10.5.3 Salt and Kelp

Salt was important for preserving, on a local scale but also for the fishing industry (ScARF Modern section 6.2). Brora was home to a large saltworks (MHG30002) from the late 16th century, an early industrial initiative by Lady Jean Gordon, widowed Countess of Sutherland. For three short periods, 1698–1617, 1767–1777 and 1812–1828, Brora coal was used to heat sea water to extract the salt. The eroding remains of the saltworks were excavated in a local community project involving Clyne Heritage and Timespan Museum with SCAPE Trust, providing detailed information about early salt production (Brora Saltpans Community Project). In 2020 an experimental salt pan was built, with experimental firings scheduled for 2021 (Jacquie Aitkin pers comm). Results of the work have also been presented as a 3-D reconstruction in a collaboration with University of St Andrews.

Excavation under way at Brora Salt Works (c) SCAPE/Tom Dawson

The sea also was a source for kelp, a type of seaweed used in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The kelp is burnt and the ashes are used for soap manufacture, glassmaking and other industries. Small tenants undertook the laborious work of collecting and burning the kelp. Once duty on imported kelp was removed, however, the industry collapsed (Gray 1951). While much of this industry was centred on the Western Isles, significant production took place in Ardnamurchan and Morvern, Lochaber (Devine 2005, 86), with exploitation also on the west coast of the mainland (Bangor-Jones 2000a, 68). A number of possible rectangular and circular kelp kilns are recorded in the Highland HER. Identifying kelp burning pits in the landscape remains difficult and often relies on oral tradition (Grant 2019). John Hunter excavated kelp kilns on Sanday, south of Canna (Hunter 2016, 97). A PhD in progress at Glasgow University by Holly McCoy investigating the kelp industry will hopefully shed more light on this topic.

Aerial view of trench at Brora Salt Works (c) SCAPE/Tom Dawson

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