentiful for a couple of years and then for no apparent reason the sources would just "dry up" for a year or two) it was very fortunate for The Western Isles that the kelp industry boomed across this time.

Valuable minerals obtained from the seaweed ash - valuable at the period of The French Wars became a centre of the kelp industry. On the Minch there were areas of rockweed.
Legal Fights Uist versus Harris re Ownership of Rocks
The seaweed became so valuable that North Uist and Harris brought about a legal action about the ownership of a set of rocks in The Sound of Harris.

Of course the rocks themselves were worthless - but the seaweed worth its weight in gold.

The argument cent red around - whether or not you could walk to the rocks at low tide from the shore.

It was said that you could walk there at low tide from the shore - then the rocks would be deemed to belong to Uist - but if not then they would be deemed as belonging to Harris



Harris won - The Ownership of The Rocks
There was lots of evidence given by the men on both sides - the Uist men even commenced placing rocks in the channel to make it fordable - but when all came to all - they gave this up.

To Date The Rocks Belong to The Isle of Harris
To date the rocks are deemed to belong to the Isle of Harris. The concept of fighting over the ownership of land is of course not unusual - but as the rocks themselves were worthless - just the seaweed was the valuable commodity - and since the industry died out not long afterwards - one wonders whether the fight after all proved worthwhile.


Seaweed - Collecting and Drying Process - Burning
The seaweed was gathered and laid out to dry before being burned in a kelp kiln. The kilns were round, stone lined, pits measuring approximately 1.5 metres in diameter and 0.5 metres in depth.

Burning the Seaweed
Once a good fire was burning in the pit the seaweed was added.
The fire was left to burn for up to 8 hours with seaweed continually being added, resulting in the formation of kelp, a dark blue oily substance.This substance would then be left to cool for several weeks

Throughout the period of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries the kelp industry reached its height, with the local landowners making vast profits, while the crofters who did the back breaking labour saw little benefit, and in fact spent so much of the summer involved in the kelp industry that their crofts suffered



Seaweed - Kelp Industry
Kelp Industry takes over from the Crofts - Cattle and Horses etc
Between 1764 and 1772 The Isle of Lewis supplied about 50 of the 2000 tons of kelp each year in the Western Isles.

By 1793 the kelp manufacture had taken precedence over cattle and horses and had become the main trade of the Islands.

Seaweed, used as a manure and as an alkali in the chemical industry. It was an important source of revenue for the crofters in the Western Isles of Scotland until well into the 19th century.

Western Isles Seaweed

Seaweed Normally Used as Fertiliser - Crops Suffer
The trouble was - the weed which would normally have been used for fertiliser for the land but was used instead for the burning for the kelp industry - meant that the crops suffered.

Land Now Couldn't Support the People
The people settled on the land - that by now couldn't really support them. Rents were decided by how much of a shoreline there was and not by how much actual land there was.

 

 

This meant that however much the people earned from the kelp - they couldn't win as their rents were raised.

Ultimately - whilst the kelp industry did bring money to the Islands - not much of it actually stayed in the locals purses. Cutting the weed was really heavy work - up to your knees in seaweed and the burning of the seaweed really was a dirty job. The smoke from the burning was bitter and many islanders were to loose their eyesight.



Repeal of Salt Act Adversely Affects the Kelp Industry - Minerals Available from Abroad Again
It was actually the repeal of salt and other Acts that brought the kelp industry down.Once the Battle of Waterloo was over in 1815 - foreign sources for minerals once again became readily available and the government removed the taxes from imported minerals - and the kelp industry collapsed



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Seaweed - The Kelp Industry - Western Isles
Seaweed - Kelp - Photos - Click the pictures for Larger Photographs
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