Scottish Life Magazine
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Notes from the Isles

An Island Journal by Kate Francis

Seaweed and birds: my two latest projects. Seaweed was always part of Hebridean life and tales of unscrupulous lairds exploiting their tenants are legion and regrettable. In the old days, there were fortunes to be made from exporting it to the mainland where it was used for the manufacture of a wide variety of products, from gunpowder to beer and cosmetics. In order to ensure that gathering it was a necessary supplement to the family income, landlords would put their tenants onto strips of land so small they were forced to go out -- in often hazardous conditions -- to gather the kelp along the beaches for extra income, towing it back in their small boats to the assembly point in great masses like floating islands. After the Napoleonic Wars, it became cheaper to import kelp from Europe and the bottom dropped out of the home market, leaving the crofters on parcels of land far too small for subsistence.

As well as this lucrative market, seaweed was an essential commodity to the islanders who carted it in creels onto their land where it was used as a valuable and extremely beneficial fertilizer. With this knowledge of my heritage, I have for years been driving along our own seashore here on the Black Isle every morning to collect the paper from our local shop three miles to the east, but it was only recently, on noticing a man gathering seaweed into sacks, that I decided to act. First, I "Googled" it and discovered that it is 100% the best fertilizer and that all one need do is spread it over the earth. I acquired a vast sack, about three feet square, with which I lined the boot of my car. Every morning I now stop the car along the shore and gather vast armfuls of the wonderful weed into bags of a size I can just carry when full, which I tip into the big container in the boot. When this is full I return home and drag my harvest into wheelbarrows, from which I distribute it liberally around the garden. Now, about six weeks later, I can already see the benefit of my labours: everything, including weeds, is growing abundantly, the garden smells deliciously of the seaside... and it is free! Our neighbours seem to think I am balmy, but I suspect they are all secretly rather jealous.

The full text of this column is available in the Autumn 2013 issue of Scottish Life.

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