IN the devastating changes that overtook the peasant economy of the Highlands about the turn of the 19th century, one agent of change was the kelp industry. Like all such agents, it brought mixed blessings.

The UK as a whole was undergoing the industrial revolution, which turned also into a social revolution and in due course into a political revolution too. Traditional communities had always provided most of what they consumed for themselves. Now a division of labour arose between the places that made goods for commercial markets at home and abroad, and the places that supplied the raw materials or food to keep the factories and their workers going. This division of labour made the whole country much richer, but exacted a human cost.

READ MORE: Proposed ban on kelp dredging 'could cost Scotland millions'

Take kelp. The word referred both to a variety of seaweed and to its calcined ashes, these containing an inferior alkali that all the same had value in contemporary methods of manufacture for soap, glass and other useful products. Industry could supply itself from the import of kelp, but the frequent wars of the period often interrupted the traffic. This was why Highland kelp came into its own, because from 1793 to 1815, the UK was continually at war with France.

In the Western Isles of Scotland especially, kelp soon came to provide the main source of income, overtaking the produce of the crofts. The downside was that those employed in kelping, both men and women, led degraded lives.

They had to wade waist-deep into the ocean and stand for hours cutting the seaweed with saw-toothed sickles. And, in the event, they had no long-term job security. Once peace came, they suffered the abrupt loss of a livelihood that over a generation they had grown accustomed to.

Yet kelping had been one activity that helped the Gaels hold on to their place in their native country at a time when, at least in the Lowlands, a chorus of voices swelled saying there were far too many of them and they should be shifted out, to move as drudges to the industrial areas or else to start a new life in the colonies overseas. Once the gainful employment was gone, experts asked how it could be argued the Highlands and islands were not overcrowded. And so kelp made its contribution also to the forces that brought on the clearances.

Scientific advances now made it possible to produce alkali by industrial processes, so the whole of this unhappy episode faded away from our communal memory and became confined to the history books. For 200 years, the kelp grew undisturbed round our coasts except for being used as fertiliser by crofters. Yet wheels turn and times change, so that today – again through technological progress – it has once more become profitable for kelp to be exploited. While the industrial processes could pollute our skies and waters, in our times of environmental correctness it seems much more desirable for the chemical generation of alkali to give way once again to the harvesting of natural resources.

A company based at Ayr, Marine Biopolymers, has applied for a licence to harvest 30,000 tons a year of a specific, very common species of kelp. There are estimated to be 20 million tons of the stuff growing round Scottish shores. Work it out and this means the company want to target 0.15% of the available total. They would bring their harvest into Mallaig, to a factory employing about 40 workers – a lot for a village of 800 and, to judge by the scruffy looks of it, none too prosperous at that.

The prospective products are sophisticated ones: transparent armour for the police, slow-release drugs for treating cancer of the colon, meshes and implants. It is reckoned the business could be worth £300m a year.

Myself, I would have said this was an original proposal bang in line with the ideals of the 21st century, in its quest for economic advance drawing on scientific expertise but with respect and safeguards for the bounty of nature. Yet in some quarters respecting and safeguarding nature has started to turn, in a godless age, into a substitute religion full of fetishes, quite as irrational as some older religions I could name.

Green Highland MSPs have proposed a total ban on the dredging of kelp. They got up a petition that attracted 14,000 signatures. The saintly Sir David Attenborough was called on to say it is “absolutely imperative that we protect our kelp forests”. The reason they all gave was that the forests shelter sea anemones and sponges together with various species of fish, so that they also offer feeding grounds for seabirds. An amendment to prohibit damaging exploitation was written into the Crown Estates Bill now going through at Holyrood, to which the Scottish Government at length gave its support.

Yet the Crown Estates cover only about half the nation’s foreshores, so this falls well short of an outright ban. In any case, the objections to dredging kelp would be more persuasive if they were true.

Marine Biopolymers do not in fact propose to dredge for kelp because it is technically impossible. The seaweed has no roots but grows straight up out of the rocky bottom of the ocean, on which the dredging equipment would be fouled.

Instead it is collected by Norwegian-style harvesting vessels. By comparison, they would take only a fraction of the kelp that is lost every year to natural forces, that is, to the Atlantic storms that batter these rugged coasts in all seasons. Up to half the forests are regularly torn apart in this way.

If they can regenerate from that they can regenerate from anything. Kelp has been around on planet Earth for 50m years, so has pretty well seen it all. Somehow I don’t think Marine Biopolymers can drive it to extinction.

Now the responsible minister, Roseanna Cunningham, has announced a public consultation which will go on long past the passage of the Bill. Maybe this is a good way of whacking the whole business into the long grass.

While we know Red Rosie does not like capitalism, on the other hand most of Marine Biopolymers’ directors are SNP supporters. Though the Greens’ votes at Holyrood are needed to pass this year’s Budget, once that is done perhaps they will all vanish back into their burrows.

The Scotland of the future will need to live from its own natural resources and if some of these are off limits because of irrational taboos, the best efforts of the nation will be hobbled. Forget higher living standards, which is what most Scots want: seaweed is sacrosanct. In that case, we might as well continue living off the charity of the UK, from the crumbs it throws us.

One of the vocal campaigners on kelp is Ailsa McLellan, who stays at Ullapool and personally harvests the seaweed with a pair of scissors and a bucket, same as the miserable Gaels 200 years ago.

They would be astonished to hear her: “This makes me livid,” she says of the latest plans, “there are lots of us along this coast who rely on this habitat for our jobs.” Presumably they also yearn for the sort of standard of living enjoyed by that half-starved generation long ago.

We did have the industrial revolution in order to get past their stage of history, and I doubt if many beside modish McLellan want to return to it – though with this Scottish Government we can never be sure.