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The Gaels and The Sea

Posted by Gregorie / January 25th 2015

The Gaels and The Sea

The remote islands of the Outer Hebrides lie at the far north-west periphery of Europe, clinging on to civilisation in wind and rain. The co-joined isles of Lewis and Harris are separated from the Scottish mainland by a wild and wet stretch of sea called The Minch and even the fastest ship from the nearest main port takes over three rough hours to land upon its shores. Here, in this last bastion of native Gaelic speaking, a salty revolution is taking place.

As with so many isolated islands, the local peoples have a long and profound relationship with their surrounding waters and the Outer Hebrides are of no exception. The neolithic standing stones of Callanish are reminders that this ancient place has been occupied for thousands of years and the guiding pillars of gneissian rock on every important headland is testament to the fact that it was by the sea these inhabitants came.

In later centuries it was the norsemen and Vikings who sailed ashore, pulling their longboats onto the wide, white sands of the ragged west coasts, as they explored and traded with Ireland and Iceland beyond. Almost all the villages, hills and lochs here echo the old norse words, the viking’s mark still left long after they had sailed on into the mists of time.

These small townships are for the most part coastal villages, such was the importance of the sea to survival in such harsh climes. From their waters came fish to eat, saithe, lithe, herring and more, while the seaweed was used to fertilise crops and hasten a healthy harvest. And as ever with the sea comes salt.

Visitors to the Hebrides are often quick to notice that the air itself exudes a salt-tang, winds whipping the waves into the ether, flavouring the clean atmosphere of this most natural of environments. A quick lick of ones skin provides proof of the stuff. So too does the many amber-brown glimmers of rust where only shiny metal should be seen.

Salt has also been a crucial resource for the islanders, particularly over the last few centuries. Long winters and limited food resources made salt-curing of fish and meat essential for the fishermen and crofters. By drawing out the moisture and inhibiting bacteria growth, supplies of food could be stockpiled and stored until spring came around again.

Salt too played a great economic role here, the bustling harbour town of Stornoway in the Isle of Lewis was once home to a thriving Herring trade and hundreds of local workers earned a wage gutting and salting these ‘silver darlings’ into barrels bound for hungry markets in Scandinavia and Europe.

So it is surprising that, until recently, there has been no real history or tradition of salt production here. That is until one local woman decided that the pristine waters of her homeland would make the perfect basis for a product of great provenance and taste. Natalie Crayton founded the Hebridean Sea Salt company in 2012 and since then has been refining her salt and production methods to produce a truly great Scottish product.

Her salt is pure, natural and unrefined retaining over sixty naturally occurring trace elements such as potassium, calcium, magnesium and zinc. She uses water from the clean, calm inlets of Loch Erisort and, after slow evaporation, harvests the white gold by hand before personally packing the crystals and sending them out into the world.

Natalie’s salt has already won a number of awards and accolades, a testament to the tradition of skill and craft that this part of the world, with its Harris Tweed and strong artisan traditions, has in abundance. With a fragile economy due its remoteness, such a business in this part of the world is hugely important and it’s heartening to see salt taking pride of place within the community here once again.

We’ll meet Natalie to find out more about her work in a future blog but meantime do head to our shop to discover Hebridean Sea Salt for yourself.

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