Sea and Land

Islands in the ocean

Written by Howie Firth

The sea shapes almost everything in Orkney. For a start, you’re never far from it. On a winter’s night in many homes, there’s the distant roar of waves on the shore, amidst the bluster of the storm and the rattle of windows and doors and roof tiles.

An old lady who lived in a waterfront house in Stromness said she slept best when there was a strong gale blowing and a heavy sea running outside her window. Her son would describe how he first went away from Orkney. Life in the south was fine, he said, but he had a feeling that something wasn’t quite right – and he realized that for the first time in his life he couldn’t hear the sea.

It leaves its marks everywhere. Salt on the windows, where the spray spatters – “and the porcelain whiteness of bath and inside paintwork coloured by the iodine content of the sea air,” wrote Betsy I. Skea of life at the sea’s edge in Sanday. “The sea had so many moods, the soft lapping of a summer’s evening, the heavy greyness of rain-laden sky, the path of dancing moonbeams stretching away across the dark waters.”

There is always something happening at the shore. The waves drive in, sometimes long deep rollers from the Atlantic, sometimes coming small and quick and tossing up the surface in a chabble. A good-going winter’s gale can provide a harvest of glistening red-brown kelp from the deeper waters, thrown up in heaps or brooks along the shore. This is the red ware, which normally only surfaces at the lowest tides. The long stalks, the tangles, grip tight onto rock, and sometimes the force of the storm is such that a little piece of rock surface gets torn away with the tangle itself.

The tangles are rich in iodine and in alginates, the gelling agents used in the food industry for stabilizing ice cream, thickening sauces and soups – and keeping the head on a pint of beer. Wound-healing dressings are another application. You harvest the tangles by hauling each one out of the mass cast up on the shore. From its top you snap off the frond, and then you drape the tangles over a line of stone-built steethes to dry in wind and sun. From the late 1950s to the early 1980s, Alginate Industries Ltd would send a ship to take the dried tangles south for processing.

And back in the 1920s, an industrial chemist came to Stromness with an imaginative plan to use the binding power of alginates to turn Welsh coal dust into briquettes of smokeless fuel. He was Fred Thornley, who had also found a way to use alginates to bind bitumen into a tar that could be spread cold. The new company of Thornley Binders built a factory shed and took on workers, and shipments of coal dust and briquettes began.

The scheme did not succeed – it was possibly too far ahead of its time – but the pier built by Stromness Harbour Commissioners for the project has developed into part of today’s ferry terminal; and Orkney footballers still play for the Thornley Binders Cup. Another company established by Fred Thornley became Kelco, today one of the world’s largest alginate producers and, along with Alginate Industries Ltd, part of the Merck group.

Before the discovery of alginates, tangles were used from the 1840s as a source of iodine, popular as an antiseptic in Victorian Britain. But back in the early eighteenth century the word ‘kelp’ meant the hard lumpy residue from another type of seaweed, dried and burned slowly in a kiln.

The first kelp made in Orkney was in Stronsay by James Fea of Whitehall, some time around 1720. The source was the rockweeds which grow on the shore between the high- and low-water mark and which Orcadians call tang. The family includes the familiar bladder wrack, toothed wrack and knotted wrack. They are rich in potash and soda, in demand during the eighteenth century for the manufacture of soap, dyes and glass.

Orkney kelp was said to be essential for making the best crown glass, the soda-lime glass used in lenses and prisms and also household windows. The weed was cut and spread out to dry, then burned in a kelp kiln – a shallow circular pit, about a metre and a half in diameter, from which pungent white smoke would billow out. Some of those kelp-pits can still be seen, as faint grassy hollows by the shore.

The fumes of burning seaweed could be so unpleasant that in years of bad weather and famine, such as 1741/2, crop failures were blamed on them and rioters destroyed kelp kilns in Stronsay and Sanday and several other parts of Orkney. But the industry tided Orkney through a period that otherwise would have been much poorer. By 1780 the market demand was such that Orkney entered a fifty-year-long kelp boom.

Kelp-making totally dominated the economy of the islands and accounted for about two-thirds of Orkney’s exports,” says the historian William P.L. Thomson. ‘It employed 3,000 people and provided profits for the lairds the like of which they had never known before.’

The seaweeds have different colours, with the red ware in deeper water, the brown rockweeds further up the beach, and green ones like sea lettuce at the top. The standard theory is that the colours are due to the effect of water on light passing through it, so that each seaweed has to be able to absorb the maximum amount of the sun’s spectrum that reaches it through the water. But in recent years other arguments have been put forward. It’s suggested that red seaweeds do not stand up well to drying out, so grow best where the water always covers them, while green seaweeds grow again quickly after shoreline grazing.

The main grazers are the periwinkles, among them the lovely little flat periwinkles, Littorina littoralis, often found under the fronds of seaweeds. You’ll see them in rock pools, in various colours – yellow ochre, ladybird red with brown banding, orange with black stripes – gently sliding over the seaweeds to scrape off nourishment. The common periwinkles, Littorina littorea, are a little bigger, and are more widespread. You find them, in greys and browns, in pockets at the bottom of pools. Called in Orkney whelks, they have often been gathered and sent off for eating, picked out of their shells with a pin like snails (their land-based relatives).

What the biologists call ‘whelks’ are the carnivores of the shore. The dog whelk (Orcadian cattiebuckie) has a siphon tube coming out of its shell, with a rasp-like surface which it uses to bore through its victim’s shell and tear at its flesh. Amongst its prey are the limpets which stick so solidly to the rocks when the sea is out and slide across them to graze when the tide flows in. An empty limpet shell with a little hole bored through it is the mark of a dog whelk attack; other targets are barnacles and mussels.

The dog whelk varies in colour. Robert Rendall found that amongst the boulders of Rackwick Bay it was a deep purplish brown. “It sometimes takes on a distinctly yellowish hue,” he noted. “On sandy beaches, as at St Catherine’s, Stronsay, a thick elongated form with swollen, almost distorted, whorls of a creamy colour occurs; at Birsay, between Buckquoy Point and the Brough, there is a banded variety; and at North Ronaldsay, small sized ones in various colours inhabit private holes in the rocks as if they were cave-dwelling hermits.”

The bigger common whelks live in deeper water, with oysters among their prey. They are the shells you put to your ear for the sound of the sea, and in recent years they have been fished in creels for markets in the Far East.

Further out in the water, the forests of red ware provide rich grazing for sea urchins, whose broken shells (and very occasionally a whole one) can be found amongst the shell drift on the beach, along with topshells, fellow grazers of the kelp fronds. In amongst the rock crevices are crabs and lobsters. The edible crab (Orcadian partan) has a wonderful flavour in Orkney, and in recent years the smaller velvet swimming crab has also been fished, for markets in Spain in particular.

The export of lobsters developed in the late eighteenth century, with the sale of catches to London smacks. They were caught in hoop nets baited with fish, and shipped south alive in the wells of the vessels, with twine around their claws to prevent them damaging each other. Gradually the familiar creel was introduced, with the bait inside to lure the lobster in.

The introduction of the Pentland Firth shipping service in 1892 opened up a new route for export, by rail through Thurso to Billingsgate, and by the 1950s the newly formed Orkney Fishermen’s Society was sending them by plane. Today the industry continues to be an important one for Orkney, although fewer lobsters remain in the inshore waters, and larger boats haul long ropes of creels on fishing grounds much further away.

The richness of the minerals in seaweed made it a valuable source of manure for Orkney fields. It has less phosphates than dung but, notes William Thomson, as much nitrogen and much more potash. “Its high potash content also was particularly good for the sandy soils of the North Isles, although the potash is quickly lost and regular heavy manuring was required.” Seaweed is an excellent conditioner for soil. Applied to heavier clayey soils, it fluffs them up into loamier form.

Seaweed’s agricultural value was recognized in the ware rights of older land tenure, and communities had different systems for sharing out the bounty of the sea. Where peat was scarce, like North Ronaldsay and Sanday, the dried tangles could be used for the home fire while the fronds went on the land. And the amount that may pile up on the shore can be huge, requiring many hands to take it all in. “The sea ware has long been a barrier to school attendance in this parish throughout the year,” observed a Sanday schoolmaster in 1880. “Any day in spring may bring a new ware excuse.” The ware left behind to rot on the shore provides a fine feeding ground for overwintering waders, such as purple sandpipers and turnstones.

Around some of the islands, stretches of sandy seabed provide a home for various shellfish including cockles, which in Sanday in particular have been harvested in recent years in Otterswick Bay. On beaches like St Catherine’s Bay in Stronsay there are other edible delicacies such as the thick heavy Icelandic cyprina (Arctica islandica), the ku-shell for Orcadians. And the shell drift tells of the various species that live in the sand offshore – tellins with bands of magnolia yellow or sunset red; carpet shells with their webbed texture; and the large and almost elliptical otter shells.

If there is sand and gravel, with some current, beds of horse mussels will flourish, but exceptionally strong winter storms will break them up and hurl the shells onto the shore – for instance at Carness outside Kirkwall, or Odin Ness in Stronsay. Then there are the scallop beds, where the great scallop and queen scallop lie, sought out today by divers for the delights of an Orkney seafood meal.

Orcadians naturally make their way to the sea. “They gravitate towards the shore,” said Robert Rendall. On a fine spring morning when the breeze is blowing in the sunshine, or a winter’s day in the teeth of the gale – there is always something to see on the shore, and a feeling that this is where things are happening.

The storm has never-ending treasures – a fish box with the lettering faded, a round log coated in barnacles, an emerald green bottle in a wicker basket. Or you may find a living survivor of the sea’s fury, such as a sea mouse, the large sea slug which eats sea anemones and extrudes their stings in a protective layer on its back. Out of water, the tentacles fall back into a limp coating; but put it in a pool and they will float freely, swaying in the motion of the water.

From the book Orkney, published by Robert Hale

Photography by Selena S Kuzman

About the author

Howie Firth

Dr Howie Firth is a writer and physicist from Orkney, with a deep interest in history and philosophy. He is director of Orkney International Science Festival.