The Sea-salt Industry in Medieval Scotland



Oram R (2012) The Sea-salt Industry in Medieval Scotland. Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History, 3 (IX).

Until the nineteenth century in Scotland, salt was the only bulk food-preservative available. A producer of salt on a non-domestic scale by at least the beginning of the twelfth century, Scotland was exporting it by the later fourteenth century and probably much earlier. With no salt-springs like those at Lüneburg in Germany or Droitwich and Nantwich in England, nor workable rock salt deposits like those of Poland, evaporation through boiling of sea-water or brine obtained from ‘sleeching’ of sea-sand, mud or peat was instead used to obtain supplies. Most modern historical studies of Scottish salt-production have focussed on the late sixteenth- to early nineteenth-century period, when a significant industrial scale of operation was reached, but the medieval industry, its methods and environmental costs, has only recently become the subject of equally rigorous analysis. The most recent published historical discussions of medieval Scottish salt-production are limited to analysis of prices and examination of aspects of the later medieval international trade. Contrary to perceptions of inadequate documentary, archaeological or palaeoenvironmental evidence to support critical evaluation of the medieval industry, as a recent un-published report into the salt industry of the Solway Firth region has demonstrated, there exists a wealth of evidence for the nature of production sites, the integration of salt manufacture, fuel production and food processing centres, and the impact of the industry on the landscape and environment of maritime Scotland. This paper seeks to present a broad overview of the evidence for medieval salt production in Scotland as a stimulus to further research; it is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis. It will focus on five main areas. First, the methods and scale of production will be examined, together with issues of supply and depletion of fuel resources. It will then explore evidence for lay possession of saltpans; development of large-scale salt-production interests by monastic proprietors; and the emergence or re-emergence of saltworks in lay ownership in the late medieval period. The paper concludes with an assessment of the environmental impact of Scotland’s medieval salt industry.

salt; sleeching; saltpans; sea-salt; Salt industry and trade Scotland History; Salt industry and trade Scotland History To 1500

Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History: Volume 3, Issue IX

Publication date31/12/2012
PublisherAMS Press / Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (ACMRS)
Publisher URL

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Professor Richard Oram
Professor Richard Oram

Professor, History