Monday, 7 December 2009

seaweed slippery when wet

The tide is low on the Isle of Bute, off the west coast of
southern Scotland, and the only sound to be heard, apart
from the lapping of the waves, is the clear, piping call of the
oystercatchers overhead as a single figure wades into the water.
Iain McKellar of Bloom In Bute is out harvesting.
With a sharp knife he cuts the tops from fronds of sugar kelp
(Saccharina latissima) and Atlantic oarweed (Laminaria digitata),
and pulls them from the sea. Held up to the light, they are the
colour of olive oil, their texture somewhere between rubber and
silk. Sugar kelp’s frilly edges make it look like a ruffled scarf that
you might want to drape around your shoulders, especially
in Iain’s line of work: the weather is mild today but it’s not always
like this. ‘I have begun to wonder what I’ve got myself into here,’
laughs Iain, as he emerges from the water. ‘If the orders come
rolling in, I might regret my decision to start up this business
when I’m being blown off my feet by a north-westerly.’
Treasures of the deep
Sugar kelp and Atlantic oarweed are just two of the many edible,
nutrient-rich seaweeds found on British shores, along with laver,
dulse and carrageen. After cutting them, Iain packs and posts
the Bloom in Bute seaweed to customers from all over
the British Isles, who order from his website,
He had the idea of harvesting seaweed during a spell off work,
when he was recuperating from a hernia operation. ‘I was stuck
inside, in a seafront flat for two months, and decided to teach
myself how to build a website – something I had always wanted
to do,’ Iain remembers. ‘All I could see from my window was
seaweed, so I made that the subject matter of the site and
the idea for a business just grew from there. The more research
I did, the more I discovered about seaweed’s many uses,
both for bathing and for eating.’
As well as the two edible varieties, Iain gathers two types of
bathing seaweed: knotted or egg wrack (Ascophyllum nodosum)
and bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosus). Seaweed is naturally rich
in vitamins, minerals and trace elements. In hot water, it turns
a lovely spring green and releases a silky sort of gel into the
water. ‘It’s very relaxing,’ Iain says. ‘People use it for soothing the
symptoms of rheumatism, arthritis, psoriasis and eczema.
Theyalso like the softening effect it has on their skin and hair. When
they try it, they come back and order again.’
Although seaweed gathering has been popular for centuries
and is still practised in Ireland and Wales, Iain found very little
evidence of it being done in Scotland nowadays, except for its
use as fertiliser. ‘It seems to have all but died out and I don’t
understand why,’ he says. ‘Seaweed’s benefits are becoming
increasingly well known and this is a prime area for it. There
are fast-flowing currents of seawater rushing in from the deep
waters of the Sound of Arran twice a day and countless gallons
of fresh rainwater run down from the mountains into the Kyles
of Bute, so this is an ideal location. Fortunately for me, this is
a designated seafood fishing area, too, so I know the water is
pure because it is tested every three months by the Scottish
Environmental Protection Agency.’
Keeping seaweed sustainable
Iain has established cutting rights for a two-mile stretch of coast.
‘The Crown Estate owns the seabed, so I had to apply to it for
permission. I also consulted Bute Estates, which is responsible
for the area above the tide line. The impact I make is very low, as
I operate on a cottage-industry scale. I don’t use any machinery;
I cut by hand, and the quantities I gather by wading in are very
small in comparison with the quantities that are there. Also, I cut
only the tops of the seaweed so the rest is left to re-grow.’
Iain loves the tranquillity of the Isle of Bute. He was born here,
and although he grew up in Corby, Northamptonshire, later
working as an HGV driver there, he always came back to Bute for
holidays. ‘The island definitely has some kind of calling,’ he says.
It was a chance reading of a crime report in the local paper,
The Buteman, that prompted Iain and his wife Yvonne, who are in
their forties, to return permanently. ‘We grew tired of hearing police
helicopters circling overhead in Corby,’ Iain says. ‘Here, we read
a report of a lad leaving a fish and chip shop without paying and
we thought, “Hey, if that’s the extent of the front-page crime news,
that’s where we want to be. Why wait until we retire? Let’s go
now.”’ Yvonne now works as a supervisor in a local supermarket.
It’s early days for Bloom in Bute, but Iain hopes he has hit on
a winner. ‘It’s been a real buzz for me, setting up a business, and,
above all, I love living on this island. Out there at low tide, with the
peace and quiet, the sound of the birds… it’s a different world.’
Bloom in Bute (01700 500163,

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