Generations ago, Crofters on Skye would make a portion of their living by turning seaweed into Potash for the Glass-making industry. The practise wouldn’t be economically viable today but one of the island’s growing number of exciting young entrepreneurs has found a niche for the abundant coastal weed.
Ben Oakes is the man behind the Isle of Skye Seaweed company, turning seaweed into a range of natural skincare products, hand-made on the island.
Ben was born and raised on Skye and attended Portree High School. At the age of eighteen, like so many young islanders, he was drawn by the bright lights of the mainland and left, vowing never to return to live. He studied at Edinburgh University and after earning his degree decided city life wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. He returned home to join his father, David, in the family aquaculture business “Sconser Scallops” – a natural fit for someone with a degree in Sustainable Environmental Management.
“I did my degree then effectively started an apprenticeship. Because of my degree it made me appreciate what was happening with the scallops. This was proper sustainable aquaculture and I was excited about the prospects.”
Sconser Scallops uses a method of cultivation unique to them, taking scallops from deeper waters and putting them into the shallows within their “Several Order”, which severs the public's right to fish for scallops within that area. The shallows are where the scallops grow best because of the abundance of light and nutrients for them to feed on.
Scallop ranching alone was not enough for Ben. During the quiet winter months, he yearned for something else to do.
“That lit a fire under my ass to develop my own business. I was trying to figure out ideas to help build my future. I eventually settled on seaweed. Originally, I wanted to do food as it pairs nicely with scallops and I already knew about the food and drink industry. But when I went to speak to the Food Standards Agency they went ‘what! You want to deliver fresh seaweed off the shore?’. They wanted me to have a professional kitchen but the start-up costs – tens of thousands of pounds - were too prohibitive. I started to look at alternative industries for seaweed and I settled on natural skincare.”
After getting his seaweed license and securing harvesting rights from the Crown Estate Scotland and other landowners, Ben set about developing his product range. For two years he worked away quietly in his parents’ kitchen perfecting his recipes. His first product was a lip balm which he launched in the run up to Christmas 2017. He had to work two jobs to support himself and provide the cash for product development and branding. A year since the launch the product range now includes Bath Bombs and a Hand and Body balm with more products in development.
Outside of the UK his biggest customer base is Germany but the prospect of Brexit is causing Ben sleepless nights.
“That is stressing me out at the moment. I am one year into my business and I might lose a potential market of about 500 million people.”
Despite the uncertainty Ben has ambitious plans to grow the business and support other enterprises on Skye too. He has created a brand called “Skye Made” and wants to share it with companies keen to demonstrate their island credentials.
“I’m trying to drive home the point that it’s not just the seaweed that’s from Skye, or that I am from Skye, the stuff is made here too.”
“I am launching a range of Beard products soon and I was looking for Beard combs to go with the product. The only ones I could find were made in China….so I have commissioned a hand-made Isle of Skye Beard Comb made by a local boat builder. It’s all about celebrating what can be done on the island. There are so many skills. The inhabitants of Skye have so many different skills, it's amazing what can be done here."
The Isle of Skye Seaweed Company has reinvented an ancient island industry for the 21st century. The ‘Skye Made” brand is Ben’s idea to make it clear the provenance of his products and others. It’s this spirit that will ensure success for Ben and the island economy.
“This year is going to be exciting for me. There’s going to be some big growth. It’s going to be about me hoping to create a large-scale drying room and building a workshop and shop. From just having an idea to turning it into something has been a special journey.”
The return of Skye’s seaweed industry – more than a cosmetic comeback
ISLE OF SKYE SEAWEED
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