Seaweed Farmers – at the root of global health phenomenon Avaunt travels to the Outer Hebrides to visit the farms fuelling the seaweed trend

On 16th August 1896, miners working in Klondike, north-west Canada, struck gold. In the coming years, thousands of hopeful pros­pectors would be drawn to the Yukon, close to the Alaskan border. To reach the mines, many would travel through the ports of Dyea and Skagway in south-east Alaska, from where they would follow either the Chilkoot or the White Pass trails to the Yukon River and sail down to the Klondike. Prospectors had to bring a year’s supply of food on the journey to avoid starvation.

View of old fishing vessels in the Stornoway Harbour on the Isle of Lewis
View of old fishing vessels in the Stornoway Harbour on the Isle of Lewis, the most northern and exposed part of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.

The Great Klondike Gold Rush might have made plenty of men rich, but it was no easy feat – many gave up and went home, or died trying. In such conditions, especial­ly when the weather turned, it was crucial to have the right gear: pro­tective and durable clothing that kept the elements out and lasted the duration of the ‘tour’.

Ian, a seaweed processor
Ian, a seaweed processor, who works at the company’s factory where the harvested seaweed is dried and milled. Shirt and waistcoat by Filson.

Railroad conductor C.C. Filson got his timing right when he decid­ed to change his career: In 1897, he opened up ‘C.C. Filson’s Pio­neer Alaska Clothing and Blanket Manufacturers’ in Seattle, supply­ing the prospectors with what they needed to succeed and survive. Today Filson, now with almost 120 years of experience, still seeks to provide those who have to brave the elements for work with dura­ble and reliable clothing.Though the age of the gold prospector has long passed, and is long lamented, people are still taking on Mother Nature to harvest her treasures – as is the case with Martin Macleod and his colleagues from The Heb­ridean Seaweed Company. Avaunt travelled to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, north-west Scotland, to discover the process behind har­vesting seaweed and to find out what kind of workwear is needed to cope in the Hebridean climate.

Can you explain what your company does and what your role is?
We’re the largest processor of sea plants in the UK – we harvest ap­proximately 4,000 tons of various different seaweeds every year. We started the company in 2005 and today I am the managing director.

How long have you been doing this and is it a profession for which you can train?
I have been working in the seaweed industry since I was 16, so 25 years. There’s no education per se – you learn the business as you go along.

Ken ties up the harvester Blue Sky
Ken ties up the harvester Blue Sky. Shirt and gilet by Filson.

Is the seaweed industry a big business for the Hebrides?
The Hebridean Islands have large stocks of wild seaweeds so we take sustainability very seriously and ensure we carry out sustainable harvesting, for which we have won a number of international awards. It’s an important industry for us on the Isle of Lewis, as we create much-needed employment.

Tell us about the harvesting process…
Seaweed can be harvested by hand, which is very labour intensive, and it can be done by boat, as we do; al­though we also buy seaweed from manual harvesters and pay them ac­cording to the weight they cut. An average manual harvester can cut around three to four tons per day but our mechanical harvesters can cut around 15 tons per day, so it’s a lot more effective.

Calum takes his old harvester out for one last run
Calum takes his old harvester out for one last run before it is exchanged for a new model. Seaweed harvesters can cost up to £80,000 and are custom-designed with Martin’s input. Shirt by Filson.

What happens once you’ve collected the seaweed?
We bring it to our processing facil­ity where we dry it and process it into granular or powder products.

Is the seaweed industry a big business for the Hebrides?
The Hebridean Islands have large stocks of wild seaweeds so we take sustainability very seriously and ensure we carry out sustainable harvesting, for which we have won a number of international awards. It’s an important industry for us on the Isle of Lewis, as we create much-needed employment.

Ken heads back to shore after a long day of work – the harvesters wake up with the tides and are out on the market by 6am, working through to 4pm. Shirt, gilet and beanie by Filson.

How long has it been an industry in this region and how far does interest in your products reach?
There has been an industry harvesting and gathering seaweed in the Outer Hebrides since the 17th century. Today, we have worked to modernise the industry and the market is growing quickly; we are seeing demand outstrip supply. We sell our products all over the world, where they are used in every­thing from agriculture and horticulture to cosmetics. We have even supplied over 15 film sets with seaweed, from Pirates of the Caribbean to the latest Star Wars film!

What do you wear at work… what’s your ‘uniform’?
We have to wear warm and hard­wearing clothing to cope with de­mands of the job. Normally fleeces and, dependent on the weather, also hats or beanies. In the winter we will wear survival suits to deal with the cold weather and we always make sure to wear our lifejackets.


Words: David Hellqvist
Photography: Matt Stuart

email hidden; JavaScript is required