There’s gold on those rocks

The latest in the WHFP’s monthly Tobar an Dualchais contribution came from Professor Hugh Cheape who currently teaches on the MSc in Material Culture and Gàidhealtachd History at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.

Gathering seaweed to fertilise the land. Photography by Margaret Faye Shaw c. 1932.

Seaweed in abundance was a ‘golden fringe’ to island life and for centuries provided food, fodder and fertilizer.

As with land plants, there are many species of different shapes and sizes and they vary between localities with about 600 species round the coasts of the British Isles. We in Scotland are fortunate for our relative wealth of seaweed and of species, and it may be that about 70% of our total quantity is in the Hebrides. Catriona MacNeill wrote in the 1990s of her young days in Barra when ‘we had to go to the shore to gather manure and to carry it to the croft to improve the soil. Seaweed of every sort was so pure, a better couldn’t be got’ (…. Bha feamainn, às gach sheòrsa, cho glan, cha ghabhadh na b’ fheàrr fhaighinn).

The seaweed types used in this way are classified as the Laminaria or ‘tangles’ and ‘wracks’, and feamainn is the generic name in Scottish Gaelic. Behind this term lies a wealth of names and terminology to distinguish the different seaweed species and whether they are above or below the tideline or in submarine jungles – the word stamh for example –  whether cast ashore by tide and storm or cut manually, and differences in dialect which may reflect local differences in species types and uses to which they have been put over the generations. The simple lesson to draw from this linguistic complexity in Gaelic is that seaweed played a longstanding and vital part in the economy of the region.  

Evidence from archaeology tells us that from the Neolithic and the first millennium BC, settlement hugged the coast where the natural resources of land and sea offered food and fuel. Fertilizer in the form of seaweed came to augment this advantage and sea and seaweed have therefore defined the prehistory and, to a lesser extent, history of the Hebrides. It is the most readily available manure and about 80% of the crofting townships have access to seashores. Seaweed is good on any type of land in providing organic matter and minerals such as potash, and was an important additive for the peaty and sandy soils of the Highlands and Hebrides. The shell-sand machair, for example, is highly deficient in potassium and organic matter. Ground was kept fertile for crops of oats and barley, and then increasingly potatoes, with annual top-dressings of seaweed harvested from the shores, either cut with the corran or sickle below tidal high-water mark or collected from above high-water mark where it is flung up by winter storms. What was cut was laid fresh on areas of cultivation such as the feannagan or ‘lazy-beds’ and what was washed ashore was built into middens and composted for later use. The word liadhag is an example of regional variation; Alexander Campbell of Portree, writing in the parish account in 1795, described how a kind of tangle called liadhagan was cut using boats during spring tides and taken to land for spreading fresh on barley and potatoes. Spring tides are the highest and lowest tides and are so important as to have their own term – reothart.High water throws quantities of seaweed ashore and low water uncovers a greater area below the normal tidelines, allowing the harvesting of further quantities.

Tobar an Dualchais is rich in references to seaweed and its uses. In 1970, Donald Archie MacDonald recorded Lachlan MacLeod of Grimsay, North Uist, on the work of preparing the ground with the cas chrom for crops such as oats and potatoes and the use of seaweed as todhar or ‘manure’. It was spread by hand rather than using the fork or graip in order to get an even coverage. He added the comment that ‘seaweed would be the best fertiliser but artificial fertiliser (todhar Gallda, literally, ‘Lowland manure’) is commonest today’ (Track ID 8362, 8375). He described another technique of bringing seaweed ashore (Track ID 8388). The cut weed was formed into a raft, known as a maois, and encircled by rope, and was dragged by boat on a rising tide to the point where it was needed. Nan Mackinnon (Nan Eachainn Fhionnlaigh)also described the maois as used for floating cut weed to land in Vatersay (Track ID 54053). The School of Scottish Studies was given an account of the ‘Crofting Year’ in the Lewis townships by Donald Joseph MacDonald in 1967; he described how seaweed composted with sand was best for potatoes and tangle or feamainn dearg was put on the oat crop (Track ID 36452). Recorded in Jura in 1968, John Shaw told Donald Archie and Alan Bruford of the School of Scottish Studies that seaweed was used as manure and he referred to feamainn-chìreagach which generally refers to a short, crested seaweed, sometimes called ‘lady wrack’, that grows closer up the beach (Track ID 27602). It was said to have strong laxative properties, picked off the rocks, boiled and given to cattle, and was effective as a poultice.

Sheep and cattle will graze on seaweed and some varieties such as dulse and carrageen are harvested for food. Recommended as organic and healthy, such ‘natural’ food is considered a delicacy and comes in and out of fashion. Only small quantities are eaten around the seaweed-rich shores of the Highlands and Islands. As with shellfish, the edible seaweed varieties have been associated with times of extreme scarcity and of famines such as hit the region in the early 19th century; these were foods of necessity. Burning the wracks and tangles, also known as ‘kelp’, to produce an alkaline ash brought seaweed into industrial processes such as glass-making. It is said that Ruairidh na Luaithre or ‘Roddy of the Ashes’ started the burning of kelp in North Uist about 1735 while kelp was already being put to industrial uses elsewhere in Europe. Every modern ‘history’ of the Hebrides and Northern Isles includes a large section on ‘kelp’ and the ‘kelp industry’, the calamitous era when the burning of seaweed was ultimately integral to economic collapse, clearance and emigration. The grim kelping period was at its height between 1790 and 1814 when landlords took vast profits and offered a bare subsistence wage for the harsh work of gathering and burning seaweed on the shores. The term ceilp was borrowed into Scottish Gaelic but has no such resonance as feamainn. Kelp is commented on bleakly in the late-19th century Gaelic periodical literature but has only earned itself a proverbial reference whose irony is patent: Cha dèan sgleogaireachd ceilp! (‘Chattering won’t make kelp!’).

Seaweed is the raw material of the alginates industry which developed at the end of the 19th century and the products were widely used in foods and pharmaceuticals and other technological processes. Commercial viability gave a lease of life to a number of factories and those at Orosay, South Uist (1944-1981), Sponish, North Uist (1955-1986), and Keose, Lewis (1965-2003), are particularly remembered. ‘Hey lads, be cheery, that things will get better’ sang Alasdair MacDonald, Bornish, in Òran nan Stamh when the South Uist factory got going, and Suas an Fheamainn, ‘Up with Seaweed’ was the refrain of Iain MacDonald’s 1965 song on the opening of the Ceòs factory (Track ID 95462):

Ni iad plastics de gach seòrs’ ……

‘They’ll make plastics of every kind, and we’ll get plenty nylons in it,

They’ll make carpets and rope, cremola and iodine.’


Suas an fheamainn their na seòid, O, gu bheil òrsna sgeirean sin.

‘Up with seaweed the lads will say, O, for there’s gold on those rocks.’