Kelp Burning In The Glens of Antrim by Douglas Harper

By Douglas Harper


The burning of seaweed to make kelp was one of the oldest traditional industries to flourish round the coasts of Ireland.  For some it was their only livelihood; to most it was a seasonal occupation which brought them those little extras to make life more comfortable.  A new suit or frock worn to Church in Carnlough brought the remark, “The kelp is shining on you”

The prosperity of this industry lay in the large proportion of iodine which kelp contains. From earliest times the ash of the seaweed, mixed with animal fats, was used as an antiseptic and ointment for cuts and sores. Iodine extracted from seaweed was also used in the preparation of aniline dyes, and with the invention of the camera, proved to be a valuable source of silver iodide, a light—sensitive chemical used in photography.

A considerable amount of work is necessary in order to obtain this iodine, a ton of good kelp producing as little as 22 lbs. of this precious medicine. The type of seaweed required for the production of the kelp from which the iodine was extracted was the tangle or laminaria, to which, as well as to the ashes, the term kelp is applied. In the Carnlough-Glenarm area it is known as ‘berros’ pronounced with the accent on the ‘0’. The best weeds were gathered on rocky shores and there is no tradition in the glens of cutting the tangle from the rocks as there is in Rathlin (Raghery), and in other parts of Ireland. In the Glens the weed was gathered during winter by the farmers in whose lands this harvest of the sea was deposited. Tangle thrown up in water was best, for it had to be free from sand which not only harmed the mixture, but, during the burning, increased the heat too much and so reduced the yield.

All had a part to play, men women and children, for after a north-east gale the seaweed would lie thick on the rocks, ready for the gathering.  On Rathlin the men cut it from the rocks, with long handled knives, and raked it from the surf with kelp hooks or ‘drags’ as they were called.  These were like three tined forks fitted with handles as much as 20 feet long. 

It was then spread on rocks and walls to be dried by the sun, and turned and shaken out again until the weed became dry enough to be burnt. The thick stem of the weed was considered best for kelp purposes and these were gathered and dried through the winter during favourable weather. In May, after the spring storms, the long broad leaves of the tangle would be thrown on show. This ‘May-wrack’, though not as prized as the stem, was used to supplement the harvest; indeed it was needed when a man had to gather 3 cwt. of tangles which when dried gave him only 1 cwt. of fuel for the kiln. After a fortnight or so of good weather, the dried tangles were built into cocks on beds of stone and whin, to allow air to circulate from underneath. The wise man then arranged the top layers criss-crossed to throw off the rain, or thatched the cocks with sod or rushes, for many a stack of tangles was lost through rain getting in. A Carnlough man remembers tangles drying on the walls, and innumerable stacks disposed along the Coast Road the whole way from the Dog’s Nose, Fallavee, to Drains Bay.  Horses were quite often frightened and shied at the effect produced by the unusual shapes. A favourite ploy of the young was to toss the stacks down into the road ‘for a bit of crack.’

Towards the beginning of June the old kilns were built up, some with loose stones on top of the ground, others dug down level with the surface. The dimensions differed according to the amount of kelp a farmer produced, but most were from 12 feet to 15 feet long, 2 feet to 3 feet wide, and 3 feet deep. The bed would be paved with smooth, flat stones. It was the general custom in the Carnlough area to line the sides also with smooth stones, but in Cushendun the crevices were sealed with red clay. Across the top were placed iron bars ‘as thick as your arm’, on which the dried tangles would be piled. A kiln, in a good state of preservation, can be seen at Bottle Point, about a mile north of Carnlough.

On the selected day two attendants would commence operations about 4 am or 5 am. Dried whins were burned in the kiln till the rocks were aglow; the dried tangles were then placed on the bars and burned readily. That material in the tangle not capable of burning in the furnace melted, and coalesced in the pit below the bars into a red, hot, molten mass, with a consistency similar to porridge. As the fire burned through, more tangles and wreck in alternate layers were added in a continuous process, requiring the attention of both men till all the tangles were burnt.  Long wooden poles, traditionally of ash, were used to stir the kelp and to lift the tangles, allowing air to circulate. It was both an arduous and job. On Rathlin the girls engaged in the work, much concerned about their complexions, would go into one of the several sweat houses on the island, and, in the manner of a sauna bath today, recover their former pristine loveliness.

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All along the coast during the early part of June the white, oily smoke from many kilns, would be floating skyward. The illustration of Carrick-a-Rede by T. M. Baynes in his book ‘Ireland Illustrated’ (1831) shows Rathlin in the background with several good plumes of smoke rising from the shore. The smell of the smoke was so penetrating that people living in Cushendun could tell when Carnlough or Rathlin were burning the kelp. The farmers farther inland would nod sagely and say, “Burning the tangles will bring the rain.”

The burning continued while any tangles remained, or until the kiln was full, generally taking from twelve to twenty-four hours of cautious and careful work, for it was possible to spoil it by burning the kelp more than was required. A final stir with the long poles was given to ensure all was well and truly reduced to ash. It was then left for a day or so to cool. In Cushendun as the mass of kelp slowly hardened it was tracked with a spade into squares and while it was still hot, cold salt water was thrown on it.

When cold the kelp is a bluish colour, is as hard as rock, and heavier. It was necessary at this stage to break it up into blocks, a foot to a foot and a half square, and each block could weigh about a hundredweight or this was done with ‘jumpers’ or small crowbars, and hammers. In Carnlough where the kilns were built above ground, one long side was taken out to ease the task of breaking it up. As already described, in Cushendun the salt water method was used in the deeper kilns there. The kelp was then loaded in sacks and drawn up from the beach on a slide car.

A Carnlough lady remembers running home from school to be first into the now empty kiln, to break off and suck the bits of salt which encrusted the inside walls.

On a day appointed by the agent, Alec Crawford of Carnlough, the kelp was drawn by wheel car to the harbour. There it was weighed in two hundredweight lots, and stored in the long Kelp Shed, which can still be seen on the quayside. It was this Alec Crawford, who in 1912 presented individual Communion cups to Carnlough Presbyterian Church in memory of his wife. From Carnlough the kelp was carried by Capt. Wm. Thompson in the sailboat ‘Eugenie’ to Glasgow. Another boat concerned in the trade was ‘The Advance’ owned by Highlandmen.

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Many were the tricks to give the kelp extra weight; some added iron ore to it when in the molten state, others weren’t too worried if a stone fell in from the side of the kiln, or gravel was picked up from the bed. There was general agreement however that Alec Crawford knew his business and was quick to reduce his price for inferior kelp. In 1912 when the industry ceased in Carnlough he was paying from £5 to £5 10 0 per ton. This was a good return for the effort when one considers that a cow at that time sold for £4.

The kelp burners from the Giant’s Causeway to Cushendun were notified by the agent in Ballycastle to bring in their kelp. The postcards would come about the 10th June with the admonition, ‘No gravel, stones, or sand’. From Torr the kelp would be taken by boat to Cushendun, and then by wheel car or cart to Ballycastle or sometimes to Carnlough.  A good load on a cart was 34 1/4. At Ballycastle it was weighed: first the loaded cart, then the cart empty, and it behoved the agent to note more was coming off the cart, between the two weighing’s, than the kelp. If the wings could be slipped off unseen, then a lighter cart meant a bigger weight of kelp and more money in your pocket to spend in Ballycastle. The boat, ‘The Glentow’ of 150 tons carried the kelp to Scotland. The last year in which kelp was exported from Ballycastle was 1914, and the price had risen to 5s.9d per cwt.

Several attempts were made in the 1930-36 period to revive the industry. Dan McGaghan of Waterfoot was paying £10 per ton for ash, but it was not enough to tempt the farmers, and after two years no more was heard of the scheme. Later still in 1966 there was fresh hope of survival as a factory was then operating in Kilkenin, Co. Galway offering £10 per ton for dried seaweed. The fresh interest in seaweed comes from the nutritionists who have discovered a need for some of the rarer vitamins to be mixed with animal foods.

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During the 18th century the linen industry in Ulster expanded greatly under the impetus of the Huguenots, and of the English Government’s decision to remove the duties on Irish linens.  Bleaching was an

essential process in the finishing of the linen, and this consisted of boiling the cloth as many as seven times in a solution of potash. This potash was obtained from kelp.

Dr W. Hamilton, writing of a visit to Raghery in 1784 says that in that year 100 tons of kelp were exported from the island and bought by linen bleachers of the North of Ireland at £5-5-0 per ton, the whole representing £525. He says, “When one considers that the annual rent for the island in that year was £600, the importance of the industry to the prosperity of the communities along the coast is re-emphasised.”


Dr Hamilton also commends the astuteness of the Scots in the kelp trade, “The attention and industry of the Scotch nation has been very successfully directed to the kelp trade of this part of the north of Ireland. Scotch kelp has, for many years, borne a fairer character and of course a higher price in England, than the same article from this country. Of this difference the Scots have industriously made advantage for themselves, buying up the kelp of this coast at the Irish price, and thence transporting it in their own vessels to the English market, under the more marketable character, and higher price, of Scotch kelp.”

In W. S. Mason’s ‘Parochial Survey of Ireland’, Rev. R. S. Dobbs m 1817 says of Ardclinis and Laid, “Kelp is burned along the shore_____________. Some of it goes to Coleraine, some to Larne, some is shipped to Liverpool, where, perhaps most of it finds its ultimate destination.” It is odd that he makes no mention of the Scottish market here, as Dr Hamilton laid such stress on it just a few years before.

The first record I can find of the export of kelp from Ireland is in J. C. Curwen’s ‘State of Ireland’ written in 1813 where he records the Annual Average Export of Kelp during the years 1702-1809.

Year Annual average export of kelp 1702 -118 tons, 1752- 742 tons, 1772- 1268 tons, 1802- 1778 tons, 1808- 4182 tons, 1809- 5410 tons.

An interesting feature of the above table is the steady increase in exports during the eighteenth century showing an average annual increase of 16 tons over the years 1702-1802. Compare this with the following 7 years when it shot up to 518 tons per year.  This is due, I believe, to the growth of industry during the early nineteenth century, when greatly increased quantities of soap, bleaching materials, and glass were required.

The following entry was taken from the Grand Jury Presentment Book for Co. Antrim 1711-1721 and appears to white to some kind of payment or subsidy made by the County to the persons named;    27—8-1712 at Carrickfergus

£3-0-7 1/2 T0 the following persons likewise for burning Kelp 

                                                                           Tons                                                             Quarters                                                              Cwts.

Elaxender Burgess of Glen                            3                                                                     0                                                                            0

Susanna Neillson of same                             3                                                                     2                                                                            0

Daniell Orr of Islandmagee                           1                                                                     0                                                                            1

5 others of same                                             1                                                                     0                                                                            1

John Hay of Magheramorne                         1                                                                     2                                                                            0

2 others of same                                             1                                                                     2                                                                            0


£0-13-9 levied off the County, paid W. Scrooge for burning  5 1/2 tons Kelp.

£0-11-10 1/2 levied off the County, paid S. Kay for burning 4 3/4 tons Kelp

£0-8-1 1/2 levied off the County, paid to J. Kay for burning 3 1/4 tons Kelp

£1- 5-0 levied off the County, paid to J. Wilson for burning 10 tons Kelp

£0- 6-3 levied off the County, paid J. Wilson (Granshough) 2 1/2 tons Kelp

In the 1712 table the rate per ton appears to be 6/9, While in 1716 it has dropped to 2/6.

An advertisement in the Belfast News Letter of 1780 reads:

‘Kelp’ To be sold by auction, about sixty tons of well made Galway Kelp, On Saturday the 15th. Instant, at 12 o’clock, newly landed into the stores of Thomas Blackley, Custom-House Quay, Approved Bills or Notes, at three months, will be taken in Payment, or Discount for Cash; to be set up in Parcels agreeable to the Bidders,

Belfast 11 July 1780

Father Webb’s extracts from the Campbeltown Customs Records first mentioned in 1822. On 22nd August of that year the Collector reported the arrival of the ‘Rose of Rathlin’, John McQuillan master, With 3 tons of kelp and a bale of linen cloth produced in Ireland and stamped with the harp.

In March 1932 copy of ‘The Glensman’ a writer says, “The supply of iodine to the synthetic chemical industry and to medicine was made by the kelp-burners of Ireland, Brittany and Norway. There were iodine factories in Donegal and Galway, besides several in Glasgow and along the Breton coast, and the kelp industry flourished in these districts. With the development of the Chile nitrates a small percentage of sodium iodate accrued which threatened the home suppliers.  The cost of production of this by-product was much lower than that of iodine from kelp.  If the market had been capable of expansion this would have indeed been serious, but might not have been fatal.

The market was not capable of expansion, and the annual accumulation of sodium iodate in Chile could supply it ten times over.  The result was that the iodine factories closed down, those in Ireland being the first to succumb.

However, these were not totally liquidated and as far as Northern Ireland was concerned, the Scottish manufacturers proved to be their only market. The Irish Free State encouraged its own kelp industry and in 1930 increased it by 40 p.c. to £28,000 In Brittany the value was as much as £135,000 .

To the following Glensfolk with long memories, I am indebted for help, information and advice:

Miss Martha Sayers, Carnlough. Charles Craig, Carnlough. Pat McCambridge, Cushendall. John McKendry, Cushendun. Frank McKay, Carnlough. John McNeill, Cushendun. William Stewart, Carnlough Mr. and Mrs. John Sands, Carnlough.

A team of crofters pictured burning kelp in Stronsay.

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