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29 October 2014
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Warebeth Beach
Warebeth Beach
Seaweed may not seem the most obvious things to make money, but to the crofters and fishermen who made up the population round Warebeth in the 18th and 19th Centuries, harvesting and processing kelp was big business.

Kelp, for the uninitiated in the world of seaweeds, is a type of large seaweed - not a plant but algae - which grows prodigiously in clear shallow seawater. It is well-known for its rapid growth, with some varieties growing up to 30cm per day! However, the Orcadians did not cultivate forests of this marine growth for fun, it was a serious business and the uses of kelp were many.

Kelp ash in particular was a massive money-spinner, it is rich in iodine and is alkali, and even today is used extensively in the production of soap and glass, while a derivative of kelp - alginate - is used as a thickening agent in ice-cream, jelly and even toothpaste.

A section of kelp wall
A section of kelp wall

Seaweed had always been gathered by the locals for use as fertiliser, but it was in the 18th Century, that the local landowners cottoned on that money could made from burning the kelp releasing the potash and soda it contained. The remains of the wall you can see here at the top of the beach in Warebeth is one of the last remaining pieces of hard evidence of what was once a major industry in the islands.

The kelp was laid out on the wall, well above the reach of the tide, and here it lay until it had dried out sufficiently. Next step was moving it to a kelp pit where it would be burned overnight until only the white ash remained.

Throughout the period of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries the kelp industry reached its zenith, with the local landowners making vast profits, while the crofters who did the back breaking labour saw little benefit, and in fact spent so much of the summer involved in the kelp industry that their crofts suffered. At its peak, Orkney was exporting over 3,000 tons of kelp ash every year. However, around 1830 the discovery of deposits of these alkali minerals on the continent sounded the death knell for the Orkney kelp industry.

It's also well worth stepping off the path at this point and heading down on to the beach, as Warebeth beach has an international reputation for fish fossils, so you never know what you may find lying in the rocks.

Directions: Just past the cemetery, the path takes you along the edge of a small cliff skirting round Warbeth Bay.

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