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Reflections of an ethnobotanist researching seaweed on Tiree

Nicola Pilkington, a post-graduate and ethnobotanist from the University of Kent, is studying the relationship between the human population and seaweed on the Inner Hebridean Isle of Tiree.

As a child growing up in Suffolk during the 1950’s, when wartime food rationing had only recently ended, gathering wild food that also had health giving properties was a common seasonal activity participated in by the majority of the rural population.  Thus from an early age I was aware that eating wild plants could be good for your health. With this awareness came the knowledge of which fruits growing close to home were worth cooking and preserving, the identification of edible fungi and the joy in finding them, what nuts to collect in the autumn and most important of all that nettles lose their sting once you put them in boiling water.

Unbeknown to me these childhood foraging expeditions were to be the start of a lifetime interest in the human utilisation of plants, or ‘Ethnobotany’, and so when the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew published ‘Britain’s Wild Harvest’ by Hew D. Prendergast and Helen Sanderson in 2004 I read it with a degree of curiosity. This book is based on a 51-week study conducted by the Department of Economic Botany at Kew and investigates the commercial uses of wild and traditionally used plants and fungi in the British Isles. Both the report and the book made numerous references to seaweed collection and utilisation in Britain’s coastal regions but it was something of which I knew little, as there is no tradition of seaweed harvesting on coasts around East Anglia. This book established a recurring thought in my mind that continued to fascinate me, namely that there might be people in the British Isles who are using the inter-tidal zone as a form of ocean-fed home-garden or allotment for the cultivation and harvesting of different species of seaweed for food and medicine.

Attending ‘The Social Life of Plants,’ an ESRC Festival of Social Science in 2009 at Kew was the beginning of my search to find other people who also had a passion for seaweed. At this event were representatives from the Department of Anthropology and Conservation at the University of Kent who are the only British University to offer postgraduate study in Ethnobotany. They put me in touch with Dr Kaori O’Connor a Senior Research Fellow in Anthropology at University College, London. Dr O’Connor has written and lectured on the harvesting of Porphyra umbilicalis in
Wales and is involved in long-term research into plants that are often overlooked as a food, are beneficial to the environment and support local and regional economies.

During the summer of 2009 I travelled to Mull, Barra and South Uist, but it was not until I arrived in Tiree that I found someone who was willing to take me out to sheltered rocks at Caolas to collect Chondrus crispus and Palmaria palmata. This woman’s collection spot, which was near the house she lived in for most of her life, was an environment that she regularly returned to on an annual basis and one that she knew intimately. It was here that I realised I had found the shoreline allotment that had lived in my imagination for so long and wondered if I should ever find. With Dr O’Connor’s encouragement and support I applied to do part time postgraduate research in Ethnobiolgy at the University of Kent starting in 2010.

I am now midway through my degree and have returned to Tiree to conduct structured and semi-structured interviews with Elders and do observations on the shoreline. My research is focusing on local knowledge of seaweed, its use as a food, medicine and fertiliser, areas of collection and naming and meanings in Tiree Gaelic. This knowledge appears to be disappearing and so a major part of what I am doing is to analyze reasons for loss and to consider how this applies to other wild plants local to the Hebrides. The people of Tiree have helped me in every stage of my research and the practical support I have received from An Iodhlann, Tiree’s historic archive has been invaluable.  So has the generosity of strangers who have been interested in what I am doing and sent me books, lists of Gaelic names of plants and seaweeds, DVD’s and emails from all over Scotland.

Nicola is studying for her MPhil at the University of Canterbury and can be contacted on: .uk    

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