Friday, 11 August 2017

Of Crofters, Kelp and Iodine by Susan Price

A Highland croft - wikimedia
Crofters in the Highlands and islands of Scotland have always had a hard life. Even now, although crofting may be a more rewarding way of life, in many ways, than banking or sales, it’s by no means easy.

In a past stretching back into pre-history, crofters supplied almost all their own needs by their own labour: building and maintaining their steading, raising animals to provide meat, milk and wool, making their own clothes and making or repairing their own tools. They grew oats and vegetables but also fished and gathered wild food.

Almost always, a crofter had to pay rent to the owner of the land they farmed, and that rent had to be paid in hard money. Cash was often needed to supply a few needs they could not make, catch or grow for themselves: a little tobacco, perhaps or raisins and spices for Christmas.

One way to earn money was to drive their cattle to the markets where the highest prices were paid. Another, which I learned about when I researched my book The Drover’s Dogs, was to burn kelp.

Kelp, wikimedia, By Bjørn Christian Tørrissen
Kelp is a large and fast-growing seaweed which forms thick kelp forests around rocky coasts. It had been gathered for centuries. Crofters carried it from the beaches on their backs in tall baskets— a heavy load, often carried up steep, hazardous cliff paths. It was spread on fields as fertiliser.

There was also a tradition of burning the kelp to ash and mixing the ash with fat to make an ointment. Because of kelp's high concentration of iodine, it was a quite effective antiseptic.

With the rise of industry, iodine became a far more valuable commodity. It was used in glass-making and pottery as a colouring agent. The cloth trade needed it for bleaching linen. Soap makers used it to turn soap from messy goo into the hard blocks which customers favoured. Iodine was also used in the production of the cleaning agent, soda.

It was easier to import kelp from Europe than to fetch it from the far more remote Scottish Highlands and islands, but European kelp was heavily taxed. So agents made difficult journeys north, offering to buy all the iodine the crofters could produce. Kelp was harvested in Ireland too.

A crofting family would build a kiln. These varied considerably: some were built above ground, somewhat resembling an oven. Others were simple pits. Some, if the crofters could afford it, had an iron grid laid above the pit, on which the kelp was placed and burned.

Kelp was gathered throughout the year, especially in the winter after storms, which tore it from the rocks and washed it up. The seaweed was spread to dry and then piled into stacks, in kelp-ricks which were thatched with heather to keep it dry.

Burning started in June, while the men of the crofting family might be away on a drove. The dried kelp was piled on the iron grid over the pit and set alight.

Crofters burning kelp in Stronsay - Glens of Antrim Historical Society
As the kelp burned to ash, the oil from it dripped into the pit. The smell of the burning seaweed was, it seems, exceptionally powerful and pungent and carried for miles. If you can recall the rank stink of exposed estuary mud on a hot day, imagine that burning and, it seems, you will have a faint idea of the stench.

The end result was a pit full of thick, stinking oil which cooled to a rock-hard substance of greyish, purplish blue. If allowed to go cold, it had to be chipped and chiselled out of the pit, so the burners tried to dig it out before it was completely cold, while it was still easier to work. The iodine blocks were heavy and it was hard, stinking work.

Agents bought these blocks and paid good money for them— though in some parts of Scotland, all the money from the trade went to the local laird. Who did none of the work.

But for those who did profit from this hard, dirty, stinking labour, it was another source of ready cash and for about fifty years, roughly between 1780 and 1830, business was good.

However, in the 1820s, the tax on European seaweed was reduced, and the tax on salt  abolished. This made it much cheaper to import seaweed from Europe and much cheaper to make soda from salt than from kelp. These decisions, made in a southern parliament on behalf of southern industries, destroyed the kelp industry of the Highlands and islands.

It also contributed to depopulation of the Highlands because, at the same time, the droving trade was being killed by railways and landlords were raising the rents of crofts. Caught between rising rents and falling profits, many Highlanders left for Canada and America – where, in dreams, they beheld the Hebrides.

After 1830, demand for iodine from Scotland rose again as industry began producing aniline dyes and photographic plates. The seaweed from Europe was no longer enough, and agents once more came to the Highlands. But the industry was never again as strong as it had been, since so many of the people who would once have collected and burned the kelp had left the crofting life - either by choice or eviction.

This gave me an ending to my book The Drover’s Dogs, whose narrator is a Scot telling his Canadian children how he was rescued by two herd dogs and 'brought home' to Mull.

The Drover's Dogs by Susan Price
The ending rose partly from my own research and partly from the research my Scots partner did into his own family. He had a special interest in Drover's Dogs, since he helped me follow the old drove road to Mull, told me of the 'bondage,' the young hero escapes and also painted the cover picture! (And he doesn't like what I've done with it.) Since a branch of his own family had gone to Canada and become quite wealthy farmers, he was quite keen that the family in the book did too.

So I gave him the ending he wanted, to make up for what I did to his painting

Find The Drover's Dogs on Amazon.



We thank Susan Price for this reserve post. From 11th September this slot will be filled by Deborah Burrows.


Ms. said...

A wonderful post and I will share it. We need history just to deal with the current climate (both weather and political). I love History Girls (Women :-->)

Susan Price said...

Thank you, Ms!

Anonymous said...

This is a fascinating post and adds immeasurably to my having lapped up the first of the two Fairisle programmes earlier this week. Thank you.

Joan Lennon said...

This is so interesting - I only knew about the fertiliser side of things a la Flaherty's Man of Aran and there's so much more! Thanks, Sue!

Anonymous said...

A talented family all round. I like the picture, what did you do to it that your other-half dislikes?

Sue Purkiss said...

What a hard, hard life those crofters led. Fascinating.