When we first set out to create the Isle of Harris Gin, we hunted high and low across Harris to find the local ingredient which would, at last, define our spirit.
Our friend and plant expert Susanne Masters led the way, casting her eye over the land taking in Silverweed, Heather, Lady’s bedstraw, Meadowsweet, and Bog myrtle.
But it was while wild-swimming around our island shores she finally brought her search to a close. There, beneath the waves, lay gold-green forests full of promise and potential.
Given our deep ties to the sea, it is fitting that the giant fronds of Sugar Kelp were to become our chosen island botanical.
Harris history is long tangled up in seaweed, and our community’s fortunes have often risen and fallen in time with its tides.
Since the time of Saint Columba (around 600AD), and the monks who built stone monasteries across the Hebrides, this maritime plant has been part of island life.
A sixth-century Gaelic poem from that time asks God to assist their daily religious routine, saying, “Let me do my daily work/Gathering dulse/Catching fish/Giving food to the poor.”
These Hebridean holy men collected the ruby red seaweed, dulse from rocks and cooked it with oatmeal in a nourishing broth.
Fast forward to 1703, and Scottish writer Martin Martin, most well known for his book "Description of the Western Islands", describes seaweed as “very good for the sight.” telling us how “the natives eat it boil’d with butter, and reckon it very wholesome.”
More likely, we natives would only turn to seaweed during times of hardship, but as animal fodder, it was an excellent resource for sheep and cattle on the croft.
And as a fertiliser, it was the finest, freely gathered from the shores and placed directly onto the long, winding ‘lazybeds’ where staple food crops like potatoes were grown.
Seaweed also became a vital resource for the British Empire during the Napoleonic Wars, and a lucrative island industry sprung up on the eastern shores of Harris for a short time.
Here, the sky was thick with smoke from burning kelp which produced an ash rich in potash and soda, substances eagerly sought after by the gunpowder, glass and soap industries of the time.
Today we’re proud to be continuing the long tradition of working with this wonderful plant as we partner with diver Lewis Mackenzie in a more careful and sustainable harvest of our own.
As our 'From The Sea' explorations unfold, we’ll be learning all there is to know about this fascinating marine plant species, and the ecosystems that rely on it for survival.
So, let's pour a Sugar Kelp infused Isle of Harris Gin and raise a glass to the sea's bounty, and all the seaweed stories which still lie in store…