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|
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.
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.
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.