Television cookery expert Delia Smith’s recipe for success in the kitchen puts Maldon sea salt at the top of the list of essential ingredients. Her choice is an intriguing reminder of the days when all of Scotland’s salt came straight from the sea.
Only when improvements in the country’s economic conditions in the 19th century made fashionable the use of finer, but more expensive varieties, did salt begin to be imported from the mines of Chesire and the continent.
Today, a sprinkling of place names along the shores of the Forth, from Panbrae Road in Bo’ness to Prestonpans in East Lothian are the last remaining traces of the Scottish sea salt industry.
Salt production took place along both shores of the Forth from St. Monans, where a restored windmill is situated at the mouth of the estuary, all the way upstream to Kincardine, which was originally known as New Pans. What these coastal places all had in common was the availability of the three essentials for the success of salt making; a plentiful supply of salt water, coal to feed the fires needed to evaporate it and a source of cheap labour.
Amongst the richest of the Scottish salt pan masters, as the owners were known, were the Dukes of Hamilton, whose home, Kinneil House, still stands overlooking the site of the industry which helped make their wealth. For the Hamilton family, salt was a profitable by-product of their coal pits, because it enabled them to utilise the small pieces of fuel, left over after they sold the large lumps for domestic use. Although this dross was of too poor quality to sell, it was ideal to fuel the fires which burned day and night to evaporate sea water.
From its use for this purpose, the dross became known as panwood. It required a massive fifty tons to be burnt to acquire a mere three tons of salt. Despite the disproportionate ratio of coal to used to salt produced, the operation proved profitable for the Hamiltons and their neighbours the Cadells, who owned the pans a couple of miles down river at Carriden.
As well as having a source of fuel, which would otherwise just have piled up in waste bings, they also had a ready supply of cheap labour from amongst the wives of their miners.
Even the bairns of Bo’ness were employed in the salt making process, because, while their mothers tended the fires, they were responsible for operating the pumps needed to obtain the water from the river.
Unlike those powered by the windmill at St. Monans, the ones used at Bo’ness were known as wand pumps. Situated right at the water’s edge, these consisted of large, wooden, see-saw like contraptions, with a bucket on one end. This was shoved below the surface of the water and, once brim full, was swivelled round over the shore.
The Forth was never the cleanest of rivers and so the water was first tipped into a deep pond called the reservoir. There it was allowed to remain until the deposits had settled, before it was finally transferred to one of the seven metre long, four metre wide, shallow, oblong, iron, salt pans.
Despite this precaution, some impurities always remained in the water. At the stage in the operation therefore, a bucket of blood obtained from the local slaughter house was always tipped into the pan. As the river water boiled, the blood thickened and produced a scum like that formed when making jam. As this scum, carrying the impurities, rose to the surface, it was the women workers’ unpleasant task to lean out over the bubbling, boiling solution to skim it off.
This was done using long handled wooden rakes which conducted less heat than ones made from iron would have done. As they lent out over the steaming, cauldron-like pan, they became streaked with blood and some of the women salt workers were nicknamed the Bloody Witches of Cuffabouts, after the place to the east of Bo’ness, where several of the town’s many salt pans were situated.
When all the water in the pans eventually evaporated, the sparkling, silver salt crystals were deposited on the walls, sides and bottom. These had to be collected by the women, who were again issued with wooden shovels and spades made of wood, which did less damage to the iron pans than metal implements.
The pans were raised above the ground on small stone pillars and the fires which burned beneath them were never allowed to go out. The constant glows which they produced acted as welcome beacons for ships navigating the river â€“ this was before the construction of lighthouses.
Any necessary repairs to the pans were carried out at the end of the working week late on Saturdays. This was the only time that the fires were damped down, as all production of salt on Sundays was banned by the local kirck sessions.
However, even this delay was turned to advantage by the salt masters, because the reduced rate of evaporation resulted in the formation of larger crystals, which were subsequently sold as a more expensive table delicacy known as Sabbath Salt.
Even the ordinary salt was considered too expensive by Scottish housewives, who incurred a tax levied from the 16th century by the Privy Council. To ensure the tax was paid, salt had, by law, to be stored in thick, stone walled warehouses called girnels, built alongside the pans. As with whisky in bonded stores, excise officers ensured the required duity was imposed before the salt was taken away and sold.
The large quantities of salt required by the fishing industry for herring and sprates was all also duly taxed, although there were reports of attempts at salt smuggling at both Bo’ness and Queensferry.
Two major blows hit the Lothians sea salt industry in the middle of the 19th century.
Previously, cows and sheep had to be slaughtered each autumn and the resultant beef and mutton salted away to last until the spring, either in brine or by the even fouler tasting method of dry salting. The agricultural revolution, which took place at this time, resulted in farmers growing newly introduced root crops, such as turnips and mangolds. These provided winter feed for the animals, as a result of which, the animals no longer had to be slaughtered and salted.
Around the same time, salt mines were developed for the first time on a large scale in Cheshire and on the continent in Germany and Poland. The rock salt which they produced was finer than the course sea salt and, although more expensive, was generally accepted as better quality for table use.
During Victorian times, the Scottish salt masters fought back by mixing some of the rock salt with their coarser, home produced product but, by the beginning of the last decade of the 19th century, sea salt was deemed only fit for non edible uses, ranging from foto baths to keeping the roads free of ice in winter.
In Bo’ness, where at one time over a dozen pans had been in production, the fire below the last working pan was extinguished in 1890. Further down the Forth, salt continued to be produced at pans at Joppa and at Prestonpans until the 1940s, mainly for use in keeping roads clear of ice and snow.
By that time, the first of the television celebrity cooks had already flicked on to many household’s black and white television screens. Unfortunately, Delia’s predecessors, such as fanny and Johnny Craddock, never thought to suggest adding a pinch of sea salt to any of their dishes.
Had they done so, they may have ensured the survival of this once flourishing Scottish industry, as is now more happily the case at Maldon in Essex.