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Cefoil Seaweed Factory

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The Cefoil seaweed factory, or alginate works, was located at Putechan near Bellochantuy, on the west coast of the Kintyre peninsula, and the remains lie a short way along a small track to the east of the main A83 road. It was closed in 1942, when all production was transferred to newly-built factories near Girvan, Oban and Kames.

In 1934, Cefoil Limited, of Maidenhead, England, set up the Cefoil seaweed factory to produce sodium alginate fibre. This was a relatively new substance, having been discovered in 1881 by EC Stanford, a scientist working in Scotland, and investigating Laminaria, a species of kelp. A relatively small company, Cefoil was already working for the military at the outbreak of World War II, manufacturing specialised material such as camouflage netting which was opaque to infra-red cameras, and a number of other abstruse military items.

The Kintyre factory had originally been set up by the owner, CW Bonniksen, to produce alginate with aim of manufacturing a clear film (Cefoil) from the substance. Unfortunately for Bonniksen, by the time he was ready to manufacture the film in volume, it had been surpassed by a competitor's superior film, cellophane, and his business was ready to collapse. It was saved by the outbreak of World War II, when the factory fell under control of the Ministry of Supply, and was used to process the seaweed into materials which could be used to manufacture products of wartime value such as camouflage paint, artificial silk (for parachutes), cellophane, and custard powder.

There are reports of investigations into the use of sodium alginate fibre as a component for aircraft, and that a single 'seaweed' De Havilland Mosquito was flown. The material is believed to have been intended to replace the lightweight balsa wood components used in its construction. Unfortunately, its use proved unsuitable in practice, and the work was abandoned.

The Ministry closed the Kintyre factory in 1942, when production was transferred to newly-built factories near Girvan, Barcaldine near Oban, and Kames, on the south of Loch Melfort. This move came as a shock to the local community, and followed visit to the factory by a Government Commission in 1940. Intended to be the start of plan to fund a major expansion of the Bellochantuy site, the commission recommended that three new factories costing £250,000 should be built at Girvan, Barcaldine, and Kames. As if to demonstrate the error of the Commission's recommendation, at its closure, workers at the Kintyre factory were producing more in one day than the new Girvan plant could turn out in a week.

After the war, Cefoil became Alginate Industries Ltd, and its production was concentrated at Girvan, where seaweed processing continues.

, © http://www.geograph.org.uk/user/Grumpian%20Aul%27%20Mannie/
Barcaldine factory caught in 1996
photograph of holiday chalet on
Loch Creran
© Colin Smith

Most accounts refer to only two factories being built to replace Bellochantuy, some refer to three, but then list the sites as Girvan, and Oban (neglecting to include the third!), or list them as Girvan, Barcaldine and Oban, not realising that Barcaldine is near Oban.

Further research has confirmed the existence of the third alginate factory at Kames on Loch Melfort, but that OS maps show the site as fish factory, which may be an error of assumption after the site was viewed, or indicative of a later use, as Kames was soon to follow the same fate as the original Kintyre factory, and closed during the 1950s. The former factory buildings still remain in place, and are believed to have been absorbed by the MRC (Marine Resource Centre), described next.

Barcaldine has been noted in a number of reports, with its closure being listed at various dates ranging from some time in the 1970s, through to 1996, when it was photographed on Loch Creran, together with the nearby holiday chalets. In fact, far from being closed, as of 2003, the Barcaldine site appears to be flourishing, having be taken over and funded by Lithgow's Ltd, who have long been involved in marine engineering. The site continues to produce alginate from seaweed, but now operates as a Marine Resource Centre (MRC), bringing together a number of related industries on one site. These include: Fisheries and aquaculture, engineering and transport, biotechnology, environmental protection, mineral resources, education, leisure and tourism. A number of companies are based in, and operate from the centre, which has installed its own hydro-electric scheme, powering not only the site, but exporting surplus power to the National Grid

Alginate history

From the late 1600s onward, seaweed was found to have a number of uses, and it developed into a major industry for the Western Isles and the Orkney archipelago. It became the major source of chemicals such as soda, potash and iodine for the British, and was significant because it gave the British Isles independence from Spain, then the main centre of production for these materials. This was to become even more relevant during the Napoleonic and later wars, when the country was isolated from mainland Europe.

Sodium Alginates are jelly-like carbohydrates used for their water holding, gelling, emulsifying and stabilising properties, which are desirable in a range of applications. In the food industry, alginates serve to stabilise meringues and ice-cream, improve the head on beer, allow fast-setting of puddings, emulsify oils, and as E-numbers 400 to 405. They provide the same properties in the cosmetic, medical, paint, and other industries, and can be used to produce alkali-soluble fibres.

Between Alginate Industries and the Scottish Seaweed Research Association (SSRA), a research organisation based in Musselburgh, there was a brief period of renewed interest in the creation of seaweed-based products. This was not sustained, and the SSRA wound down over the 1960s, and the Oban factory closed in the 1970s.

All major suppliers of alginate buy substantial amounts of alginate from Chinese sources to supplement their own production. The manufacture of alginate in the western world has become difficult to maintain economically.

In the past three decades, the alginates industry has been on a steady decline. It has been 'adopted' and passed around within a number of large international firms, which have allowed development and some slight expansion of the industry. Overall, however, the trend in Scotland has been one of decline, perhaps in imitation of the potash and iodine industries beforehand. This has been attributed to the ready availability of raw materials elsewhere (Chile and Tasmania), where the seaweed is generally dried and milled before shipping. Thus, supplies from far afield are often more economical than those from Scotland, as transport costs for the bulky, often undried, seaweed from the Hebrides to Ayrshire are prohibitively expensive. There have been several proposals for a drying and milling plant in the Hebrides, but progress appears slow.

Girvan factory developments

Very little Scottish seaweed is now taken by the sole remaining alginate factory, at Girvan, and the future for this industry in Scotland appears bleak.

In 2008, FMC Corporation bought the hydrocolloids business from International Specialty Products which included the Girvan plant [1] [2]. FMC manufacture alginate in Norway. Production of alginate at the plant came to and end in 2009, leaving only a blending and warehousing operation at Girvan.

Barcaldine factory developments 2014

An Ayr-based firm's plan to open a £20m seaweed processing plant on South Uist has been scrapped.

Marine Biopolymers Ltd had proposed building the factory in Lochboisdale where seaweed was to be processed for use in food products and cosmetics.

The project could have created up to 60 jobs.

However, the company has now shifted its attention to setting up the factory at an existing, but closed down plant, at Barcaldine near Oban.

Storas Uibhist, which runs the community-owned South Uist Estate, had been in talks with Marine Biopolymers.

South Uist councillor Ronnie MacKinnon said it was hoped that another seaweed processing business could be attracted to the island.

- Ayr firm switches seaweed plan from South Uist to Oban.[3]

Alginate Industries Limited company history

From a Government report of 1979:

History and development

3.1. Alginate Industries Limited (AIL) was incorporated in England as a private company with the name of Cefoil Limited in March 1934. The initial share capital of £12,000 was issued to Mr C W Bonniksen (a chemist who had pioneered the commercial production of alginates) and others, among whom were members of the Merton family.

3.2. Until the outbreak of war in 1939 the company's activities were mainly of an experimental nature directed towards research into economic methods of extracting alginates from seaweed and the development of applications for their use, particularly in the production of transparent paper and artificial yarn.

3.3. Following the outbreak of war the company entered into arrangements with the Ministry of Supply for the production of a crude alginate for making camouflage material. To this end the Ministry erected factories at Girvan in Ayrshire and Barcaldine in Argyllshire. These two factories still form the nucleus of the company's manufacturing facilities (see paragraph 3.9 et seq). Weed collection and drying stations were established at Orosay (South Uist) in 1944, Sponish (North Uist) in 1955 and Keose (Lewis) in 1965 (see Appendix l(a)).

3.4. Towards the end of the war, the Ministry of Supply no longer requiring its product, the company embarked on its commercial career, changing its name to Alginate Industries Limited in 1945. The board was reconstituted and the share capital reorganised. In 1948 Mr W R Merton was appointed chairman and in 1950 his brother, Mr R R Merton, became joint managing director. Both still occupy those positions.

3.5. Considerable sums were spent by AIL on research and development, in establishing a raw material supply system and a home sales and an export agency network as well as in seeking new applications for the company's products. By 1952 the company was earning profits. In 1973 it became a listed public company.

3.6. The company says that its growth, particularly overseas, had been greatly assisted by the discovery that its products were suitable for use in conjunction with the new reactive dyes developed by Imperial Chemical Industries Limited in the 1950s and 1960s.

3.7. The company's only trading subsidiary in the United Kingdom is the wholly-owned Alginate Industries (Scotland) Limited, which is responsible for weed supply, including management of the drying and milling factories referred to at paragraph 3.3. Outside the United Kingdom the company holds 49 per cent of the share capital in Arramara Teoranta, a company engaged in the drying and milling of seaweed in Eire. (The Irish Government is the other shareholder.) The company's other interests include a 50 per cent holding in an associated company, Kelp Industries Pty Limited, which is engaged in the supply of milled seaweed in Tasmania and a trade investment representing 15 per cent of the share capital in an Icelandic enterprise (Thorungavinnslan h.f.) which is similarly engaged. In the Federal Republic of Germany the company has a small, wholly-owned, local selling subsidiary, Alginate Industries GmbH, which was incorporated hi 1973.


1 FMC to acquire ISP's hydrocolloid business

2 FMC Corporation Signs Agreement to Acquire Hydrocolloid Ingredients Business from International Specialty Products

3 Ayr firm switches seaweed plan from South Uist to Oban Retrieved June 23, 2014.

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