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The Kelp Boom

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Earlier this year we began our Diaspora Project, a slow and meditative look at the roots of population decline here in the Outer Hebrides. Under the auspices of our ‘Always Learning’ value, we’ve set out to explore the history of Harris to better understand the stories which underpin many of the issues our island community faces today.

Beginning with the earliest emigrants, driven west to America in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden, we discovered the first painful changes from the communal clan system to the harsher realities of commerce as capitalism began to take hold here at the end of the 19th century.

Initially, it was the ‘silver darlings’ of the sea which brought financial success to our island under a businessman called Captain Alexander Macleod who bought the Isle of Harris in 1779 from an indebted clan chief. His vision was to transform the local seasonal fishing activity into a big industry, catching and curing herring to be sold at market.

His economic experiment worked wonderfully for a time until the herring shoals did what they always seemed to do every few years…and just disappear. Luckily, for our islanders anyway, the French Revolution had begun, and the humble kelp seaweed was to prove a new way to survive and thrive.

Up until now the seaweed around our shores was mainly harvested by islanders to help fertilise their crops and feed livestock. That was all about to change as the wars with France saw Britain increasingly isolated from international trade and essentials like glass and soap became challenging to produce.  

This new demand was to be met by seaweed which when burned produces soda ash, eagerly sought after by the chemical industries of the time. Harris had limited natural resources, but this particular marine plant was abundant, and a new industry soon sprung up as kelp farming and burning began in earnest.

Local landowners quickly cashed in on demand, ensuring that every scrap of seaweed from the shores be sent for burning into this useful potash instead of fertilising fields.

They urged islanders to move from the more pastoral west coast of Harris to the rugged eastern shores to gather and process kelp to help pay their rents. It was hard and dirty work with many tonnes collected by hand and dried, before being pounded and burned in round, stone-lined kelp kilns.

The fires would pour acrid smoke for hours until a dark, oily substance emerged which was then left to cool before being shipped off to mainland factories. The relocated kelp workers soon found their farming lands left neglected, starved of labour and the nutritious seaweed which usually gave life to their crops.

But the population swelled, and money flowed into the island once more. However, the real wealth often ended up in the pockets of others. The green goodness around our shores had become so valuable that the landlords of Harris and neighbouring North Uist even fought a legal war over the salty stuff. An angry dispute arose over ownership of a particular set of rocks in the Sound of Harris, a stretch of water which divides our two islands.

The rocks themselves were utterly worthless on their own, but the kelp which clung to them was worth its weight in gold! The courtroom drama finally hinged on whether or not someone from Uist could walk out to the rocks at low tide. If they could, then they could claim them, if not they belonged to Harris.

The men from Uist did their best, going as far as to drag their own rocks out to sea and act as stepping stones to reach their goal. But, the men from Harris, who claimed a boat could sail through the channel at its lowest ebb, were proved right and so ownership, and the precious seaweed, went to our island and remains so to this today.

All this angst and effort was soon to be proved in vain. Just as with the herring boom which preceded it, the kelp boom was to come to an end, and with it more hard times for Harris…


Our thanks to Bill Lawson and the team at Seallam! Please visit their Facebook page for more information on their work.

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