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By RW Letich, unidentified periodical article
In the late 1700s, the Highlands and Islands had but one material to contribute to the great industrial expansion which was transforming the south: this was kelp, the extraction from seaweed of an alkaline ash used particularly in the manufacture of glass and soap. The first kelp making trials had taken place in North Uist as early as 1735.
It was not until after 1750 that kelp making began to spread on any scale through the Islands. The gently shelving sinuous coastlines of the Long Island provided a plentiful supply of seaweed, a ready available seasonal workforce and extensive pasturage on the machair lands for the ponies which were used in hauling the weed from the shores to the drying greens and burning kilns.
By 1834, the price of kelp had slumped to 3 per ton from a peak of 20 per ton in 1810, due to the repeal of the salt duties, the lowering of import duties and the opening of foreign trade. However, it was not the ordinary kelper who benefited. Power lay with a small group of landlords who acted as middlemen - in effect, kelp magnates.
By reserving rights of using the kelp when letting the land, landlords were able to set the kelpers to work on their own terms. Labour was paid by the piece, usually at between 2 and 3 per ton and this price failed to rise in line with the price of the product. At most, in one season, the kelper and his family could produce 4 tons but income gained from this was not profit; it went to pay rents, once more to the landlord.