The Dulse Gatherers by W. H Bartlett
Seaweeds have been used as a source of nourishment for millennia by coastal peoples around the world. The culinary uses of seaweed as best known in Britain now from cuisines of the East Asia particularly Japan where seaweed remains an established part of their food culture. It is less well known that Britain has its own traditions of using our native seaweeds that have now largely been forgotten.
I recently cane across an interesting article in the Dickens Journals Online. Titled “Purple Shore” and published anonymously in 1856 in the weekly magazine edited by Charles Dickens’s called Household Words it includes many interesting details of the seaweeds of the British coasts. However, my interest was piqued by the descriptions of uses of the seaweed dulse as food, particularly in relation to my current home of Aberdeen.
“Dulse and Irish moss, common and well-known plants, indicate the whereabout of the purple shore. Dulse is generally found in the transition region between the brown and purple zones. Dulse is called Iridea edulis, because it is eatable, and because some species of it reflect light prismatically, like the iris. Coast-folks on the south-west of England, the west of Ireland, and the east of Scotland, eat dulse. The colour is dark brown purple. When at all reddish they are not good to eat. The blade is flat and expanded, and more fleshy than gelatinous, being composed of densely interwoven fibres running lengthwise. The shape of the blade is egg- like, tapering into a short stem towards the base. The root is a spread disk, from which spring several blades.
The writers on sea-plants say the fronds of Iridea edulis are occasionally eaten by the poor, either raw or fried. Stackhouse says, the fishermen of the south-west of England eat it after they have pinched it between red-hot irons, when it is said to taste like roasted oysters. “
While it is dulse the author is talking about the Latin name is no longer accurate as Palmaria palmata is now the correct name for this type of seaweed. A the author alludes this seaweed has been used in the diets of coastal people around the British Isles in the past.
The author then moves on to reminiscing of their childhood spent in Aberdeen. This is personally interesting to me as it is currently my home although I am not a native Scot. I have seen sources indicating that seaweed eating had survived as a tradition in the Western Isles of Scotland but this was the first source I have seen for the eating of seaweed in the North-East in the past.
“Dulse is a regular relish on the tables of all ranks in Aberdeen, my native town. When I was a boy, from half-a-dozen to a dozen dulse-wives, according to the season, used to sit every morning on the paving stones of the Castlegate selling dulse. When I think of them, the beautiful granite city, seated at the mouth of the Dee, comes before me like a picture. The Castlegate – a large, oblong square formed of granite houses of all ages and all styles – was a wonderful old place in those days, ere the nineteenth century had eclipsed the middle ages in the city of Bon Accord.”
Castlegate, Aberdeen by Hugh Irvine, painted in 1812
The suggestion that seaweed was once consumed by people of all classes of society is an interesting one. In other parts of the British Isles it has often been reserved for the those too poor to have much choice and fallen out of favour as people became wealthier. The author then recounts some nostalgic memories of the women who sold the dulse on Castlegate and their efforts to obtain his bawbee, an old Scottish half-penny coin.
“Recollections crowd upon me when I ought to be thinking only of the dulse-wives. I see shore-porters dressed in blue cloth, with broad Scottish bonnets and broader shoulders; carters standing upright in their carts, while driving them, and looking ruddy and sleepy; recruiting sergeants of the Highland regiments beguiling the country lads; and ladies, followed by their maids, making purchases of fish. However, of all the figures on the Castlegate, none were more picturesque than the dulse-wives. They sat in a row on little wooden stools, with their wicker creels placed before them on the granite paving stones. Dressed in clean white mutches, or caps, with silk-handkerchiefs spread over their breasts, and blue stuff wrappers and petticoats, the ruddy and sonsie dulse-women looked the types of health and strength. Every dulse-wife had a clean white cloth spread half over the mouth of her creel at the side furthest from her, and nearest her customers. The cloth served as a counter on which the dulse was heaped into the handkerchiefs of the purchasers. Many a time, when my whole weekly income was a halfpenny, a Friday’s bawbee, I have expended it on dulse, in preference to apples, pears, blackberries, cranberries, strawberries, wild peas and sugar-sticks. When I approached, there used to be quite a competition among the dulse-wives for my bawbee. The young ones looked most winning, and the old ones cracked the best jokes. A young one would say:
“Come to me, bonnie laddie, and I’ll gie ye mair for yer bawbee than any o’ them.”
“Come to me, laddie, an I’ll tell what like yer wife will be.”
“Ye dinna ken yerself.”
“Hoot aye – I ken brawly: she’ll hae a head and feet, an mou’, and eyen, and may be a nose, and will be as auld as me, if she lives as lang.”
“Aye; but ye gie me very little dulse for my bawbee.”“Aye,” replies the honest woman, adding another handful, “but sic a wife is weel worth mair siller.”
The dulse-wives exploded into laughter, when the old woman suggested someone like herself, as the ideal wife which youth is doomed always to pursue and never to attain. As the boy retired laughing, but abashed, the young one would cry:
“Y’ll come to me neist time, laddie – winna ye?””
I guess it has been a long time now since anyone sold freshly gathered dulse on Castlegate. The next sections details how the dulse was eaten in Aberdeen. I think that our tastes have changed somewhat in the past century I doubt many people here would be happy about eating raw seaweed. While I regularly eat dulse I think munching it raw from the beach would be beyond me. It’s recommendation as a vermifuge, a medicine for intestinal worms, brings to mind other differences between then and our own time. The correct name for pepper dulse is now Osmundea pinnatifida. This is another seaweed I have yet to try.
“Dulse is generally eaten raw in Aberdeen. Raw or toasted with hot irons, or fried, but especially raw, it seasons oaten or wheaten bread admirably. The iodine it contains makes it an excellent vermifuge. Pepper-dulse – Laurencia pinnatifida – is much more rare and more piquant than Iridea edulis.
At Aberdeen every dulse-wife has ordinarily a few handfuls of pepper-dulse, half-a-dozen plants of which she adds when asked, to every halfpenny worth of dulse. Sometimes there is one who, being weakly, has nothing but pepper-dulse, which is less heavy to carry, and more costly than the common breakfast relish of the Aberdonians. “Wha’ll buy dulse and tang!” is one of the cries of the fish-wives in the streets of Edinburgh. “He who eats the dulse of Guerdie and drinks of the wells of Kildingie,” say the people of Stronza, “will escape all maladies except black death.” The Norwegians call dulse sou-soell or sheep’s weed, because their sheep often stay eating it in their fondness for it until they are drowned by the returning tide. The Icelanders preserve dulse by washing it well in fresh water, by drying it in the sun until it gives out a sweet powdery substance which covers the whole plant, and by packing it into casks and keeping it from the air. Preserved dulse is eaten in this state with fish and butter, or is boiled in milk and mixed with a little flour of rye.”
Escaping all maladies except black death seems as good a health claim as you could hope to expect from a humble seaweed. I was curious about this phrase which according to Patrick Neill in 1806 was common on the Orkney Islands, from where it appears to have originated.
“Guiodin is a rocky creek, situated near the farm of Kerbuster. The name is supposed to mean geu or creek of Odin. I had the curiosity to examine what this salutiferous dulse might be; and found it to be the common fucus palmatus. I likewise vefited the wells of Kildingie, and found them to be weak chalybeates. The wells or springs, are situated in the Mill Bay, on the edge of the Links of Houton.”
The creek of Odin brings to mind the olden times when the islands were ruled by the Norse Earls of Orkney. Salutiferous is an old word for health-giving and chalybeate is another old word that refers to the iron rich mineral water of the wells, then believed to have many health-giving properties. I find it interesting that the health benefits of dulse were appreciated enough back then for the phrase to have spread from the Orkney Islands to be heard on the streets of Edinburgh. I feel more like I am continuing an old tradition by eating dulse, albeit one that seems to have been forgotten.