The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

The kelp industry

Before it was cut and used commercially, seaweed would be gathered from the shore from November until March and laid on the land and used as fertiliser. In the spring it was ploughed into the land. As well as being used as a fertiliser it was often dried and used for fuel – especially in the North Isles where peat was scarce.

The gathering of seaweed to be made into kelp – by drying and burning – was first introduced into Orkney by James Fea of Whitehall in Stronsay, who sold his first cargo in Newcastle in 1722.

Seaweed on the shores of Warebeth, Stromness

At first the kelp industry was regarded with suspicion – people believed it prevented the women from becoming pregnant, that it drove fish from the coast and that even the limpits on the rocks were being poisoned. They also believed that smoke from the kilns destroyed the corn and grass. There was even a sea monster named Nuckelavee, who hated the burning of the seaweed so much that he vented his wrath by causing illness to the farm animals. This disease even had a name, the mortasheen.

Collecting seaweed or 'ware' at Warebeth, Stromness © Keith Allardyce

However, when the lairds and people saw the profits that could be made, ideas gradually changed. Orkney was abundant in seaweed with its numerous islands, its long coastlines, skerries and rocky shores.
Drying seaweed at Burwick, South Ronaldsay © SCRANThe burnt residue from seaweed was rich in potash and soda and this was sought by the glass and soap industries of the time. The lairds were quick to exploit this rich resource – for very little outlay, ie the purchase of a few tools, they were ready to put their tenants to work.

The workers were forced to gather ware (seaweed) whenever ordered to do so and it was not unusual for them to be woken up in the early hours of the morning and be expected to make their way to the shore.
The task was hard work. The hours were long and the people would often be cold and wet. The kiln needed constant tendering and the smoke was unpleasant.
The kelp season generally began in May after the bere crop was sowed and continued throughout the quiet months of the summer until hay-making in August. During the months of June and July as many as 3,000 people might be employed in gathering seaweed.
During the kelp boom a profit of around £22,500 per year was being made, three times the amount that was being made from farming. Lairds used the money to buy up more land but, unfortunately, it was not used for agricultural improvement.
This caused a lot of hardship when the kelp boom ended, as the land had been neglected for a long time due to all available hands working in the kelp.
Author Patrick Neill wrote: "In Orkney every consideration is sacrificed to kelp. Agriculture is now very much and very generally neglected. Less grain is raised than was raised 30 years ago. Should a cheap process for extracting the soda from sea water be discovered, or should the market for kelp, on any other account, unexpectedly fail, the landholders of Orkney will find, too late, the great imprudence of thus neglecting the cultivation and improvement of their lands."
Making kelp
Everyone was expected to gather seaweed. Once collected, it was taken to above the high water mark and laid out to dry. Sometimes the weed was laid up on dykes and many of these can still be seen today – there are many on the island of Swona and part of a kelp-drying wall can be seen at Warbeth in Stromness.
When dry, it was then burned in a kelp pit. This was often a circular depression in the sand, lined with stones, around 1.5 metres in width and around half-a-metre deep. When a good fire was going, the seaweed was added until it had all burnt, leaving the kelp – a dark blue oily substance. This took around eight hours and was constantly monitored with more seaweed being added.

This was then left for several weeks to harden and cool before it was shipped off to factories south.
Living standards
The standard of living improved for the laird and many built or purchased houses in the town of Kirkwall.
A description of polite society enjoyed by the lairds involved in kelp-making was made by Patrick Neill:

"Since the introduction of kelp manufacture in Orkney, a great change has taken place in the state of society in Kirkwall. Country gentlemen have thus acquired from their bleak estates, sums of money, great beyond all former experience. This had gradually induced many of them to abandon, especially during winter, their lonely and dreary habitations in the isles, and to draw together in Kirkwall, where they may not only enjoy society but can command a better education for their children. In dress and polite behaviour, the superior class of inhabitants of Kirkwall equal those of the south: in hospitality they even excel. During winter there are dancing assemblies and card assemblies, alternately, every week. During the two winters last past, popular lectures in chemistry were delivered twice a week by a medical gentleman of the place, and the profits given to the poor.
"It was a very different story for the workers who at best might hope to make around £50 from a lifetime of kelp making. It did, however, give them money in their pockets for the very first time and did make small improvements to their standard of living. They could afford to buy tea and many households proudly displayed their tea caddy on their mantelpiece. They could afford to buy English cloth, which was made into good 'Sunday best' clothing. Most importantly, it was a little security for when the harvest failed. The income from kelp kept the people and the estates going during the semi-famine years, which occurred in nearly one year in three between the years of 1778 and 1807."
The decline of kelp making

In the early 1800s the discovery of mineral deposits in Germany saw the industry fall into decline and it had a great impact on Orkney. Local people had stayed home as they had employment, and migrants had come to Orkney to work, thereby increasing the population in some areas. When the industry collapsed there were too many people for farming to sustain and they suffered as a result.

Burning seaweed at Holm Island, early 20th century

Kelp has been used for hundreds of years for a variety of uses. As well as being spread on the land for fertiliser, it was used in the 18th and 19th centuries to make soap and glass. It was also used in ice cream, stamps and medical dressings.

Today seaweed can be bought in shops and on the internet to eat, or is available in shampoo, or as a dietary supplement – ideas that would have seemed very strange to the seaweed-gatherers years ago.