PhD Studentship: The Archaeology, History & Heritage of Scotland’s Seaweed Industry

Published: 2 March 2020

Deadline for applications: Wednesday 13 May 2020

The Archaeology, History, and Heritage of Scotland’s Seaweed Industry, 17th–20th centuries

Update: Because of staff going on furlough due to Covid-19, both shortlisting and interviews will take place in July. We will let all applicants know whenever we have more details. The application deadline and scholarship start date remain the same.

  • Funding body: Collaborative Doctoral Partnership funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council via the Scottish Cultural Heritage Consortium, held jointly by Historic Environment Scotland and the University of Glasgow.
  • Deadline for applications: Wednesday 13 May 2020 - to be sent in an email to 
  • Interviews: will be held via Zoom in July
  • Start date for PhD: 1 October 2020
  • Duration: The scholarship is funded for 3 years and 9 months (45 months) full time, or part-time equivalent, with the possibility of a further 3 months being funded for professional development opportunities.
  • Funding details:  Tuition fees and annual stipend paid.  Stipend for 2020/21 is £15,285 plus an additional annual CDP stipend of £600.

Project Summary

The industrial exploitation of seaweed resources was part of life in Scotland for much of the post-medieval period. This important industry connected many rural parts of Scotland with fast-changing economic, political, and scientific developments at a global scale. One example of this would be the boom in the kelp industry in the late 18th and early 19th century. The production of potash, an important industrial chemical, from seaweed increased dramatically as the Napoleonic Wars cut of traditional sources of this material – the resulting collapse after the conclusion of these wars significantly contributed to clearance in many areas. Evidence of this activity can be seen around Scotland’s coasts; despite this, it remains little studied. The first archaeological account of this industry was published as recently as 2019. This small case study highlighted the large gap in knowledge about this aspect of post-medieval life in Scotland and showed the potential for studies in this area to have far-reaching implications for our understanding of social and cultural change in Scotland and internationally. At a time when the industrial exploitation of seaweed may soon be a growing sector in the Western Isles, this is an important opportunity to reflect on the impact of this industry in the past.

This research project will transform our understanding of the role of industrial seaweed exploitation in early modern Scotland, by focusing on its technology and social impact, and the human experience of those involved. Drawing on archaeological and documentary sources, it will also consider its historical context and examine, for the first time, the rich seam of evidence in Gaelic and Scots about the commercial exploitation of seaweed and its impact on communities across Scotland. In many communities, there are strong memories of kelping, and it is regarded as a valuable and significant element of their way of life. The PhD will affirm this importance and value at a national level, giving it parity of esteem with other elements of Scottish history. Through knowledge exchange it will aim to improve local and national understandings of seaweed extraction. The seaweed industry was one way in which post-medieval Scotland interacted with a global economic system, which included colonialism, empire, and slavery, and this will also be an opportunity to highland the part the seaweed industry played in these global historical narratives.

The research will draw on a number of case studies from different periods and places to demonstrate the range and diversity of industrial exploitation of seaweed from the 17th to the 20th centuries, and the rich remains these engagements have left in the historic environment. The research will operate at a range of scales, integrating national, regional and local analysis. At the broadest scale, the project will assess existing information about seaweed exploitation across Scotland, contextualising the case studies and exploring the potential for further research.

The case studies, which will be identified by the student, will consider the impact of seaweed extraction on the social and cultural lives of the affected communities in specific areas. Following recent innovations in archaeological landscape theory, the exploitation of seaweed will be explored in the context of rhythms of local landscapes and routine practices – just one element of a mosaic of human activity which includes biographies of places and people and the relations between human and non-human actors in the landscape.

The archaeological remains of the seaweed industry are extremely poorly understood. In some areas there are hundreds of kelping sites along several kilometres of coast, and yet there are less than 150 sites in the National Record of the Historic Environment for the whole of Scotland. Many of these sites are under severe threat from coastal erosion, and are in some of Scotland’s most vulnerable landscapes. It is likely many have already been lost without every being recorded. This PhD will document the character and diversity of archaeological sites related to the exploitation of seaweed. This has the potential to transform how these sites are recorded, designated, and ultimately managed in future – particularly important as we face the challenges of climate change.

Aims and Objectives


  • To transform our understanding of the social, cultural and landscape impacts of industrial exploitation of seaweed resources in Scotland, from the 17th to 20th centuries
  • To explore the expertise and knowledge about these practices within communities, through understanding community memory, surviving documentary sources and oral traditions, both Gaelic and Scots
  • To discover the diversity and extent of sites related to the exploitation, and gain an understanding of the threats they face from coastal erosion.


  • Through the PhD and publications, to create an initial framework for understanding this under-researched field, and to highlight opportunities for future research
  • To give new insights into how the exploitation of seaweed impacted on the landscapes, communities, and history of Scotland.
  • To affirm the value of locally-recognised archaeology and history at a national level.
  • To exchange knowledge with communities of place and interest.
  • To submit recommendations to Historic Environment Scotland on the better recording, designation, and management of kelping sites.

The PhD student

The student will be expected to develop good skills in archaeological fieldwork and landscape interpretation, documentary history, oral history, and community engagement. Due to the nature of the material and many of the communities involved, they will need to demonstrate some facility with Gaelic, which can be developed throughout the course of the PhD. They will need excellent people skills in order to interact with a wide range of groups, from universities and public bodies to local residents and interest groups.

We expect the student to be based at Historic Environment Scotland in Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow for significant periods of time. This can be flexible depending on the needs of the student, and will vary according to their activities at various periods. In the first sixth months the student will meet with at least one of their supervisors every two weeks, and with HES and University of Glasgow supervisors together every month. After this settling-in period, the student will meet with at least one of their supervisors every month, and with HES and University of Glasgow supervisors together every four months.

Review procedures will follow the normal pattern used by Archaeology at the University of Glasgow, with a review panel every six months attended by the student, all four supervisors, and two other members from Archaeology, one of whom will chair the meeting. All members agree on objectives for the next six months and discuss progress on those objectives at the next meeting. At the end of each year this panel reviews progress, including substantial pieces of written work submitted to the supervisors, as a condition for progressing to the next year. The student will be expected to submit their thesis by the end of the 45 months’ guaranteed funding.

Extensive training can be provided by the host institutions. HES will provide hands-on training in developing the historic environment record, and in the designation and recording of archaeological sites. At the University of Glasgow, the student will have access to the very wide range of specialist and generic training provided by Archaeology, the College of Arts Graduate School, the University, and the Scottish Graduate School for the Arts and Humanities. The four supervisors will supplement this by providing subject-specific training in field recording methods, archival research, using Gaelic sources and oral history records, and public engagement.

The University of Glasgow provides software and training in both QGIS and ArcGIS, as well as a range of illustration, analytical and bibliographic software, and the student will not need any additional software. The student will also have the opportunity of teaching first and second-year undergraduate seminars.

The supervisory team will consist of Dr Kevin Grant and Dr Mary MacLeod Rivett at Historic Environment Scotland, and Dr Michael Given and Dr Martin MacGregor (Archaeology and History respectively at the University of Glasgow).

Outputs (PhD student)

(a) Research activity: The PhD student's principal output will be a doctoral thesis on the project's theme. The student will also be expected to deliver significant public engagement activities.
(b) Authorship: The student will be the solo author of the PhD thesis.
(c) Publication: The PhD thesis will be made available open access at Glasgow University Library.


We seek applicants with a masters degree (or equivalent) in Archaeology or a cognate discipline (e.g. History or Human Geography). Some facility with the Gaelic Language is required.

Funding eligibility

By the terms of the AHRC funding, only UK or EU applicants are eligible. You will also need to be accepted onto the relevant PhD programme via University of Glasgow Admissions.

How to apply

Applicants should submit a Curriculum Vitae, including contact details of one academic referee, and a 2-page covering letter outlining why they are interested in this PhD opportunity and what they would bring to this project.
This should be sent in an email to by Wednesday 13 May 2020.
Interviews will be held via Zoom in July. 

Further information

For further information or informal queries, please contact either or

First published: 2 March 2020

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