Home to Orkney

Nancy Marie Brown
June 01, 2005

The beaches of Orkney are thick with seaweed. Worthless today, two hundred years ago seaweed meant wealth and well-being to the inhabitants of these windswept islands north of Scotland.

Air-dried, then burned in shallow sand pits until it liquefied and hardened into cakes, seaweed was a source of alkali, a substance critical for making glass and soap. The product was called "kelp," after one abundant seaweed. The Orcadians sold it to the British, whose usual source of alkali had been cut off by the Napoleonic wars.

Making kelp was hard and smelly work, explained Lindsay Watkins. "Old people who had made kelp as children would talk about the 'kelp reek.' Sometimes the smoke was so thick it interfered with the growing of crops."

woman in white shirt
James Collins

Anthropology student Lindsay Watkins

Watkins, an undergraduate student majoring in history and anthropology, spent the summer of 2004 on Orkney as part of a team led by Penn State professors James Wood and Patricia Johnson. The project combined three branches of anthropology—archaeology (the students excavated kelp-burning pits, finding and mapping hundreds of them along miles of beaches), demography (they charted the rise and fall of Orkney's population by studying church records), and ethnography (they interviewed elderly Orcadians for their memories of kelp making)—in order to learn how this simple industry affected Orkney's history. Watkins presented the students' work at the 2005 meeting of the Society for Economic Anthropology at Dartmouth College in April.

When the bottom fell out of the kelp market in the 1830s, Watkins explained, life on Orkney was never the same. "Kelp created work. It resulted in an increase in population, since people born on the islands didn't leave and new workers migrated in."

It also changed the island's economy. "Kelp introduced more cash into the islands. People didn't have time to farm, but they could pay their rent in cash. They could import food. It increased their dependence on the global economy, and they never shifted back to supporting themselves totally by farming. When kelp crashed, the islands held too many people for traditional agriculture to support."

circle of stones in sand
Lindsay Watkins

A kelp pit in Orkney.

Since then Orkney's population has fallen steadily. Some islands are deserted. Others have only 60 residents, down from 400 in the 1800s. A third of the population is over 60. While the Penn State team is interested in cultural change over three centuries, the Orcadians are trying to find new ways to bring life back into their islands. Cultural tourism is one way their interests overlap. At the request of the islanders, the Penn State students produced a plan to turn a traditional stone farmhouse into a self-supporting heritage tourism center. The Penn State interviews and other data would become part of the center's database.

Watkins plans to return to Orkney for the 2005 field season. She said,"I've never seen a place in my life that was so beautiful. I've never seen hospitality like this either. The people take a lot of pride in their history and were more than willing to help us."

Lindsay Watkins is an undergraduate student majoring in history and anthropology. She can be reached at law249@psu.edu.

Last Updated June 01, 2005