I’m recently back from Brora, a small village on the Sutherland coast. I was there for what was billed as the Scottish Salt Symposium. For the first time ever, historians, archaeologists, and modern day salt producers joined together to talk about – yes, salt. Scottish salt that is, which is made by evaporating sea water, until the mid-twentieth century in lead and later, iron pans. It’s a process that in Scotland probably goes back to Roman times, although the first records of its manufacture date from the eleventh century. Salt though has been made by human beings since the Neolithic period.
Now, as I’ll explain, salt making can be rightly described as Scotland’s newest oldest industry.
At one time its prestige was high, with Scottish monarchs having a master salter and granting saltpans and the rights to fuel them to monasteries and the like. Salt’s golden age’ ended in the eighteenth century, but the industry took a long time to die out altogether – in the 1950s, at Prestonpans (‘pans’, a common suffix, refers to saltpans – in which sea water was boiled).
In the last few years though the industry has been revived, starting with Chris and Meena Watts and their Isle of Skye Sea Salt Company. Other enterprises have followed suit – Gregorie and Whirly Marshall with Blackthorn Salt near Ayr, for instance, along with new operations at St Monance and Orsay, on Islay. Whereas in former times the main fuel for heating the pans was coal, with some peat too being used (the air above those places where the pans were to be found was invariably thick with smoke and steam), nowadays the process is entirely natural – a truly ‘green’ product. It’s also of the highest quality – more so than in older times when it could be plagued with impurities.
I’d been invited to Brora (sporadically a salt making location in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) for the event last month as in 1987 I had written what was the first ever book on Scottish salt: The Scottish Salt Industry: An Economic and Social History, 1570-1850. At the time I was doing research for the book, there was little interest in the subject; I was on my own as I tried to identify traces of the industry on the deserted banks of the Forth, the industry’s heartland, while I think I spoke to an audience of three in one village hall! Yet in Brora there were over sixty people in attendance, all interested in aspects of the industry and its history. It was a delight to be amongst so many new friends.
It’s hard to believe now, but formerly salt manufacturing was a substantial business, not least as it was one of the few commodities in Scotland people needed cash to pay for – so for owners of saltworks and associated collieries who were mainly landowners it was a major source of all too rare specie, or metal coin. And as salt was essential for everyday life – for seasoning the ubiquitous oat-based foods that formed a large part of the ordinary Scots diet, and for preserving meat, fish and cheese – most households had to purchase it. The Scottish landed class, dominant in the pre-Union Scottish parliament, enacted legislation that gave them a monopoly of the home market. Shortages led to deaths and protests. The rate at which the Scottish product was to be taxed after the Union of 1707 was one of the most hotly disputed aspects of the union treaty.
The symposium was organised by Jo Hambly, of the University of St Andrews. Through SCAPE (Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Coastal Erosion), Jo and colleagues including a team of enthusiastic locals from Brora (not least members of Clyne Heritage Society) have done some remarkable work in uncovering, recording and interpreting the rich remains of Brora’s salt industry. Sadly, some of these are now being lost to the sea, while the sand dunes under which many structures survive are also threatened. Findings though include not only parts of buildings but also a rich array of material artefacts including high quality glass, and crockery pieces. These can be seen in Brora Heritage Centre.
So for me, all this is genuinely exciting. I have been credited for pioneering the serious study of this fascinating Scottish industry, but it’s clear that over the past three and four decades researchers have firmed up but also re-drawn the outlines I sketched out in 1987. For an historian, this kind of thing is enormously gratifying.
If you’re interested, I’ll be speaking on the history of the Scottish salt industry on 28 March 2022. Time: 7.30. Place: Greenfield Hall, Alloa FK10 2AU.