Kelp, Clearances, Clanranald, Speculators and Scottish Scoundrel Lairds

This blog came about after I was contacted by a reader whose family were involved with kelp preparation in the Hebrides before being forced off their land to make a life elsewhere. What I knew about kelp could have been written on a postage stamp until I looked into it further. This is some of what I discovered.

Much of the glass going into windows in Britain’s better-off households, to protect them from the elements was, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, mainly manufactured using kelp produced by the poorest of people in Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Highland Scots engaged in this process from very young children to the elderly and infirm enjoyed none of the protection of glass forced as they were through circumstance to live outside among the rocks on the seashore during the kelp season; enduring all weather conditions and blasted by wind, rain and sea or baked under the hot sun on exposed isles and coasts. When crofters were labouring at the shore they were not looking after their crofts which provided their food and so these failed from lack of attention and in any case the seaweed they traditionally used to fertilize the land was needed to be burnt to make kelp.

kelp

Seaweed used to make kelp

Glass and that other major product of kelp, soap, were made using potash and soda produced from burned seaweed; it was also used in calico production, for bleaching, for iodine, for producing potassium alum (an agent in a host of industrial uses) and for fertilisers. Glass used for bottles and drinking glasses was less dependent on kelp than window glass up until the 1830s. That this important trade has been largely ignored by historians and economic historians is surely down to its location – rural Scotland (Wales and Ireland.) Sadly, historians and social commentators indulge their own prejudices which are passed on through their works which have shaped our knowledge of the past. There has been and still is an emphasis on urban employment over rural – urban = good and significant / rural = bad and trivial.

Kelp production contributed in no small measure to the UK’s economy, it became a valuable commodity and was a major source of employment in rural Scotland with around 60,000 involved in kelp production in the Hebrides and Orkney (a similar number in Ireland.) In any measure this is a large number of people dependent on an industry which was essential to the UK’s production of glass and soap – so much so stones were taken to beaches to encourage seaweed to grow on them. Of course essential as the kelp industry was its lynchpin, the kelpers, were ruthlessly exploited. 30 tons of seaweed was needed to produce 1 ton of kelp ash. Something in the region of 2,000 tons of kelp was produced annually in the western isles in the mid-later 18th century. A laird’s cut was around £21 per ton with local workers paid something under £2 per ton at best and 4d (4 pennies at the other end.)

What is kelp? Nowadays we refer to a type of seaweed as kelp but originally this was the name given to the alkali produced from burning seaweed. Hebridean lairds allocated their crofters a small portion of seashore when kelp production was at its height. In addition to working the land crofters and their families were put to work by their lairds producing kelp. Lairds paid their tenant crofters an annual amount for each ton of kelp and the sums paid reflected what was set by agents working for glass or soap manufacturers.

Kelping was heavy work which required many hands to cut, carry, spread to dry and burn the seaweed in stone kilns (filthy work which led to blindness among kelpers.) Kiln fires burned for about 8 hours to produce kelp, dark blue and oily, which then had to be cooled over weeks.

For crofters whose smallholdings were inland kelp production meant moving their whole family to the shore, perhaps many miles away from their homes so forcing them to live on the seashore where they laboured both day and night by torchlight. Men had to go to sea fishing during the only time available to them, in the dark, to feed their families otherwise attempting to live off the odd limpets or shellfish they could find. There are reports of people eating seaweed but they could not eat the weed they needed for kelp. Oatmeal was the staple diet of Scots but on islands where it might not be possible to grow oats, or in sufficient amounts, having this most basic foodstuff was dependent on the arrival of boats from the mainland. Then again meal wasn’t free and these people had no or virtually no cash because their landlords paid mainly in kind, with goods rather than money. To obtain meal people had to barter the little alternative food they had such as cattle or fish. Because kelp required a lot of hands to produce it families were encouraged to have more children which meant more mouths to feed which was difficult at the best of times but when the worst came families were desperate.

During the long years of the French and Napoleonic wars the British government slapped hefty import taxes on foreign goods and British manufacturing became dependent on home produced kelp so Highland lairds forced their tenants into its production. The Highlands’ youth were also in great demand by the British army because of their height and strength but those families who sacrificed their sons in the British crown’s and government’s wars discovered there was no reciprocation for as soon as the Napoleonic Wars ended the government lowered the tariff on foreign kelp with the result that imports of Barilla or Spanish kelp devastated Highland production and pushed already impoverished people to utter despair. Not everyone did badly, in fact some benefitted – the usual people – London speculators and soap manufacturers. Greed was the winner and if the people of the Hebrides had to survive eating the seaweed that once was in such demand then so be it. Reports of terrible starvation, of children with ribs jutting out and bulging eyes in emaciated faces seem not to have lost any greedy government minister or capitalist manufacturer a minutes sleep.

So there it was British manufacturers preferred foreign kelp or adopted a different type of ash made from salt. Islanders lost the little income they depended on and their lairds lost a source of income. Something had to give. Lairds gave the people away. Forced them out. Burnt them out of their homes so they couldn’t go back. Young and old were forced onto vessels heading for North America. Lairds wanted to empty the land of people so they could replace them with sheep. It’s strange how loyalty is so often a one-way street.

reginald george

Reginal George the big spender

One notorious laird who cleared islanders as if they were detritus was Reginald John James George, chief of Clan Ranald, a branch of Clan Donald, at Moidart and Benbecula. Old Etonian Reginald’s father had previously flogged off most of the Clan’s landholding while Reggie spent his time furthering the domination of Britain abroad. He wasn’t familiar with Scotland and had no understanding of his estate or its people. But in an effort to play the laird he did develop a penchant for tartanalia.

You might recall that post-Culloden those symbols of the Highlands – tartan and bagpipes -were banned in an effort to destroy the very way of life of Highlanders. Once the British army eventually abandoned hunting down Highlanders as a sport and when the British government was certain the Highlands had been well and truly crushed faux Highland chic was invented in cartoon form with the appearance of George IV in Edinburgh in 1822 resplendent in a pair of bright pink tights and a mini kilt. He was encouraged in this pantomime by Sir Walter Scott and various other hangers-on including our Etonian Reggie George. It was absentee landlords who finished the job begun by the crown and government in London to destroy traditional Highland communities bound by kinship. The cleansing of the Highlands and islands continued unabated so the resurgence of tartan was neither here nor there. Its specific context and role had been destroyed for good. Time to indulge in games and make-believe.

Reggie discovered he just adored the Highlands, in his Anglicised head. He didn’t live in the Highlands, of course. His home was in the south of England or abroad and but he remembered ‘his people’ in Moidart and Benbecula when it came to collecting their rents which he made sure he received in full irrespective of the extent ‘his people’ were starving to death. In the years of the kelp industry canny landlords based rents not on croft land value but the value of a tenant’s stretch of shore with its seaweed. Self-indulgent Reggie wasn’t doing so well on the cash front either, for he loved to mingle with the rich and powerful and found he had to spend to prove he was one of them. So, like his father, he burnt through his estate’s wealth and was forced to sell his lands in Scotland in 1838 to Gordon of Cluny. Within a year he tried to persuade Gordon to allow him to keep the estate while allowing the new owner take up the old debts and manage the property for he thought it would be lovely for him to spend the remainder of his days among his affectionately disposed tenantry, ‘whose forefathers and mine have ever been united by ties of no ordinary degree of mutual attachment.’

You couldn’t make this stuff up but with the aristocracy you don’t have to – they’re delusional every one. Reggie’s affectionate tenants on South Uist and Benbecula saw him for what he was a nasty and grasping man who cared nothing for them. When the possibility of Reggie living on Benbecula was broached concerns were raised over his safety from his ‘clansmen.’ Such was their regard for this waster.

The tenants fared no better with John Gordon of Cluny; not only considered to be the richest man in Britain but a thoroughly nasty piece of work and not one who accepted criticism. Gordon’s takeover of Reggie’s estate was part of a long game, for worthless as they were to him then he saw a profit eventually. His other landholdings included tracts in Aberdeenshire, Banff, Nairn and Midlothian as well as the Hebrides but by 1848 Cluny’s Hebridean investment was costing him as he had to pay out nearly £8,000 in famine relief to his wretched tenants.

Another nasty piece of work, Patrick Sellar, the brute and factor who enthusiastically carried out the instructions of George Granville Leveson-Gower and Elizabeth the Duke and Countess of Sutherland. He was the willing hand that carried out many Highland Clearances evicting thousands of families, burning their cottages and establishing large sheep farms. Evicted tenants resettled in coastal crofts were forced to learn to fish and process seaweed. He tried to buy Clan Ranald lands on South Uist, Benbecula and Barra for his employer.

These people were all of a kind. Callously indifferent to human suffering and voraciously greedy. In 1851 Gordon of Cluny began to forcibly evict all his tenants to rid himself of responsibility for providing them with basic relief and with the prospect that sheep would better augment his already obscene level of wealth.

kilns on orkney

Kelp kilns on Orkney

In August 1851 the folk of South Uist were forced to attend a meeting at Loch Boisdale and from there they were grabbed and manhandled onto Atlantic-bound boats like so much cattle by the laird’s lackeys – his factors, estate agents and police. Angus Johnstone was handcuffed and forced onto the ship. Others ran in all directions to find hiding places so desperate were they to stay at home. In one incident a man hid in an Arran boat and was protected by the ship’s master who threatened to ‘split the skull’ of the first man to board his boat. This man survived this particular sweep of people. Most of those who ran were hunted down by men and dogs and dragged onboard vessels. Girls of twelve and fourteen from Barra evaded their persecutors and so the ships sailed to North America without them but with the rest of the family onboard – perhaps to a new life or perhaps to succumb to plague or smallpox during the crossing.

The venerable John Gordon of Cluny was, of course, a scoundrel. His promises were worthless. He told tenants he would pay their passage to Quebec where they would be provided with jobs and land. Reluctantly he paid the ship fees when compelled to by the government but reneged on the guarantees of work and land. So the islanders who left Scotland impoverished found themselves in unfamiliar Canada with nothing. This was no isolated example.

A Canadian newspaper, the Dundas Warder, reported on 2 October 1851
‘We have been pained beyond measure for some time past, to witness in our streets so many unfortunate Highland emigrants, apparently destitute of any means of subsistence, and many of them sick from want and other attendant causes.’

The richest man in Britain was a barbarian who brought incalculable misery, desperation and death to Highland Scots. Add the fate of the cleared people of Scotland to all those other acts of cruelty imposed on helpless communities throughout the British Empire and the slave trade and you have a large slice of British history that is too often glossed over for there is reluctance in many quarters to accept the immense harm created by the most powerful elements in the UK to the most helpless around the world, not least within the British Isles.

Next time you spread toothpaste containing kelp on your toothbrush or sprinkle dried kelp on your salad spare a moment to think of the people whose lives were destroyed by exploitative landlords who forced them to produce kelp when it was worth big money and speculators and the government who threw them to the wolves.

An excellent source is: The Jaws of Sheep: The 1851 Hebridean Clearances of Gordon of Cluny. James A. Stewart, Jr.
Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium
Vol. 18/19 (1998/1999), pp. 205-226

It can be read online: https://www.jstor.org/stable/20557342?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Shore ownership under udal law in Orkney and Shetland

4 Comments to “Kelp, Clearances, Clanranald, Speculators and Scottish Scoundrel Lairds”

  1. Thanks,

    My post stamp grew larger as well thanks to you.

    Many many thlanks again.

    Paul

  2. Wow. I never knew that about kelp and I lived by the sea at Fraserburgh in my youth – a long time ago now!

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