A man in an orange oilskin and blue dungarees and blue fisherman's cap stands proudly beside a huge pile of tangle stipes lying bent over a wall, behind him the shore and sea.

Seaweed gatherer

image Gunnie Moberg D135/3/260

Mac Bain in his belted orange oilskin stands proudly beside his stack of tangles, even while he looks to the camera his hand continues working, turning the stipes of the seaweed ensuring the stack will withstand the wind while being dried by it.

This photograph of Mac Bain working the Warebeth shore, just outside Stromness, Orkney, is one of a series of slides we are scanning here at the Gunnie Moberg Archive this week. Gunnie made several portraits of this scene on the shore and she stored them in her slide cabinet under ‘Tradition’. Indeed the job of gathering seaweed was no longer widely practiced by the time this photograph was taken in the late eighties. In some of the north isles like North Ronaldsay and Westray tangle gathering was still an industry, but here at Warebeth outside the town of Stromness Mac Bain quite possibly had the shore harvest to himself.

A man in an orange oilskin and blue dungarees and blue fisherman's cap looks to the camera, under his arm he carries a large pile of tangle stipes, behind him the shore and sea.

image Gunnie Moberg: D135/3/252

What was he gathering them for you might wonder. If you have ever seen the froth on the shore on a stormy day you have come across alginate, the substance contained in high concentration in the stipes, or stems, of tangle (laminaria digitata and more often it’s larger cousin laminaria hyperborea). This clear sticky gel is what lends viscosity to a remarkable range of everyday products from ice-cream to toothpaste. Nowadays there are far easier, or rather far cheaper, ways to get aliginate but for a while it was active industry in Orkney.  A tangle ferry would call in on the islands once a year to transport the air-dried tangles to a factory in South Uist.

In this aerial photograph of Gunnie’s below you can clearly see the low stone walls used for drying tangle. Walls like these were also used in the earlier kelp industry. In North Ronaldsay and elsewhere in Orkney these walls are called steeths. Few remain now most have been washed away by the sea.
This black and white aerial
image Gunnie Moberg: North Ronaldsay. This photograph appears in Gunnie’s 1996 book Orkney Pictures and Poems.

These walls are also a feature of another image we have scanned this week. This time we fly over Westray to the north west coast of the island to the shoreline of Rackwick beside the Kelp Green.

Aerial colour photograph showing the sweep of a shoreline scored with dozens of low stone walls for stacking seaweed, they look like a row of washed up timber sleepers lying on the shore.

image Gunnie Moberg: D135/3/267

Across from this Westray coast on the north east side lies the Holm of Aikerness. Gunnie Moberg’s intriguing image of the small house on the island is in Orkney Pictures & Poems. Gunnie invited George Mackay Brown to write captions for her selection of photographs for the book. George wrote her a poem for each one. His last verse for ‘Home of Aikerness: Seaweed Gatherer’ reveals the history of the little house. Gunnie talked about this photograph in an interview with Pamela Beasant in Northwords in 2004:

‘I took the pictures to George and he put them on an easel, and would come and change them every week. I remember giving him a picture of a very small island, which I had taken because of the shape and the sands. He said ‘What’s that hut for?’ I hadn’t seen the hut – to me it was an abstract image. I later found out that a man would go and live there for a month, to guard the seaweed. The poem ‘ Seaweed Gatherer’ happened after that.’ 

This colour areial photograph shows a small islad with a small house sitting on it. The sea surrounds a sandy rounded shoreline strewn with dark strands of seaweed. The island snakes down the length of the photograph until the 'head' of the islet with the house opens out like the palm of a hand.
image: Gunnie Moberg

Orkney has a long tradition of working with seaweed, and if you want to find out more about Scottish uses of seaweed Flora Celtica is a good place to start. If you would like to explore the history of the kelp industry in Orkney then come in to the Orkney Room at the Library &  Archive here and take WPL Thomson’s 1983 book Kelp-making in Orkney off the shelf.

The book jacket cover for WPL Thomson's book 'Kelp making in Orkney'.
Published by Orkney Press, Kirkwall

The image Willie Thomson used on this book jacket cover is held at Orkney Library & Archive, it is taken by Tom Kent the Orkney photographer. Separated by over half a century, both Kent and Moberg shared photographic interests in the cultural life of the islands, now their work shares a home. You can find out more about Tom Kent’s archive here.

Willie Thomson recalls visits to Gunnie Moberg’s home out at the Don to look out slides for his books on Orkney history. Gunnie’s aerial images give just the sort of overview of a subject that appeals to a historian.

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