STANDING in a quiet field a Home Office-mandated distance from the road, thousands of hemp plants tower above my head, thriving in this warm south-facing dimple in the north-rolling folds of Strathmore. Hemp has been grown across Scotland for 6000 years, with evidence of its use found in archaeology and ancient pollen analysis.

Place names such as “Hempriggs”, near Wick, and “Hempland” in the Lowther Hills of Dumfries and Galloway show the plant was widespread and valued. Hemp was such an important crop that Henry VIII ordered all of England’s farmers to put a portion of their land into growing the plants.

It was only in 1928 that hemp production was banned in the UK, following the League of Nations International Convention relating to Dangerous Drugs, the gentle herb being caught up by rules designed to control its more potent and exotic cousin, marijuana.

The National: Hemp cultivation in Scotland dates back thousands of yearsHemp cultivation in Scotland dates back thousands of years

After almost a century of being forced out of our fields, hemp is back – and deliciously so!

The Scottish Hemp Group was founded in 2019, an open group with a mission “to support and promote hemp in Scotland for food, feed, energy, biomaterials and as cash-crop promoter of circular green economies and new markets”. 

There are 11 hemp farmers in the north-east of Scotland and Ali Easson is one, a vigorous pioneer working to bring her Hemp It Up range of oil, salad dressings, and protein powder to a wider market – all processed in a tiny, pristine unit on the family farm.

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She says: “You use hemp seed oil in the same way as extra virgin olive oil, but olive oil is largely mono-unsaturated, which is Omega-9. Hemp seed oil is largely Omega-3 and 6 in a perfect ratio for your body to absorb.

“People who don’t eat fish are often deficient in Omega-3 but just one dessertspoonful of hemp oil a day will give them the recommended daily requirement. It is loaded with Vitamin E and is a natural anti-inflammatory.

“The Rowett Institute did tests earlier this year on all of the farms in the Hemp Group that grew seed and tested for cannabinoids. It found that for every 10 grammes, which is your dessertspoon, you are not only getting your Omega-3, you’re also getting 23 milligrammes of CBD that’s just coming through the growth cycle and helps with mood, anxiety, and hormones.”

Easson is a smiling ball of energy – her knowledge and passion for her produce matched by the meal she sets down on the scrubbed farmhouse table. Sitting around me are her husband, John, whose family have worked this land for three generations, and four researchers from Aberdeen University’s prestigious Rowett Institute.

As we savour the lentil soup (the onions sauteed with hemp oil) and bread (with hemp oil and hemp seed giving a rich nutty crust), the talk is all about the work the team are doing to make Scotland’s diet healthier, locally sourced and sustainable.

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Professor Wendy Russell is part of the Food Security and Supply Taskforce set up by the Scottish Government last year to help get us through myriad issues, with the climate emergency, soil health, biodiversity collapse, and global conflicts posing serious challenges to the food available to us.

Her mission includes finding ways to incorporate local produce with provable health benefits into our daily diet. As we devour delicious hemp flapjacks, Russell shows me A Taste of Plants, the book her team has developed as part of the Scottish Environment Food and Research Institutes (Sefari).

Recipes include a range of locally grown proteins, such as peas, fava beans, and hemp. Most contain hemp oil. All of the ingredients are available in local shops or online. Easson is working to get Hemp It Up products into more outlets but in these early days, web sales and farmers’ markets make up much of her business. There can be little doubt that demand for hemp will grow.

The National: Hemp growing at Wakelyns Agroforestry farm, Fressingfield. Photo: Jayne Lindill

“When we’re thinking about changing people’s diet, it’s really important that we understand how food will contribute to this,” Russell explains. “Hemp is probably the most important crop we could grow in Scotland. We have run human studies looking at the health benefits of hemp and it is really superior to rapeseed and olive oil. We’d really like to see people using it as their oil of choice.

“When you press for oil, you get a cake which is really high in fibre and also lots of other micronutrient minerals and phytochemical components which we know are beneficial for health, so we’d really like to see that going into the processing sector into things such as baked goods, burgers, and sausages.”

As for the climate emergency, hemp is a winner there too, sequestering more CO2 than trees. There is significant potential for this ancient crop to feed our people and livestock with crops grown locally while cutting our climate-busting emissions. Looking around the table, I am struck by the humbling feeling that I am in the company of friendly, passionate people whose daily work could change all of our lives for the better.

Ruth Watson is the founder of the Keep Scotland the Brand campaign