By Chris McCullough

IF you have ever succumbed to the relaxation power of a spa in the UK the chances are you may have been pampered with seaweed lovingly harvested from the Outer Hebrides.

Seaweed is full of ingredients good for the body and soul which can easily be absorbed into the skin to help disguise those accumulating years and stress.

A familiar brand of products typically found in spas across the UK, including the one at Turnberry and Loch Lomond Golf Club, is Ishga, a term derived from the Gaelic word for water.

Ishga products are manufactured using seaweed harvested by Hebridean Seaweed based on the Isle of Lewis.

Sales of seaweed across the world reached over US$4 billion in 2016 and are predicted to rise to around US$10billion by 2024. Asian countries are pushing sales higher as is strong demand from the US and Europe in all market sectors.

This increased demand for seaweed has become so strong that Hebridean Seaweed is now expanding its production facilities to meet that demand.

With crystal clear waters to harvest from, the company was set up at Arnish Point near Stornoway.

Currently, the production plant is undergoing a £7 million expansion project to cater for increased demand for seaweed products. Hebridean Seaweed already produces 6000 tons of seaweed per year and exports it all over the world but demand is growing.

Managing director Martin Macleod said: “Around 95% of our production is destined for the agricultural and horticultural markets and 5% is for food production and the cosmetic industry.

“In the agricultural sector we mostly supply business to business including Glenside Organics in Scotland and Trouw Nutrition and also to some fish feed manufacturers.”

Seaweed is harvested, as the name suggests, from the sea which is owned by the Queen of England. Special permits have to be authorised for any harvesting to take place on a regular basis.

“We harvest the seaweed from the sea which is ultimately owned by the Queen. We have agreements in place with the Crown Estate and local private estates to exclusively harvest ascophyllum nodosum throughout the Western Isles.

“Harvesting takes place all year round and the cutting is carried out mechanically using a fleet of seaweed harvesting boats that I designed and had built exclusively for us.

“We work very closely with Scottish Natural Heritage and SEPA to ensure the seaweed harvesting is sustainable and environmentally friendly,” he said.

Although manual cutting of the seaweed was once the favoured method of harvesting, the mechanical harvesting is now preferred. The boats works close to the shore and cut the seaweed as the stalks float above the seabed.

It is then filled into sacks and towed by a small boat to a sheltered area for loading onto a lorry. This method of harvesting is environmentally friendly and sustainable as only the tops of the stalks are cut which allows the seaweed to regenerate in a relatively short period of time.

Martin said: “We have a licence to harvest 12 hours per day but we keep it at around six to eight hours to ensure sustainability in regrowth. Up to 40 tonnes of fresh seaweed is harvested per day which equates to around 10 tonnes of processed seaweed as the ratio of fresh seaweed to processed product is around four to one,” he said.

When the seaweed arrives at the processing plant it first has to be dried and then milled into the product requested by each customer. Martin is currently looking at different ways of drying seaweed including air drying to see which method is best.

As part of the new production facility currently under construction Martin is installing a lot of new technology to ensure increased efficiency of energy and production methods.

“The entire new project is costing around seven million pounds and we have received grants from Europe and the Scottish government to assist with the construction.

“It extends to 3250 square metres of covered facility and a further 17,000 square metres of yard space which is probably Europe’s biggest seaweed factory.

Following on from the success of this innovative company, the founders Martin Macleod and Malcolm Macrae, along with Malcolm’s wife Joanna who is a beauty therapist, decided to venture into beauty products.

With his background in science Malcolm created the Hebridean Seaweed Extract, which is the cornerstone of Ishga. Used throughout the retail and professional range, the mineral-rich extract is blended with organic ingredients and essential oils to create each individual skincare product.

Independent tests on these seaweed extracts have found them to contain high levels of polphenol antioxidants, alginates, fucoidan, fucoxanthin, and a range of minerals and vitamins which are all recognised as being beneficial to the skin.

In the beginning the team first developed an anti-oxidant marine face cream and added more products over the years to offer a complete range of skincare and health products.

Now there are products available for men and women ranging from ‘Invigorating Body Oil’ to ‘Regenerating Face Toner’ for the ladies. Men can also treat themselves to beard and shave oil along with body wash.

Next time you visit a spa check to see if it uses Ishga and you can be sure to relax with the finest quality seaweed from the Outer Hebrides.