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When Lewis MacKenzie goes diving off Harris, an island in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, he has plenty of company in the frigid water. “I’ll get seals and otters diving past me, cormorants and guillemots swimming by, streaming bubbles as they go,” he says. But MacKenzie, a professional diver and skipper, isn’t there for the wildlife. He’s on the lookout for the bronze fronds of sugar kelp, which he clips carefully from the seabed.
As the Isle of Harris Distillery’s sole harvester, MacKenzie can gather 200 kilograms of kelp a day, which is put to a somewhat unconventional use: flavoring the island’s gin.
Sugar kelp is the key ingredient in Harris Gin. After the kelp is dried, it is infused with spirits in a copper gin still.
“There’s a saltiness first of all,” says MacKenzie, describing the taste of raw kelp. “Then as you chew it a sweetness is released. That’s what you can pick up in the gin as well, these layers of flavor.” But the maritime quality of the gin isn’t all that makes the two-year-old distillery unique: it also aims to bring economic revival to an island that is swiftly losing its young people.
The Outer Hebrides, or Western Isles, make up Scotland’s most westerly reaches, moored in the wind-whipped North Atlantic. Renowned for their beauty—where rugged mountains dip their toes into aquamarine seas—the islands’ splendid isolation also masks a growing problem. With modernization, the volatility of the fishing industry, and the dearth of jobs, young islanders are departing en masse for the mainland.
“The Western Isles have been suffering from long-term population decline,” says Calum McIver, director of development for the Western Isles Council, a branch of local government. In fact, by 2039, the working-age population is projected to decline by 21 percent. “Young people are committed to the islands and their heritage. They want to stay. But a lot of them don’t have a choice,” McIver says.
Harris’s population has dropped from over 4,000 a few decades ago to below 2,000 today. But the distillery hopes to change that. Located in the port town of Tarbert, population 550, the distillery stands church-like at the end of a road that creeps across the island’s heather-strewn landscape, its minimalist A-frame braced at the edge of the North Atlantic.
The distillery was first established to make whiskey. But because the alcohol takes years to age, it began producing gin to generate swifter returns.
One employee, 19-year-old Ruth MacLeod, says only three or four of her final year classmates at school stayed on Harris, but she never wanted to leave. “When I’m on the mainland I always look forward to coming home,” she says. “I often think, what would I have done if the distillery wasn’t here?”
She’s one of 32 employees, all except one of whom hail from Harris. “The imperative was always to employ islanders,” says Simon Erlanger, the distillery’s managing director. That goal started with the founder, Anderson Bakewell, an American who made the island his home 50 years ago.
“He wanted to come up with an initiative which would last for generations, to stop young people leaving, and also take the essence of Harris and spread it abroad,” Erlanger says.
The gin is matured and bottled on the island, and distributed directly from the distillery, cutting out middlemen to create local jobs. Erlanger also works with local schools, as part of the Scottish government’s Developing the Young Workforce program, to recruit new graduates. For some who have gone there to gain work experience before leaving to study elsewhere, the distillery has guaranteed them jobs upon their return. “We’re showing Harris that we’re here for them,” Erlanger says.
Do locals appreciate the changes that the distillery has brought to their quiet seaside town? Erlanger thinks so: “After the official opening, we put out some notices inviting the community to a ceilidh, expecting maybe 100 to turn up,” Erlanger says. “But 800 people came through the door.” It became the biggest party in Harris’s living memory.
“In the 1940s and 1950s, there was this idea that if you had any desire to get on in the world, you had to leave the islands,” says McIver. “But people have since developed pride in Gaelic culture. They understand that there’s intrinsic value in what we have here, and that we shouldn’t be trying to escape it.”
With Harris Gin to enrich that culture, there’s fresh hope that it will draw young islanders back home.