Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Kelp Part 2 - From alginates to neutraceuticals


Kelp burning at Inch Kenneth, Mull, 1817 by William Daniell - picture credit Watercolourworld.org

In Part 1 I described how the kelp industry - the gathering and burning of seaweed to produce a chemical rich material called kelp - had boomed around the turn of the 19th century, then collapsed before reviving on a smaller scale in the 1840s. The revival was more of a sputter than a boom but it lasted longer before ending in the early 1930s. During the original boom, kelp had been sought after as a source of alkalis (specifically sodium carbonate aka soda ash) used to make glass and soap but in the later 19th/early 20th century the valuable products were potash (a fertiliser) and iodine. In both cases, the Scottish industry fell victim to these chemicals becoming more cheaply available from alternative sources. In the 1860s, an English chemist called Edward Stanford had attempted to put the kelp business on a more scientific footing by establishing small factories on Tiree and North Uist. These were not very successful in financial terms but in 1883 Stanford had discovered a new seaweed extract called alginate (so called because seaweed is a type of algae). No commercial application for this had been found as at the end of kelping in the early 1930s but that was soon to change.

Kelp burners in Orkney 1889 - picture credit Am Baile

In 1934, a company called Cefoil Ltd was incorporated and opened a plant at Bellochantuy on the west coast of Kintyre where it tried to develop a "transparent paper" from alginate they intended to call cefoil. Their efforts were stymied by the arrival in the mid-1930s of the rival product cellophane (made from cellulose, a by-product of wood) but the company was saved by the outbreak of WW2. The Ministry of Supply had high hopes for alginates being a new wonder substance, made from raw material washed up on the shore and which might replace more traditional materials such as wood and metal made scarce by wartime conditions: there were even rumours of an experimental De Havilland Mosquito fighter bomber being made from alginate instead of the wood these highly successful aircraft were normally made from. You can read an article about the Bellochantuy factory, with photos of it, here. It closed in 1942 when the Ministry acquired three new sites at Barcaldine on Loch Creran, Kames by Loch Melfort and Girvan to allow Cefoil to expand production. But despite the hopes, the only product alginates were used for to any significant extent was camouflage netting: apparently this was known as "BG netting" standing for "Bloody Good" in contrast to many wartime alternative products labelled NBG (guess).

Concrete foundations of the Bellochantuy alginates factory still visible beside the A83 via Google Streetview

After the war, Cefoil bought the three new sites from the Ministry, changed its name to Alginate Industries Ltd (AIL) and alginates soon found their peacetime niche - making gels, films and thickening agents. For example, alginates is the stuff that gives shampoo its viscosity. And because alginates are edible, they have applications in the food and pharmaceuticals industries. It's the stuff that sausage skins are made of,  keeps the head on a pint of beer and gives toothpaste and ice cream its texture: one of AIL's early post-War breakthroughs was when Walls decided to use alginates in place of gelatine in their ice cream. (I recently noticed a Masterchef contestant  making some kind of sauce filled "bomb" in a capsule of alginate.) Pharmaceutical applications include the coatings of pills. Elsewhere, alginates are important in paper manufacture (the coatings of shiny papers) and textile printing (for reasons I don't understand). Basically, whenever you need a material that's gloopy, rubbery and/or shiny and is also edible, then alginates are likely to have a solution.

Ascophylum nodosum ("asco") at low tide on Loch Roag, Lewis - picture credit Tim Riches

Back on the shores of kyles and Western Isles, the seaweed most in demand for alginate production was egg wrack (or knotted wrack) known in the alginates industry as "asco" after its Latin name ascophyllum nodosumLaminarias ("stem" in industry parlance) were also used to a lesser extent. Asco was cut by hand with sickles by crofters on a part time self employed basis. It was cut on an ebbing tide and roped into rafts which floated off on the rising tide and could be towed by boat to a point where it could be loaded onto a lorry: there's interesting video of the process in present day Ireland here (first video on the page). Harvesting asco involves cutting live plants year round in sheltered sea lochs while gathering stem involves collecting dead plants that have been torn from the seabed during winter storms and washed up ("beach cast") on exposed, generally western facing shores.

Beach cast stem (laminaria) on the west coast of Benbecula

Neither type of weed, asco or stem, is burnt to produce alginates as it was in kelp production. Instead it's dried (stem in the open air, asco in a drying factory) then milled to a coarse grain before being subjected to various chemical processes I don't pretend to understand (except that it involves floatation dejuicers). AIL opened drying and milling factories at Orasay on South Uist in 1944, Sponish at Loch Maddy on North Uist in 1955 and Keose on Loch Erisort on Lewis in 1965 (contemporary news article about the opening of Keose here - scroll to page 3). Due to its location on the west coast of South Uist, the Orosay factory processed stem (laminaria) and asco while the other two concentrated on asco. All three took weed not just from the Outer Hebrides but from the north west mainland coast and Tiree and Orkney (stem only from the latter two locations), collected by puffers and coasters which then took the dried and milled weed south to the floatation dejuicers at Barcaldine and Girvan for manufacture of the alginates. (The Loch Melfort factory closed in the late 1940s but the buildings still stand as you can see here.)

The coaster Glencloy loading weed at Sponish, Loch Maddy, North Uist in 1966 - picture credit Bobby via Shipsnostalgia

The early 1970s represented the high water mark of the seaweed for alginates industry in Scotland. The three Hebridean drying and milling factories between them processed nearly 20,000 tons of wet weed per year.  About 150 crofters, the majority of them in the Outer Hebrides, gathered weed (stem and asco) while a further 200 or so gathered stem in Orkney. About 75 people were employed at the three Hebridean factories and around 800 between the Girvan and Barcaldine alginate production plants. AIL was the world's largest supplier of alginates and sourced roughly a quarter of its weed from Scotland, another quarter from Ireland (where the history of the kelp/seaweed industries was roughly the same as here) and the rest from a variety of sources worldwide.

Cutting asco in Ireland - the cut weed will be enclosed by the blue rope so it floats off in a raft at high tide

In the late 1970s, however, darker clouds began to appear on the horizon of the Scottish alginates industry. In 1979, AIL was taken over by American pharmaceutical giant Merck and merged with their subsidiary Kelco, the Californian company which had pioneered the production of alginates from laminaria growing on the Pacific coast and was the world's second biggest producer. In 1980, Kelco/AIL sold the Keose and closed the Orosay drying and milling factories. Then Sponish closed in 1986. Kelco continued to take wet weed (now transported from the islands in lorries on car ferries due to the intervening demise of the puffer trade) but in ever dwindling quantities until it stopped altogether in 1998: with the alginates market maturing and coming under pressure from lower cost production in China, hand cut Scottish weed transported wet couldn't compete with mechanically harvested dried weed imported from abroad - bewildering as that sounds considering it was coming from places as far afield as Tasmania!

AIL's factory at Barcaldine in 1980 - picture credit (and lots more pictures) Canmore

The Barcaldine factory had previously closed in 1996 leaving the alginate production concentrated at Girvan. Further industry consolidation ensued: in 1999, Kelco (which in 1995 had been sold by Merck to American agri-chemicals giant Monsanto and merged with another subsidiary Nutrasweet) sold its alginates business to International Speciality Products Inc. They in turn sold it in 2009 to another big US chemicals firm, FMC Corp (who had also bid for AIL back in 1979 when Kelco bought it). FMC BioPolymer, as this division of their business was branded, promptly stopped production of alginates at Girvan in 2009 to concentrate its European production in Norway where it's closer to cheaper supplies of mechanically harvested weed. They nevertheless retain the Girvan plant, albeit with a greatly reduced workforce (200 down to 70), for the purposes of blending (mixing different grades of alginate produced elsewhere into a final product tailored to a particular application) and distribution.

Just to complete the tale of global corporate consolidation, in 2017 FMC BioPolymer was transferred by its parent, FMC, to American chemicals giant, DuPont. In exchange, FMC acquired the parts of DuPont's business it was required to divest itself of to clear EU anti-trust obstacles to its (DuPont's) merger with yet another big US chemicals firm, Dow. But it's DuPont's name that's now on the gate at Girvan.

                  
We seem to have wandered a long way from crofters gathering seaweed on Hebridean shores with sickles but behind the scenes of the consolidation in the worldwide alginates industry, the Scottish seaweed business struggled stubbornly on. Alone of the three Hebridean drying and milling plants, that at Keose on Loch Erisort in Lewis had a continued existence after it was disposed of by Kelco in 1980. For a few years it was run by a local weed cutters' co-operative and then had a succession of owners, the last being called Tavay Organic Products Ltd after the tidal islet the factory sits on. After Kelco stopped buying Scottish weed for alginate production at Girvan in 1998, Keose continued to use locally cut seaweed to produce agricultural products including fertilisers and animal feed. But it finally closed in 2003, its elderly equipment no longer economic to run.

The now roofless former seaweed factory at Keose, Lewis as seen on Google Streetview

But still the Scottish seaweed industry refused to die. Rather like when it looked as if kelping had finally come to an end in the early 1930s only for the ember to be fanned back into a flame a year or two later by Cefoil beginning alginates production in 1934, this time a former manager of the defunct Keose factory, Martin Macleod, picked up the torch. In what's almost a sort of apostolic succession from Edward Stanford attempting to put the struggling kelp industry on a more efficient footing with his factory on Tiree in 1860s and subsequently discovering alginates, Macleod formed the Hebridean Seaweed Company in 2005 operating from a new factory at Arnish just south of Stornoway. Hebridean has for the first time successfully brought mechanical harvesting of weed to the Scottish industry. Cefoil experimented with it unsuccessfully in the 1930s but mechanical harvesting has been the norm in other countries such as the USA and Norway for decades and the failure to develop it in Scotland led in no small part to the industry's demise here in the 1990s. Hebridean has a fleet of harvesting boats operating in the sea lochs of Lewis but also employs about 40 cutters working manually with sickles in the traditional way harvesting asco (the 21st century, post-alginates industry doesn't use stem (tangle/laminarias)). Since 2016, Hebridean has been two thirds owned by Irish company Marigot Ltd which owns a portfolio of biotech brands worldwide and in February 2019 they announced plans to expand their factory at Arnish and double the number of their employees to 26 (see here).

A Hebridean Seaweed Company harvester in action - a cross between a pedalo and a ride on lawnmower. Picture credit HM Treasury

Another recent entrant to the post-alginates seaweed revival is Uist Asco Ltd. This began in 2014 when the current generation of the Johnson family re-purposed their quarry on North Uist as a seaweed drying and milling factory in a £1 million investment. They were taken over in 2017 by Canadian company, Acadian Seaplants Ltd. That began in 1981 as a management buyout of the Nova Scotia seaweed harvesting operation of FMC, they who ended alginates production at Girvan in 2009. Acadian also bought Irish seaweed (asco) cutting and processing company Arramara in 2014. That started life in 1947 as none other than AIL's Irish operation (the seaweed industry is a small world!) with all its ouput shipped over to Scotland to be made into alginates at Barcaldine or Girvan. Starting in 1949 the Irish government took a progessively bigger share, ending up with 100% by 2006. Anyway, since taking over Arramara and Uist Asco, Acadian have introduced to Irish and Hebridean waters the Canadian "boat and rake" method of cutting asco - there's a video of that on Arramara's website here (second video on the page).

Boating and raking in the Uists - picture credit Uist Asco

It's interesting to see Uist Asco advertising training for potential new seaweed cutters on their Facebook page. They also recently announced an increase in the rate paid per tonne of wet asco from £28 to £32 (see here). Does this hint that there's a scarcity of cutters? If so, there's nothing new under the sun because the 1968 newspaper article about AIL's factory at Keose I linked to earlier (here - go to page 3) lamented that the plant was only operating at half capacity because not enough crofters were tempted by the offer of 25 shillings (£1.25) per ton. Note that £1.25 in 1968 is about £21 in today's money so there's been a real terms increase. And compare with the situation during the kelp boom of the early 19th century when crofters received somewhere in the region of £5-10 (in today's money) per ton of wet weed.


It's my understanding that cutters are self employed and are simply selling their "produce" to the likes of Uist Asco and Hebridean Seaweed. I'm not sure how that plays out with the fact that HS presumably own the mechanical harvesters and UA the boats and rakes - do the self employed cutters have to pay to rent the kit from the buyers? And considering it's not the cutters but the buyers (UA and HS) who hold the licences from the Crown Estate to take the weed, I wonder if this doesn't makes for a rather dubious employment law position (a la whether Uber drivers are self employed or really employees of Uber etc.).

           
The bread and butter of the post-alginates seaweed industry is animal feed and fertiliser (above): these are the "high volume-low value" (retailing at about £4-5/kg) products of seaweed. But there's also jam in the form of "low volume-higher value" products. Reminding me of the hopes of Edward Stanford in the 1880s and the Government at the start of the War, seaweed has again been hailed in the last decade as the new wonder material capable of curing everything from cancer to climate change. But amongst the higher value applications currently available are:

"healthy option" condiments and seasonings - retailing in the region of £150/kg. An example is  Mara Seaweed who harvest their own weed by hand in Fife where the Scottish kelp industry is thought to have begun back in the late 17th century;

"neutraceuticals" (dietary supplements) - retailing in the region of £500/kg - see here for example;

cosmetics and "cosmeceuticals" (cosmetics with bioactive ingredients purported to have medical benefits) - retailing at as far north as £1,500/kg - see Ishga Organic Seaweed Skincare in which the Hebridean Seaweed Company has a stake.     

The luxury end of the seaweed market

Away from the shelves of Fortnum & Mason and back at the "high volume-low value" end of the spectrum, there's a lot of interest in seaweed's potential for making bio-fuel (ethanol) due to the fact that, by its very nature, it doesn't compete with food crops for land and fresh water. And finally, alginates are trying to make a come back in Scotland. But I'll come back to that in the next chapter.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Old Bridge Inn, Partick

Before I return to kelping, here's a nice mid-winter's New Year image - the Old Bridge Inn at Partick:-

The picture is from the volumes of the Regality Club which contains the following description of the inn written in 1873: it reminds us that Partick was once just a village a few miles outside Glasgow:-

"... fifty years ago [the Old Bridge Inn was] the most popular house in the village. Certainly no house in Partick was better known to Glasgow merchants who were in the habit of coming to the country on a Saturday on Sunday afternoon in search of a good dinner and a quiet glass of toddy. It was then occupied by Mrs. Craig, a stout old lady, who prided herself on the quality of her liquors, as well as in the style in which she could get up a dinner or supper for a large party and her house was a model of cleanliness. Nothing could be more enticing on a winter evening than to look in through the window (not filled with bottles), and see the bright blazing fire in the kitchen, and the wall covered with shining metal measures and meat covers, reflecting the light over the whole apartment, the stone floor whitened over, the deal table scoured to a whiteness one might ake their meat off without cover."

It reads like a scene on a Christmas card! And I thought going out at the weekend for a pub lunch in the country was an invention of the 1970s - it just goes to show nothing's so new as you think and our ancestors 150 years ago did just the same as us.



You can see the inn on the OS 25 inch map of 1860 (above) at the corner of Knowe Street and Bridge Street just north of the eponymous bridge carrying the main road from Glasgow to Dumbarton over the River Kelvin. The picture at the top is taken from standing in Bridge Street looking west over the back of the building which fronts Knowe Street. If you zoom in closely on the map you can see the two external stairs visible in the picture and also the low outbuilding with the chimney at the right of the picture at a slight angle to the main block.

The picture is dated 1890 but I suspect from the dress of the two figures it depicts an earlier view. On the 1893-94 25 inch map (below), the inn is still there but the bridge has gone. The road is now carried across the Kelvin by the present day bridge (at right of the map below) built in 1878. It replaced an earlier bridge just upstream built 1800 (far right) which still stands although now closed to traffic. Knowe Street has also gone and there's a new railway bridge (centre bottom). The blanks and lack of detail to the left suggest to me there's been demolition and unfinished railway redevelopment going on at the date of the map.

I don't know when the Old Bridge Inn closed. I wonder if it was already closed or very shortly to go at the date of the above map - it looks like it's kind of hanging in limbo from the past. Is it significant it's marked as "inn" rather than "P.H." (public house)? Anyway, it no longer appears on the 1932 25 inch map where there appear to be newer buildings on the site just above the railway sidings. Note the addition of today's Benalder Street Bridge a bit to the west of the site of the original bridge.

The area has, inevitably, since been subject to post railway/industrial re-development in the last 25 years such that little of the previous layouts are still recognisable. You can compare these old maps with recent aerial imagery here (use the "Change transparency of overlay" slider). The nearest I could get to the site of the Old Bridge Inn in Google Streetview is here - it must have been right under this building:-

Looking north east - Bridge Street on the left and the Kelvin to the right

The original bridge over the Kelvin which the Old Bridge Inn stood at the north end of and was named after is the one below.

Looking upstream from the west. The Old Bridge Inn stood out of view to the left of this bridge  - Copyright Canmore

It was built about 1577 and demolished in the late 19th century to make way for railways. You've got to love the Victorians for their single-mindedness and not letting history getting in their way! Imagine if the 16th century Old Bridge of Dee were to be just casually swept aside to build the Aberdeen Western Bypass!

Finally, I suspect the "Old" in Old Bridge Inn describes the bridge rather than the inn. This is because the 16th century bridge it stood next to would have become the "Old Bridge" upon the opening of the "new" one in 1800 further upstream (which was in turn replaced by the present Partick Bridge in 1878). I hadn't intended this post to digress from inns into bridges but I couldn't help it!   
   

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Kelp Part 1 - from soda ash to iodine


The distinctive cone of an 18th century glassworks in Glasgow

Soda ash - or to give it its technical name, sodium carbonate - is a type of alkali. That's enough science already, it's a chemical used in the manufacture of glass and soap. But in the 18th century it wasn't a mineral that could be mined or quarried. It is now but back then it had to be extracted from plants found in salty environments by burning them to produce ashes rich in the chemical - hence soda ash. The best plants for this purpose were saltworts native to the coasts of the Iberian peninsula and the Canary Islands the ash of which was called barilla. Second best was seaweed found along Europe's north western seaboard which was burnt to form a mineral rich material called kelp.

Kelp burning in Scotland is said to have begun in Fife in the 1690s. It spread to Orkney in the 1720s then the west coast in the 1740s. But it really took off in the 1790s when the Napoleonic Wars closed off imports of barilla from Spain. The price rose from about £7-8 per ton mid-century to a peak of around £22 in 1800 when Scotland was producing about 20,000 tons of kelp a year.

Smoke from kelp burning features in a number of William Daniell's images, this one at Gribun on the west coast of Mull around 1815.

Kelping was a very labour intensive process as about 20 tons of wet seaweed had to be collected to produce one ton of kelp. Whole families - men, women and children - laboured for a pittance chest deep in the sea cutting weed which was then laid out to dry before being burnt in stone lined pits to produce the valuable kelp, actually a sort of crystalline slag formed when the seaweed melted in the fire then cooled and solidified rather than an ash as such.

An unusually well preserved kelp burning pit in Ardnamurchan - picture credit Heritage Ardnamurchan

Several factors conspired to cause the kelp industry to decline in the first quarter of the 19th century. First, the return of peace in Europe after Waterloo in 1815 allowed imports of barilla from Spain to resume. Second, a process to extract sodium carbonate more cheaply from common salt had been developed around the turn of the century. For a while, tariffs on the import of barilla and excise duties (the same sort of taxes we still pay today on things like petrol, alcohol and tobacco) on salt continued to keep kelp competitive but these were eventually abolished and by 1831 the price of kelp had slumped to £2 per ton.

The collapse of kelping was a disaster for the estimated 40,000 people in the north west of Scotland who had been dependent on the industry. Their coastal smallholdings (these were some of the earliest crofts) were too small to support them year round but there was no alternative employment locally. (For a modern analogy, think of the impact on mining villages of the rundown of the coal industry.) The landowners were reluctant to divide up the large farms (from some of which the kelpers' ancestors had been cleared) but even if they had, it's questionable whether there would have been enough land given the intervening population increase the (relative) prosperity of kelping had contributed to. The result was that many people were forced to emigrate around the middle of the 19th century in some of the grimmest episodes of the Highland Clearances.

Kelp burning on the Shiants by Daniell

But although the kelp industry collapsed in the 1820s, it didn't disappear completely. This is the bit I didn't know - it revived in the 1840s albeit on a much smaller scale and with the kelp now being used as a source, no longer of sodium carbonate for soap and glass making, but of iodine (used in various applications including photographic and medical) and another alkali, potassium carbonate (potash - used as a fertiliser). Glasgow became the centre of British iodine production. In 1845, about 6,000 tons of kelp were imported to the Clyde from the Western Isles, Orkney & Shetland and Ireland. By the early 1860s that figure had risen to 10,000 tons (about 60% of that from Ireland) when the price was around £4/ton. Not as much as the 20,000 tons from Scotland alone at £22/ton in 1820 but a significant industry all the same.

Edward Stanford - picture credit Sussex Photo History

In 1862, a young English chemist, Edward Stanford, published a paper with proposals to improve the production of kelp. He considered the traditional method of burning the seaweed in pits by the seashore was inefficient and wasted of far too much of the valuable potash and iodine which literally went up in smoke. He proposed that, in future, Hebridean crofters' input be confined to gathering and drying the weed which would then be heated in cast iron retorts in a nearby factory. (I don't pretend to understand all the science: you can read it here.)

Whether the retorts in which Stanford proposed to heat seaweed to form kelp looked anything like this, I don't know!

Stanford's paper happened to be noticed by the Duke of Argyll. He was the owner of Tiree which had been a kelping island par excellence during the kelp boom of the turn of the 19th century but had not really participated in the revival of the industry in the 1840s beyond "a few tons occasionally bought at a trifling price by some manufacturer in Glasgow". Unlike the owners of other former kelping islands, Argyll disdained from dealing with the people left redundant by the collapse of kelping by clearance and forced emigration, preferring instead a more gradual process of natural wastage coupled with voluntary emigration. Given Tiree's seaweed resource, he was naturally interested in the prospect of a modernised kelp industry to give much needed employment on the island so he contacted Stanford to suggest he give his ideas a trial there.

Haughty? Moi? George John Douglas Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll 1823-1900

Thus was born The British Seaweed Company to which the Duke ("a very hard man to deal with" according to Stanford) leased a site for a factory at Middleton on the west coast of Tiree - it was spotting this on the OS maps which got me inquiring into the kelp industry in the second half of the 19th century which I had not previously known about:-

Ordnance Survey 25 inch map via National Library of Scotland

Establishing a factory in a place like Tiree in the 1860s was challenging. Stanford supervised the operation personally and you can read his review of the year 1863 - a "hand to hand uphill combat with trouble and difficulty" - on the excellent Tiree Historical Centre's An Iodhlann website here. Not only were there logistical challenges such as there being no pier at Tiree on which to land kit such as cast iron retorts or evaporating pans (one of which drifted alarmingly far out to sea in the course of being floated ashore), there was an absence of creature comforts including:

no stimulant of any kind sold in the whole island. ... We were much surprised to find no place of convenience in the island, and I was for a long time afflicted with piles and boils from the total absence of fresh meat and vegetables.

Stanford also recounted some of his experiences to the Napier Commission (the one which gave rise to the crofting legislation) in 1883. You can read them here (scroll to paragraph 44379 on page 511 of the pdf) but one particular passage is worth recounting here:-

some [of the Tiree islanders] thought the Sassenach was a Frenchman, and their ideas about Napoleon were still very warlike; indeed, every nationality claimed me in turn. Others thought my object was to dig up the dead bodies, and boil them down for the fat (there was little of that to spare then amongst the living); others, the majority, took a violent hatred against me, because they thought I was an excise officer sent to look after the illicit stills. They would do nothing for me; they would sell me nothing. Bread and meat could not be got; and much fine turbot and halibut was cut up for bait, but not for me. However this did not last long, and I soon got on very well with them; for I had promised his Grace [the Duke of Argyll] to employ the people as much as possible.  

Undaunted, the British Seaweed Company proceeded to another a similar factory at the head of Loch Eport on North Uist where they paid the landowner, Sir John Orde, £1,000 a year (about £120,000 in today's money) for the exclusive seaweed rights of the island plus the factory site and a small farm to keep the horses employed in carting the dried weed from the shore. (There was also a similar farm on Tiree).

Ordnance Survey 6 Inch Map via National Library of Scotland

North Uist was, in fact, less challenging than Tiree because at least Loch Eport was a sheltered harbour where materials could be more easily landed. The North Uist factory was also fired by locally sourced peat (600 tons a year) whereas, there being no peat on Tiree, coal had to be imported there, another arduous task on an island with no pier. As well as the hotel where "stimulants" and "conveniences" were doubtless on offer, there was also a bank at Lochmaddy. There wasn't one on Tiree which greatly complicated the otherwise mundane task of obtaining cash to pay the islanders for the weed they'd collected - in his evidence to the Napier Commission, Stanford tells of the "schedules" of Tiree sailing smacks involving waking the manager of the Clydesdale Bank at Tobermory in the middle of the night to cash a cheque. And of a clerk being sent out from Glasgow on a steamer in winter with £300 who returned with it about three weeks later after an extensive trip to just about every other island in the Hebrides apart from the one he'd been sent to!     

The kelp factory at Loch Eport

Tiree was worth persevering with, though, because the quality of the seaweed there was much higher than in the Uists. The reason for that was that the Tiree weed was washed up on rocky shores whereas the Uist weed was washed up on the sandy beaches of the west coast of these islands and the sand contaminated it. This brings us to the types of seaweed involved. The favoured species in the late 18th/early 19th century kelp boom when sodium carbonate for use in glass and soap making was the goal was weed of the fucus type. This grew in more sheltered sea lochs and was cut from the rocks at low tide in summer.

Bladder wrack - fucus vesiculosis - was one of the species preferred during the kelp boom

But the weed preferred in the second half of the 19th century when iodine was the goal was laminaria. This is commonly known as tangle but the word "kelp" also applies to this type of weed itself as well as to the ashes of weed (of any type). Tangle was torn from the seabed by winter storms and washed up on western facing shores where it was gathered. The preference for tangle in pursuit of iodine explains why the kelping industry revived in very exposed spots such as Tiree and the Uists but not more sheltered spots like Skye and Mull where fucus had been gathered.

Tangle washed up on a beach on the west coast of South Uist - picture credit Alasdair Campbell

I think I'm right in saying that the end product of the British Seaweed Company's Hebridean factories was kelp - i.e. merely the ashes of the burnt (or rather heated in retorts) seaweed rather than potash and iodine. I think the kelp was transported to the company's chemical works beside the Forth & Clyde Canal in the appropriately named Stanford Street in Clydebank for conversion into the final product. In fact, Stanford lived the rest of his life in Scotland at Glenwood House, Dalmuir (now demolished) and was a magistrate of the burgh of Clydebank.  

The timing of Stanford's Hebridean venture in the 1860s was unfortunate. The discovery of naturally occurring potash at Stassfurt in Eastern Germany at about the same time promptly put an end to the market for that particular product. Then, in the 1870s, iodine, the market for which seems to have been volatile at the best of times, began to become more cheaply available from a mineral called caliche imported from South America.  In 1876, the British Seaweed Company was in liquidation (advert for the sale of the Clydebank works here) but Stanford arranged new finance and the business was rescued and continued under the new name of North British Chemical Company. It continued to struggle, though, and by 1883 when he was appearing before the Napier Commission, Stanford admitted that his landlords had reduced his rent and that he would continue the business "as long as it can be carried on without loss" - when pressed by the Commissioners about whether that was imminent, he was coy. His North Uist landlord, Sir John Orde, told the Commission there simply hadn't been any tangle (laminaria) washed up on the shores of that island that year.

Some islanders preferred to continue burning their own kelp and selling that to Stanford rather than just gathering weed for him. This George Washington Wilson photo shows kelp being burnt on North Uist in the 1880s - picture credit Am Baile 

But if he'd been guarded to the Commission about his financial prospects, Stanford was still optimistic about the prospects for new discoveries. In fact, in the same year, 1883, he patented a new chemical extracted from seaweed, alginate. Unfortunately, no viable commercial application for this had been achieved by Stanford's death in 1899. His North British Chemical Company had already been merged with the United Alkali Company formed in 1890 to group smaller family owned chemical companies - paradoxically, one of the UAC's focus areas was manufacturing sodium carbonate by the process which had put the original kelp boom out of business!

Whether or not directly related to the UAC takeover and Stanford's death, I don't know but the Tiree kelp  factory closed in 1901. There's a picture of it after closure here and it was demolished in 1941 with its materials being used in the foundations of the airfield on Tiree. I presume the Loch Eport factory on North Uist closed around the same time but it was not used in the construction of Benbecula aerodrome and still stands today. It's not a listed building or on any tourist trails but I think it should be:-

Google Streetview here - if you turn to your right, the cottage behind you is called Kelp Cottage

By restricting imports of rival raw materials, WW1 provided a temporary filip for the kelp industry but otherwise it seems to have just bumped along the bottom during the first few decades of the 20th century. Then, in the early 1930s, a trade war between Japan (supplier of seaweed) and Chile (supplier of iodine bearing minerals) slashed the price of iodine. Kelping looked to be finished forever except for one small ember left smouldering and destined to carry the seaweed business on. But as this is getting overlong, I'll continue the story in a subsequent post.

Kelp burning on Tiree in the 1930s - picture credit isleoftiree.com

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

McCaig's Tower

As a lawyer (retired), I'm naturally interested in legal cases that took place along the Kyles and Western Isles. Apart from the points of law involved, case reports often reveal interesting historical detail. Thus, I've written before about the legal sequels to the wreck of the brigantine Aid of Dundee off the coast of Harris in 1819 (here); the sinking of the Islay mail steamer Lochiel in 1960 (here); and a dispute between rival ferry operators across Kyle Akin (here). So here's another episode from the legal archives, this time concerning McCaig's Tower, the great rotunda which crowns Oban's skyline.

Photo credit - Gerhard Lehner

The tower was built in the 1890s by Lismore born local bank manager, John Stuart McCaig. You can read about its construction in this article on Undiscovered Scotland. The article also speculates about what more McCaig may have intended for the site before he died just as the Tower was being completed in 1902. Well, the litigation which ensued from the terms of his will provides the answers.

One of a family of nine none of whom married, Stuart McCaig lived at the time of his death with his two surviving siblings, his brother Duncan and sister Catherine. They lived at John Square, in Oban (described in the Ordnance Survey name book as "a superior block of building on the west side of George Street", it no longer exists having been replaced by a parade of shops with the same name: see here) which Stuart and Duncan owned jointly. Duncan died a month after Stuart leaving Catherine as the sole heir to both of them.

Plaque above the entrance to the Tower - picture credit Andrew Bowden

Stuart McCaig left an estate consisting of real estate yielding an annual rent of around £2,500 (about £300,000 in today's money) plus moveable estate (banks accounts, stocks, shares etc.) of about £10,000 (around £1 million today). But all Catherine was left out of this fortune was a life annuity of £300 (£35,000 today). The rest of Stuart's estate was left in trust for the following purposes:-

erecting monuments and statues for myself, brothers, and sisters on the tower or circular building called the Stuart M'Caig Tower, situated on the Battery Hill above Oban, the making of these statues to be given to Scotch sculptors from time to time as the necessary funds may accumulate for that purpose; also that artistic towers be built on the hillock at the end of Aird's Park, in the parish of Muckairn, and on other prominent points on the Muckairn estate, and on other prominent places on the various estates; such in particular on the Meolreoy of Balagown, lying north-east of Kilachonish farmhouse; my wish and desire is to encourage young and rising artists, and for that purpose prizes be given for the best plans of the proposed statues, towers, etc.,

In a codicil signed a few months before his death, McCaig added the following detail:-

I have to describe and explain that I particularly want the trustees to erect on the top of the wall of the tower I built in Oban, statues in large figures of all my five brothers and of myself, namely, Duncan, John, Dugald, Donald, Peter, and of my father Malcolm and of my mother Margaret, and of my sisters Jean, Catherine, Margaret and Ann, and that these statues be modelled after photographs, and where these may not be available that the statues may have a family likeness to my own photograph or any other member of my foresaid family and that those statues will cost not less than one thousand pounds sterling [£115,000 today].

Oban in the 1870s before McCaig's Tower had been built - picture credit National Galleries of Scotland

Stuart McCaig had also specified in his will that his trustee was to be Glasgow University but that the trust was to be managed locally by his lawyer, Donald McGregor. The latter had a concern that the will (which had been written by McCaig personally) contained two mistakes which a lawyer wouldn't have made - it didn't say what was to happen to Stuart's moveable estate and didn't say what was to happen to the real estate after the towers and statues had been paid for. So McGregor got Catherine - as Stuart's next of kin who would inherit anything not disposed of by his will - to sign a "Deed of Assignation and Corroboration" whereby she agreed that the towers and statues were to be paid for out of the moveable as well as the real estate and that, after the statues and towers had been erected on the two sites specifically mentioned in the will, the whole remaining estate (real and moveable) was to be applied towards endowing a new chair at Glasgow University to be called the John Stuart McCaig Chair for teaching "sculpture, painting, music, or other fine art or kindred objects".   

Not long after, Catherine began to have doubts about all this. In the ensuing litgation, she alleged she had asked the lawyer, Mr MacGregor, to see Stuart's will but he had refused. Then, even more audaciously, the lawyer asked her to sign another document making over the share in the house at John Square she had inherited from Duncan in return for the right to live there rent free for the rest of her life. This she refused to do and instead raised court actions against the University and McGregor to set aside the Deed of Assignation and Corroboration (which, she alleged, she had signed only because she was elderly, in frail health and grieving the recent deaths of her brothers and had lacked independent legal advice) and Stuart's will and codicil itself.

A view of Oban of Oban showing McCaig's Tower at an early stage of its construction in the 1890s. This is a photo I took of a photo hanging in the Calmac Terminal Building at Oban

In fairness to the memory of Donald McGregor, the legal case reports don't reveal whether Catherine McCaig's allegations of his questionable ethics were proved. This is because the reports are more concerned with the points of law arising than the actual outcomes for the parties. All we're told is that the court decided there was a stateable case fit to be sent for trial by jury. We're not even told if the Deed of Assignation and Corroboration was, in the end, set aside although I think it must have been or the parallel case to set aside the will and codicil could not have proceeded. In regard to that, Catherine's lawyers realised that, while Stuart had undoubtedly been somewhat eccentric, they could not go so far as to claim he was mentally unbalanced rendering his will vulnerable to challenge on that account. So they had to attack it on the more subtle ground that the detail of the towers and statues scheme was too vaguely expressed in the will to be put into effect - for example, were the eleven statues of the McCaigs to cost £1,000 in total or £1,000 each?

The first judge consulted dismissed this argument and upheld the will, albeit not without some hesitation. But ruling that the intention was that the statues be £1,000 each, he remarked that the towers and statues scheme:

may be fantastic, and may result in what most people will consider waste of money. But the money was Mr. M'Caig's, and the project is neither, so far as I can see, contrary to public policy or morals, nor [referring to a recent case in which a bequest "for the advancement and diffusion of the science of phrenology" had been upheld] more vague and indefinite in scope than some of the schemes which have been held to be within the recognition of the law.

Inside the Tower at dusk - picture credit Andras Sobester

Catherine McCaig appealed. This time her lawyers deployed a different legal argument, namely, that one can only disinherit one's nearest of kin by a legacy which benefits someone else or the public at large whereas Stuart's towers and statues scheme was of no benefit to anyone. With this the four appeal judges agreed: the incidental benefits in the shape of the prizes rising young artists stood to win didn't count. Nor did this fall within the recognized exceptions of bequests for memorials to historical personages or events or for "beautifying or embellishing a town or neighbourhood" which are of public benefit.

On this narrow technical ground (that the towers and statues scheme didn't benefit anyone), the appeal judges rested their judgement overturning the will. But it didn't prevent two of them expatiating on their personal views of Stuart McCaig and his scheme. The Lord Justice Clerk said:-

He seems to have been possessed of an inordinate vanity as regards himself and his relatives, so extreme as to amount almost to a moral disease, though quite consistent with sanity.

And Lord Kyllachy said:-

I consider that, if it is not unlawful, it ought to be unlawful, to dedicate ... the whole income of a large estate ... to objects ... which have no other purpose or use than that of perpetuating at great cost, and in an absurd manner, the idiosyncrasies of an eccentric testator. ... Indeed, I suppose it would be hardly contended to be [lawful] if the purposes, say of the trust here, were to be slightly varied, and the trustees were, for instance, directed to lay the truster's estate waste, and to keep it so; or to turn the income of the estate into money, and throw the money yearly into the sea; or to expend the income in annual or monthly funeral services in the testator's memory; or to expend it in discharging from prominent points upon the estate, salvoes of artillery upon the birthdays of the testator, and his brothers and sisters.





Thus did Catherine McCaig eventually inherit her brother's fortune except that it wasn't mere avarice which had motivated her to challenge his will. Rather, according to one of the appeal judges, it was because she did not wish to see her family ridiculed by being immortalised in such an extravagant manner. Thus, when she, a spinster with no known surviving relatives at all, made her own will in 1908 she provided for a modest statue of her brother Major Duncan McCaig to be put up in front of the Volunteer Drill Hall in Breadalbane Street in which he had been active. That done, she directed her trustees to hold the remainder of her estate and apply the annual income in the following order: (1) upkeep of Duncan's statue; (2) a supplement of £20 per annum to the stipend of the United Free Church Minister of her native Lismore; (3) £20pa to Oban Town Council to spend on coal for "deserving poor people in Oban"; (4) annuities of £20/30 to three friends; and (5) the rest towards:-

the assistance of the education and maintenance of Gaelic-speaking students at Scottish schools, universities, or church colleges, in providing lectures calculated to further the knowledge, use, and study of Gaelic language and literature

and finally for erecting and equipping a building in Oban to be called the McCaig Memorial Institute.

But then Catherine - mindful perhaps that the bulk of her estate (worth about £30,000 or about £3 million today) had been inherited from Stuart and that she had only got this because she had challenged his towers and statues scheme and that it might be only be fair give his pet schemes a chance before implementing her own - had a change of heart. She made a codicil to her will. This specified that, after the statue of Duncan had been provided for but before anything was spent on UF Ministers, deserving poor, friends or Gaelic education, McCaig's Tower was to be fenced off to exclude the public, its interior leveled off and bronze statues costing not less than £1,000 each of herself and her parents and eight siblings be erected inside. As that was estimated to absorb the whole of the trust income for at least eight years, the Lismore UF congregation, Oban Town Council and the three friends, all of whose annual payments would be delayed, challenged the codicil in court.

Lismore United Free Church as seen in Google Streetview

This time, the legal debate centred on the question of whether Catherine's statues scheme fell within the recognised exception to the rule that a trust must benefit someone (or the general public) which allows a family memorial "on a customary and rational scale" (usually in a cemetery) or a proportionate statue or monument (usually somewhere else) to a national or local celebrity. The judges consulted were unanimously of the opinion it did not. Describing it as a "sheer waste of money", Lord Salvesen continued:-

The prospect of Scotland being dotted with monuments to obscure persons who happened to have amassed a sufficiency of means, and cumbered with trusts for the purpose of maintaining these monuments in all time coming, appears to me to be little less than appalling.

These comments in the written judgement were, however, comparatively mild compared with the Lord Justice Clerk's remarks in court alluding to a dramatic recent turn of events in the course of WWI as reported in the Glasgow Herald (page 11, 2nd column) :-

It's a good thing [Catherine's statues scheme] is limited to statues and not to obelisks such as are set up. These things are monstrous. ... It would be useful if Zeppelins could come and knock them down. 

View from McCaig's Tower over Oban Harbour - picture credit Oban ships and scenery

In light of the judicial mockery of the McCaigs, therefore, it's pleasing to record that Catherine's trust for the promotion of Gaelic was duly set up and remains very much in existence today - you can read about it here. The United Free Church of Lismore didn't merge with the Church of Scotland in 1929 as most UF congregations did but carried on as a "UF Continuing" congregation until it closed in 1970 - read about that here. And all I could find out about the statue of Major Duncan McCaig (which the courts did permit) was this selfie on Instagram:-

Duncan on the left: Picture credit NS Design Ltd

But I don't know where the statue is - the Corran Halls perhaps? I do know the site of the Volunteer Drill Hall where it was originally to have been put up is now occupied by two blocks of 60s looking flats at 12-14 Breadalbane Street so perhaps Duncan was moved to his present location when they were built.

Which just leaves to be located the "Meolreoy of Balagown" which Stuart McCaig identified as an eligible site for one of his artistic towers. I think it must be the hill called Meall Reamhar on the OS maps on the west shore of Loch Nell between Ballygowan and Killiechoinich Farms about 2 miles south east of Oban. I don't know that area but from a virtual drive round in the Google Streetview car, the Meolreoy doesn't seem to be a very prominent feature - maybe an artistic tower is just what it needs.