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.
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.
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.
The 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.
This was then left for several weeks to harden and cool before it was shipped off to factories south.
"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.
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.
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.