Whale Oil Uses  


Whale Uses

Whale Oil



Trench Foot






Soap has been produced for many centuries and over that long period of time the method of production changed very little. Neutral oils or fats, including beef and mutton fat and whale oil, were boiled with alkalis, particularly potassium and sodium hydroxide, to form metallic salts of fatty acids, or soaps. Glycerol was liberated as a valuable by-product.

The quality of soap produced depends very much on the quality of the materials used. Early soap production used ash, produced by burning various vegetable materials, including kelp, as a makeshift source of alkali.

The production of ash from kelp was a major industry in Scotland in the western and northern isles during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Kelp industry was introduced to Orkney as early as 1722 by a progressive landowner, James Fea of Whitehall, Stronsay. There was some suspicion of the industry to begin with as the kelp was a useful fertiliser. The seaweed was burnt to produce alkali which had uses not only for making soap but also glass.

The seaweed washed ashore, known locally as' tangles' was collected and usually burned in shallow stone-lined pits, which can be seen in many places around the Orkney shores, and became a valuable industry, bringing in during the French wars, some £20,000 per annum, and employing up to 3000 people.

The success of the industry produced large profits and led to attempted innovations. On Papa Stronsay large kilns were built to replace the simple stone-lined pits. It is not known if these kilns were a great improvement on the more traditional method.

A short history of soap.

navigation button leading to more information
İSCRAN/James Gardiner
Kelp on Loch Scavaig, Isle of Skye

navigation button leading to more information
İSCRAN/Gaidheil Abba
Loch Duich, Ross-shire 1814. William Daniell
Kelp burning can be seen on the shoreline

navigation button leading to more information
İSCRAN/British Geological Survey
Kelp burning on Papa Westray, Orkney

navigation button leading to more information
İSCRAN/Richard Welsby
Kelp kilns on Papa Stronsay, Orkney


Martyn Gorman   ·   University of Aberdeen   ·   Department of Zoology  ·   © 2002