Burray is now as it always has been, a largely agricultural island with livestock farming being the mainstay of the industry.
Until recent times and with the exception of The Bu farm, the agriculture of Burray remained very basic and unimproved throughout the years. Bere barley and black oats were grown but accounts of the state of some of these crops are, to say the least, not flattering to the farmers.
To be fair to the farmers however, they were at the beck and call of the laird at all times and so time to work their own land may have been limited.
In the early 18th century, potatoes and turnips were introduced and potatoes in particular became an important part of the diet. Unfortunately it was some time before the value of turnips as livestock fodder was utilised.
By the early 19th century, the quality of the cattle on the island had improved from the earlier small, thin beasts and they were of sufficient quality to make dealers from Aberdeen consider it worthwhile to travel up and purchase cattle in Orkney.
This improvement in the cattle was due to improved breeds being introduced from further south and to the eventual use of turnips as winter feed so that the cattle could thrive all year round in the mild climate. This was the beginning of the improvement of orkney cattle which has resulted in Orkney beef being famed for high quality throughout the country.
When you find yourself in a queue on the barriers behind a gigantic green John Deere tractor that seems to be the size of a block of flats, it is hard to believe that it was not until 1943 that the first tractor was purchased by a Burray farmer and that there were no proper roads on the island until the 20th century.
The Kelp Industry
Seaweed has been used in Burray as a fertiliser and dressing for the land for centuries but in the 18th century, import duties and wars created a high demand for potash and soda made from kelp for use in the manufacture of soap and glass. The Orkney landlords realised that a great deal of money could be made from kelp and Burray was not alone in making the most of this opportunity.
Kelp production also fitted well into the farming year as the harvesting of the seaweed and the production of the kelp in kilns took place during the summer months.
The seaweed was cut at low tide when the cutters could wade out to the kelp beds where they would work for hours waist deep in water. The harvest was then hauled above the high water mark where it was left to dry before being moved to the kilns where it was burned for 8 hours to produce the kelp. These kelp kilns were merely shallow, stone lined pits in the ground. The resulting liquid was then left to cool and set before being broken up and shipped south for processing.
Kelp burning on the beach
By 1800, kelp accounted for 67% of all the exports from Orkney but by 1830 the lifting of tarriffs on foreign soda and potash made imports cheap and although kelp continued to be produced for a few more decades, it ceased to be a major occupation in Burray.
Unfortunately the large profits to be made from kelp had led to neglect of the agricultural land with much of the population spending a great deal of their time in gathering and burning kelp so that after the decline of the kelp industry it took a long time to return the land to its previous fertility.
Seaweed is still occassionally collected from the beaches after storms for use as fertiliser on local farms.
As a small island surrounded by fertile seas, fishing has always been important to Burray, although most people always combined fishing and farming.
In the 18th century, as now, lobsters were exported south from Burray and cod fishing was increasing in importance.
By the early 19th century however, the herring fishery was starting to expand rapidly and by the middle of the century it was a very important industry with most families in Burray engaged in one way or another with the fishery. The men crewed the boats while the women worked gutting, salting and packing the herring at the herring station which is now The Sands Hotel.
Rather surprisingly, given the amount of activity in the industry, construction of the pier in Burray village did not start until 1902 and it took a long time to complete.
A busy scene at Burray in the 19th century.
The fishing industry of the island led in the 1870s to the establishment of Duncan's boatyard which carried on making boats which were generally considered the best that could be had, until the yard closed in 2001. Even today, the line "Constructed by Duncan's of Burray" can add to the sale price of any boat.