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Kelping in Calbost
Kelping in Calbost
The Calbost Tacksman Robert Weir was very active in both kelping and fishing and when the village was first lotted about 1818 it was the seven kelp workers that were already in the village and working the land under the runrig system of land tenure that became the first seven crofters.
They were Alexander Macleod, Donald Kennedy, Norman "Buidhe" Mackenzie, Donald Smith, Kenneth Macleod, Malcolm Finlayson and Kenneth Maclean. The last named moved to Gravir later on.
The term kelp is sometimes applied collectively to seaweed, but it is also used to describe the calcine ash of seaweed when it is burned in a kiln. The ash yields alkali which was used extensively in the manufacture of soap, glass etc in the 18th and 19th centuries. Therefore the kelp industry came to be a very important industry in the Hebrides and other places with a suitable coastal fringe, which was referred to as a "Golden Fringe".
The harvesting and production of kelp was carried out by the small tenants and they were obliged to sell the finished product to their tacksman because he controlled their land tenure and therefore all aspects of their lives. In the absence of competition kelping was very profitable in the early period, during the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries. When the landlords realised how profitable kelping was they dismissed the tacksmen and introduced direct tenure control over the small tenants, hence the first lotting.
The tenants cut the seaweed with sickles and piled it into kilns built of loose stones near the shore. In these kilns, fired with peat, the seaweed was being stirred continuously with long irons until it became a liquefied mass. It was then covered to protect it from the rain until it was ready for shipment to the Southern market.
Kelping work was very arduous and it went on all day and night during the short season of part of the summer. The whole family, young and old, male and female were engaged in the work because it was one of the few means available to the small tenants to earn some money. The earnings were therefore highly appreciated, although small in comparison with the effort needed.
The following interesting observation from a neutral person, Rev John Cameron, Parish minister of Stornoway appears in the Statistical Account of 1833:
The toil of cutting, drying, burning the seaweed and watching it day and night until the ware is converted into a boiling lava is terrible and would require extraordinary wages. The process, if not injurious to health is certainly ruinous to the eyes.
The average earnings of the whole family for the season was about 7- in the best years whereas the market price for Kelp during the peak years was about 20- a ton. The kelp workers were therefore exploited ruthlessly and they were helpless as they were obliged to work for the tacksmen at whatever price they offered for the finished product.
About 40 creels of seaweed was needed to make one cwt of Kelp. Between 15 and 20 tons of seaweed was needed (depending on how wet it was) to make one ton of Kelp, yet some buyers demanded two cwts extra to every 20 cwt ton of kelp in order to offset any impurities that might be in the finished product. It was also alleged that some landlords fixed their croft rents deliberately high in order to provide for part of their kelping bill.
The end of the Napoleonic Wars heralded the end of the kelp industry in Scotland because alternative commodities came onto the market such as the imports of Barilla from Spain which yielded four times as much alkali as Kelp. Between 1822 and 1825 the government reduced various import duties on competitive products that caused Kelp prices to drop very considerably to as low as 5- a ton. Although Lochs was still producing 100 tons of Kelp a year in 1830, the price continued to fall and there was very little profit in kelp then.
Although the work of kelping was arduous and the income was small, the crofting community felt the loss of income at a time when the fishing was poor and the potato blight of the 1840's followed.
The ruins of the kelping kilns may be seen by the shore in various places in Lewis. We believe that it is the ruins of the Calbost kelping kilns that may be seen at "Eilean-a-Gho", near the pebbly beach where the small village boats were always hauled up on the beach at "Mol-a-Gho".
Pairc Historical Society
See also Angus Macleod's more general treatment of the subject.