6 MIN READ TIME
In the quiet seaside village of St Monans, remnants of a long-lost industry stand quietly by the water’s edge. It might not be immediately obvious, but the iconic windmill and the undulations in the grass were once part of the thriving business.&
Now, the East Neuk Salt Co is tying together St Monans’ industrial heritage with a business for the future. This is more than just a money-making venture, it’s a company with a story to tell and the very appropriate tagline of “History Preserved”.
Scotland has made use of its enormous coastline for hundreds of years, producing sea salt since at least the 12th century. In the years before refrigeration, it was one of the few effective ways to preserve food for long periods of time. Demand across Europe steadily increased and by the 1600s, salt was regularly Scotland’s third-biggest export after wool and fish.
Scottish salt was made by heating seawater and that meant the coal-rich coastline of Fife was perfect for production. This wasn’t a pretty business, the manufacturing process was a dirty, smelly, brutal occupation. It took 8 tons of coal to extract just 1 ton of salt from seawater which made it incredibly expensive, but that effort shows just how vital it really was. No wonder it became known as “White Gold”.
Over the centuries there have been dozens of villages producing salt all around the Firth of Forth. One by one they disappeared, put out of business by cheaper sun-evaporated sea salt from Spain or mined rock salt from England. Eventually, the last saltworks in Scotland closed its doors at Prestonpans in 1959 but in truth, the industry had collapsed long before that.
The remains of the saltpans we can still see at St Monan’s were set up by local landowner Sir John Anstruther in 1771. This spot had seawater and coal in abundance, but without the infrastructure needed to take advantage of it. A new coal mine was established nearby to provide the fuel, with a horse-drawn railway track laid to run between the pits, the pans and Pittenweem harbour allowing the valuable product to be exported.
St Monans’ famous windmill is actually a water pump in disguise, used to drag water from the sea through wooden pipes and into each of the nine saltpans. Coal was shovelled down chutes into each building, the fires were stoked and the evaporation process had begun. The setup in St Monans would become the third-largest salt producer around the Forth, employing around 50 people at its peak, but sadly by 1825 had already been abandoned.
All that remained was a picturesque windmill, ruined pan houses and the memory of a time when smoke filled the air and salt lined people’s pockets. It seemed as if St Monans sea salt would forever be a thing of the past, until one enterprising local decided to change that.
As many young people do, Darren Peattie had left the East Neuk years ago in the hunt for better job prospects. Life brought him and his wife Mhairi back to St Monans and it was while walking down by the old salt pans that inspiration struck. Here was evidence that sea salt had once been a huge business in Fife and maybe it could be once more.
It was a long road, but enthusiasm was high and local support forthcoming which resulted in a successful Crowdfunding campaign. Around 200 years after it had disappeared, the East Neuk Salt Co was finally able to bring an important piece of St Monans’ history back to life. Fortunately, the modern process is much more environmentally friendly than its predecessor.
Darren extracts 6000 litres of Grade A seawater from the Forth before turning it into a brine that goes from 3% salinity to 40% inside the tank. Heating the water under a vacuum saves energy by allowing it to boil at only 40 degrees. By the time the water is ready to enter the salt pan, there are only 500 litres left.
Not a single drop is wasted though, the East Neuk Salt Co take sustainability very seriously. The distilled freshwater that’s been created is sent on to make gin and any excess heat produced during the process is recycled around the system.
Once the highly concentrated saltwater has been heated, salt crystals begin to form and sink to the bottom ready for harvesting by hand. Not everything that’s made meets Darren’s high standards, but he still finds a use for anything not sold as top-quality East Neuk salt. The finer grains go into soap, while by-products like gypsum are used by local farmers as fertiliser
The East Neuk Salt Co has been an enormous investment, but it’s undoubtedly paying off for Darren and Mhairi as well as the local area. New industry means additional jobs allowing people to remain in the area, while local restaurants can be proud of using a product made right on their doorstep.
There’s no time to rest on their laurels though, things are moving onwards and upwards for the East Neuk Salt Co. They have already started providing supper clubs and could soon even be running a cookery school. All the while increasing their production of delicious, sustainable Scottish sea salt.
The heritage behind the St Monans salt industry is still front and centre of future plans, after all without Sir John Anstruther it’s unlikely the business would have ever come around. Talks are in progress to renovate one of the old salt pans into an educational attraction and teach visitors the story of St Monan’s and Scotland’s relationship with salt.
Darren and Mhairi have a big legacy to follow, but it seems like the East Neuk Salt Co is doing its forebears proud. It’s clearly much more than just salt, it’s a fascinating story which is ensuring that history is preserved.
Storytelling by Scotland's Stories