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Kelp Manufacture in Harris
Kelp Manufacture in Harris
For the Statistical Account of the Parish of Harris (1791-1799), the Rev John Macleod gave a view of the kelp-making activity of the island:
Kelp is the staple and, excepting the few cows sold to the drovers, the only valuable article of exportation which the country produces. This manufacture is thought to be brought to its utmost extent of late, in consequence of the high prices some years ago, which encouraged the people to convert all the sea-ware produced by these shores into kelp, regardless of the detriment to their corns and pastures, which have degenerated much through want of the manure formerly afforded by the shores. All the sea-ware, now used for manure, is such as is cast ashore after the kelp-making season is past.
In dry weather, any time from the month of April to the month of September, kelp may be made of every weed which the sea produces. The people of Harris are very expert and industrious at it. The whole quantity now made amounts to 450 tons. The shores are held in tack along with the landed possession. The manufacturers are paid at the rate of so much per ton, according to the different situations and disadvantages of the shores. For the easiest shores the least paid is 1 l. 5 s.; for the more difficult from 1 l. 10 s. to 1 l. 15 s. per ton. For manufacturing such ware as is cut at low ebbs on sunk rocks, which must be ferried in boats to drying groups at a distance, there is in some instances paid from 2 l. 10 s. to 3 l. per ton. The introduction of this manufacture, exclusive of its advantages to the tacksmen, has been a great blessing to the poorer tenantry, who, in the summer quarter, have no other object on which their industry can be profitably exerted.
Yet its benefit does not extend to them so far as might be wished; as every kelp dealer is desirous to have his kelp made as early as possible, (that which is made early being always the best,) the tacksmen, for the sake of expediting the manufacture, portions out his shores in small lots to as many manufacturers as he can find; so that for the most part, the man who gets more than a ton for his lot may reckon himself lucky. In the South Isles, and in a few other situations, where the people have summer grazing for the cattle, a man, assisted by his family, may make 4 or 5 tons in a season. We reckon 350 hands employed in this work which, in a dry season, they finish in the course of 5 or 6 weeks. The employer supplies them in meal, at as easy a rate as it can be purchased' and were it not that in a season of scarcity, they are obliged to buy of this article a quantity sufficient to serve their families till the harvest, they would be generally enabled by their earnings, at the kelp manufacturing, to pay their land rents. The kelp is either sold to a merchant in the country, or sent to market at the risk of the original owner. Some years ago, it fetched in the country for 5 l. to 6 l. per ton. The price has been much on the decline for three years back, owing, it is said, to the quantity of barilla allowed to be imported from a foreign kingdom, almost free of duty. Should the price continue to fall below the resent rate, this manufacture must be entirely given up here, as it will certainly be more profitable for the farmer to use the sea weed as manure for their grounds.
See also the links for further accounts of the kelp trade.