Seaweed has been hand picked from the beaches of Guernsey for well over 10,000 years for the purposes of fuel and fertiliser.
Seaweed is known in Guernsey French as ‘vraic’ and traditionally it was recognised that there were two types of vraic collection: seaweed that is drifting on the sea or available on the beach is known as ‘vraic venant’ and is commonly picked up after high tides or storms (the fresher the better); seaweed that is cut from the rocks with sickles is known as ‘vraic scie’ and traditionally this commanded a much higher price although its collection was restricted in 1818 in order to maintain the ecosystem and continuing new growth of seaweed.
The entire agriculture industry of Guernsey relied upon the collection of seaweed to the extent that in 1607 Royal Commissioners sent to the island by James I were petitioned by the locals to ensure the perpetuation of their ‘ancient right to gather vraic without hindrance’.
Vraicing in Guernsey
It was such a valuable resource that collectors regularly risked their lives. Vraic venant was often collected by dragging drifting seaweed out of a very rough sea, with the use of a specially created rake, from the beach and this inevitably led to risk of being washed away and injury. In 1659 it is recorded that seven men and boys lost their lives when their boat overturned on the return trip from Herm to Guernsey after collecting seaweed.
Throughout history vraic was collected from the beaches by the poor and this was known as ‘vraic a la poche’ – literally meaning ‘seaweed for the sack’ which referred to the sacks that the seaweed collectors carried on their backs. Most poor people used the seaweed as fuel to heat the family home and would then sell the ashes to farmers to use as potash fertiliser on the fields – hence obtaining a double benefit from this natural resource.
To give an idea of the volume of seaweed being collected, during the 1840s 32,000 cart loads were removed from the beach on an annual basis for fertilizer, fuel and as a source of potash.
Due to the proliferation of farmers collecting vraic in massive quantities using horse, oxen and carts to use on the fields a law was passed in 1837 that stated that only vraic a la poche could be collected from the beaches for a month before midsummer’s day.
Farmers collecting vraic near Fort Grey, Guernsey
Midsummer’s Eve was known as the festival of St Jean in Guernsey and this marked the start of the main vraicing season. Farmers would line up on the beaches with their carts. They would dress the animals, carts and children with garlanded flowers and at first light the entire extended family would start the annual collection. Some of the women and children would search the beach for limpets, crabs and ormers (a local delicacy, part of the abalone family) and in the evening there was much feasting and merriment with the centre piece being the ‘lit de fouaille’ or green bed which was a seat, stuffed with seaweed and covered with a canopy that was adorned with flowers and ferns. The local girls would sit on the green bed throughout the festivities akin to a silent queen.
We at Guernsey Seaweed are looking to reintroduce the festival of St Jean to celebrate all things seaweed and Guernsey on midsummer’s eve – watch this space for more.