IT was the trade whose boom and bust brought money then misery to thousands of crofters in the Highlands and Islands.

But now the west coast’s seaweed industry – whose collapse in the 1820s prompted a wave of Clearances – is being backed by the Scottish Government for a revival to help bolster fragile communities.

The Government’s Marine Fund Scotland has announced a £270,000 grant for a seaweed processing plant at Kyle of Lochalsh, intended to help seaweed farmers.

A further £99,000 has been granted to a research team at Scotland’s Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre in the central belt to develop new uses for the product.

The two grants are among 60 handouts to the seafood industries, the rest of which will be announced later today.

Farmers and industry experts are delighted by the investment, and say this is exactly what is needed to allow the budding trade of the versatile plant to take off. Seaweed can be used as fresh food, as a dried ingredient and in food additives. Compounds from it can be used to boost plant growth, in pharmaceutical trials and for biodegradable packaging.

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A Government report has said the Scottish seaweed trade, currently turning over £4 million a year, could grow to almost 20 times that size, cutting unemployment in some areas by more than a third. In comparison, the global seaweed industry is worth around £7 billion a year. Norway produces about ten times as much seaweed as Scotland, and Ireland produces double Scotland’s output.

Rural Affairs and Islands Minister Mairi Gougeon said: “Although the existing Scottish seaweed industry is small, there is exciting potential to develop the commercial seaweed-based industry in Scotland.”

She added: “Our seafood and aquaculture sectors often support employment in some of Scotland’s most remote and rural communities which is why, through the latest round of Marine Fund Scotland grants, we are supporting seaweed company Eco Cascade and funding further research into new seaweed products.”

Eco Cascade has said it will use its grant to set up facilities to process hundreds of tonnes of seaweed each year, chopping it and drying it for further use.

Alison Baker of Eco Cascade said the lack of processing facilities was a bottleneck which had held the industry back.

The National: Alsion Baker (left) and Cait Murray-Green at Ardtoe (2)Alsion Baker (left) and Cait Murray-Green at Ardtoe (2)

“This opens up a great opportunity for us,” she said.

“It’s an investment in the seaweed industry, and it allows the business to grow with the confidence that producers can get their harvest stabilised, processed and available to a broad range of customers.”

Eco Cascade will also research fermenting, freezing and other ways of handling seaweed.

Baker’s colleague Dr Cait Murray-Green said as a community interest company, they would work out the best practice to handle seaweed. As farmers expanded their operations, they could set up their own facilities copying Eco Cascade’s methods.

“If we can go through the pain and the learning curve, then when farmers are able to do their own processing, they can take that knowledge on,” she said.

The Scottish Government report suggested that the seaweed industry could have a total turnover of £71.2 million per year by 2040, but only if it was given a chance to grow.

The greatest impact would be on island communities which could see a fall in unemployment of 36%.

At the moment, most of Scotland’s seaweed is collected from the wild. There are only around five farms in operation, but licence applications have been made for a dozen or so more as would-be farmers eye up a potential gold rush.

Seaweed farmers say their product, while pricier than the wild product, is more environmentally friendly, consistent, and cleaner.

Seaweed farmer and expert Dr Kyla Orr produced a report earlier this year saying a lack of onshore processing and handling facilities was holding back the Scottish seaweed industry.

She called on the Scottish Government to back seaweed processing facilities, and her report was used by Eco Cascade in its pitch to the Marine Fund.

Orr, who has a PhD in seaweed science, said: “It’s great the Scottish Government has been able to do this, and we would like to see them doing more.”

If the Eco Cascade plant is successful, she said grants could establish similar hubs up and down the coast to give producers easier access.

Like Murray-Green, Baker and other seaweed experts, Orr believes a revived industry could help keep people rooted in fragile communities on the west coast, where populations were devastated by the collapse of the seaweed industry in the 1820s.

For decades, crofters had dried and burned seaweed in vast quantities in the Highlands and Islands to create chemicals needed in the budding soap and glass industries.

The end of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s and the reopening of trade with Europe meant cheap imports could undercut the Scottish producers, and the business collapsed.

Landowners who had grown rich on the labour of the seaweed-burning crofters no longer needed so many people on their estates. Many were turned off and forced to migrate abroad.

Murray-Green says making sure the industry stays in local ownership would help prevent a fresh boom-and-bust cycle and the accusation of environmental damage faced by the Scottish salmon industry, which is now owned largely by big non-Scottish firms.

The other Scottish Government boosts will be announced later today.