Elgin’s Industrial History … definitely worth its salt …

Picture of The History Series

The History Series

In this collection of carefully researched blog posts, our resident historian (and wonderful Office Manager) Kay Jackson delves into the stories that shaped our buildings, and the buildings and communities around them.

When we think about the history of local industry, salt manufacturing doesn’t really come to mind …but it served great purpose a thousand years ago. Often referred to as ‘white gold’, salt was always an expensive commodity and its value was very significant.  Many a saying has evolved with this precious substance in mind … not being ‘worth one’s salt’ remains a pretty grim insult while being described as being ‘the salt of the earth’ is a praiseworthy attribute!  Taking something with a ‘pinch of salt’ basically meant food was easier to swallow with a small amount of salt.  It’s amazing how these terms continue on today in our everyday language probably with little thought into their origins.

Salt making was probably the first major industry to be developed in medieval Scotland, being the only bulk food preservative available for meat, fish and dairy produce. Large scale salt production seemingly dates back to the 12th century and became really lucrative. By the 1790s, it was our third-largest export after wool and fish. 

Moray didn’t have a known source of rock salt so salt from seawater was the only option.  There isn’t a visible record of this traditional local activity but there are some archives which provide evidence of a salt operations at the former Spynie Loch.  The earliest mention of saltworks goes back to the 13th Century when the loch was apparently an inlet to the sea.  Excavation works have provided evidence of ancient salt making involving the evaporation of brine to produce salt crystals over open pans.  It was a foul-smelling and brutal operation at times, producing a low quality product … but it stood the test of time for a few centuries until competition from large scale mines in England and further afield in Europe brought an end to this age-old tradition. 

Hundreds of pan houses used to be found along Scotland’s coastline, but only a scattering of ruins remain of our salt heritage.  The salt of sea water is an endless renewable and it is good to know we have one or two award-winning Scottish sea salt companies still harvesting this vital product today.