Monday 15 August 2011

When Kelping First Came to North Uist

Sollas / Solas, North Uist / Uibhist a Tuath
In this historical narrative Alexander Carmichael noted down the origins of how the kelping industry was first introduced to North Uist. This anecdote was recited by Alexander MacDonald (fl. 1850), known as Alasdair na h-Aibhne, who hailed from Claddach Kirkibost, North Uist. The first part of the story tells of the arrival of Am Moraire Bàn, the by-name of Sir Alexander MacDonald of Sleat (c. 1740–1795) along with his wife and family. Judging from the next part of the narrative, the North Uist people were then living in a state of dire poverty and this is probably the catalyst behind the introduction of kelping to North Uist as Kingsburgh, yet another Alexander MacDonald (c. 1689–1772), saw that there was ‘plenty of gold on the shores & rocks of Lochmaddy.’ Surprisingly, perhaps, the expertise for the manufacture of kelping is said to have originated in Ireland for a dozen Irishmen were brought in to teach the locals how to go about burning the seaweed most effectively in order to produce the precious ash which resulted from such a process. Unfortunately, an unforeseen mishap occurred whereby nearly all of them were burned when one of the kelp kilns exploded but this, it seems, never put off any of the locals who remained unhurt and who then went on to become successful kelp-makers in their own right.

When the Moraire Ban and his wife
& 3 child[ren] & factor Kingsburgh came to Uist The
family lived at Sollas partly. They went round
& when they reac[hed] Bailemhartain they found a man
plough[ing] with two horses & 2 cows all of which were mere
skeletons. Kinsg [Kingsburgh] told the man that Lady Macdonald
had come among her Uist tenantry for assist[ance] to enable
her to educate her child & that she expext[ed] 5/- fr[om] each
crofter. The crofter told him that there were only £3 [of money] in the
whole of Uist & that this was sent from one man to another
ment[ionin]g the dif[erent]t per[son] who had the use of it an[d] where
it was lying there. Lady Mac[donald] wept & said that she
could not ask money of people so poor. Kinsg [Kingsburgh]
then asked the man if they would make kelp. The
man asked what that was. Kinsg [Kingsburgh] told him & that
there was plenty of gold on the shores & rocks of
Lochmaddy that they w[ou]ld get £1 a ton for the kelp
& that Lady MacDon[ald] would have 5/- profit
out of this & that he w[oul]ld send them min gheal chor
A vessel with 12 Irishmen then came to L[och]maddy
& began kelp[ing]. The peop[le] on the west side heard this & they
flocked to L[och]maddy to see the oper[ation] The Irish
had the kelp kilns in full operation. The 12 men
went to the sea to fetch buckets of water which they
threw into the kilns. They then progged the burning
kelp with their long oak cabers expecting
thereby to burn & frighten the Uist people. The
burning kelp flew out in all direct[ion]s & burnt most
severally 11 of the Irish men & all the Uist peop[le]
escaped injuries. One Irish man alone rem[aine]d
to carry his comp[anions] to the smack where they lay
a long time at deaths door. And so this was the beg[inning]
of kelp making in N[orth] Uist.

CW116/165, ff. 62r–63r.
Image: Sollas / Solas, North Uist / Uibhist a Tuath.

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Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [©]