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Home » Hemp in Scotland: The (re) Birth of an Industry

Hemp in Scotland: The (re) Birth of an Industry

While the last few decades were notably absent of hemp production in Scotland, a recent revival has seen farmers adopting the crop across the country. Local production has consisted of a steady output of barley, rapeseed, wheat and potatoes, with many farmers looking to diversify and add a new crop into the rotation. Enter hemp.

Following an initial trial in Angus and Aberdeenshire in 2020, the North-East of Scotland grew to over 10 farms in 2021. With word spreading around the farming community and TV news reports broadcasting images of hemp fields in the Highlands, 2022 is expected to see around 25 hemp harvests across the country. While not exactly the first location that comes to mind for cultivating cannabis, with its reputation for overcast skies, high humidity and heavy rain, Scotland has a surprisingly rich and diverse history with the plant.

The History of Hemp in Scotland

Wide-spread cultivation of hemp across Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland has been traced back to 343BC, but evidence found in St Andrews among a hoard of bronze age metal work suggests that hemp was being used in Scotland much earlier.

The recovered bast fibres from string and cloth, which were comparable with hemp, date back to at least 1000BC. Pollen analysis, fragmented documentary sources and field names from the 11th and 12th Century show widespread hemp cultivation from Caithness to the Lothians, and the Outer Hebrides to Galloway.

Place names still exist, which remind us of the plant’s history in Scotland. There’s ‘Hemphill’ in Ayrshire, ‘Hempland’ in Dumfries and Galloway, ‘Hempriggs’ in Caithness, and ‘Hempy Shot’ in East Lothian.

Evidence Since the Bronze Age

In the 1770’s George Ross, a lawyer, and formerly confidential clerk to Duncan Forbes of Culloden, teamed up with local merchant William Forsyth to build a large hemp factory in Cromarty, North-East Scotland. Employing 200 workers and an additional 600 outworkers at its peak, the factory processed hemp into finished bags and sacks to be transported to London and then shipped across for use in the West Indies trade.

The old hemp and rope factory at Cromarty was built by George Ross, around 1775. The factory initially produced bags and sacks from hemp imported from Russia. During this period, Cromarty was enjoying a period of great prosperity and at its height, the factory employed up to 200 in-workers and over 600 out-workers. The finished bags and sacking were transported to London and sold for use in the West Indies trade. Around 1805, the factory introduced rope-making. The original factory consisted of five, long blocks, each two stories high, ideal for manufacturing lengthy tarred ropes. Today, the three remaining ranges have been converted into Local Authority Housing and commercial premises. Source.

Many are surprised to hear that products made from cannabis produced in Scotland were being used in Jamaica long before the cannabis plant was widely grown there!

Museums across the country, from Cromarty to McManus Galleries in Dundee to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh all displays ‘lead seals’ attached to imported hemp bales, dating from 1788 through to 1908. The Cyrillic letters and numbers on the seals document their Russian origin.

Hemp was mainly grown for fibre to make sails, ropes, fishing nets and clothes, and it wasn’t until the mid-19th Century that the plant’s therapeutic properties gained attention. The publication of O’Shaughnessy’s experiments at hospitals in Calcutta in 1839 kicked started an era of research into cannabis-based therapeutics in Scotland.

Medical Research Begins

In 1846, Scottish Pharmaceutical research company The Messrs Smith of Edinburgh attempted to concentrate cannabis down to its ‘active compound’, of which they assigned the name ‘Cannabin’, only with a query.

After a somewhat ‘complex process, the end result was a 7-8% extract yield. In a letter dated 17th August 1849 sent to Dr Christison in Edinburgh, Mr Jameson, Director of the Botanic Gardens at Saharunpore, gave an account of hemp growing in India, “In Kimaon and Gurwhal cannabis is grown in large quantities, partly in order to obtain its resinoid secretion, and partly for its bark, from which a strong coarse cloth, called ‘bungila’, is manufactured.”

Mr Jameson also sent various batches of ‘churrus’ (sic) to Edinburgh for experimentation, including a block from Yarkand, Thibet, (sic) as big as two fists.

Edinburgh Botanic Gardens ‘Indica’ vs ‘Sativa’ Experiment

In 1850 Dr Christison, M.D, President of the Royal College of physicians and Professor
of Materia Medica in the University of Edinburgh was awarded a prize by the University of Edinburgh for his 1850 Inaugural Dissertation, ‘On the Natural History, Action and Uses of Indian Hemp’ in which he documents one of the very first ‘common garden experiments to compare European hemp with Indian hemp.

‘Dr Royle remarks that, “like Dr Roxburgh and others, he could not detect any
difference between the plant of the plain and that of the hills of India, nor between these and the European plant. The Indian secretes a much larger proportion of resin than is observable in the European plant, but the difference is observed in this point even in India between plants growing in the plains and those of the mountains, and also when growing thickly together.”

Seeds obtained from dried tops of ‘Gunjah’ (sic) from the bazaars of Bombay by Mr Henry Johnston were sown in the Edinburgh Botanic Garden on 17th March 1849. By October, the plants were 3m high and ‘flowering appeared to be commencing; but the advance of the season, with accompanying cold weather, arrested any farther development… plants of the common or European hemp growing in the garden had a very similar aspect to the latter, being, however, in full fruit.’

The study concluded that ‘the C. Indica and C. Sativa are one species.’

hemp scotland

You can read the entire hand-written dissertation here!

21st Century Renaissance

Over the last 10 years, the Scottish Government have been funding research into hemp as a low-carbon environmentally-friendly crop via the Rowett Institute at Aberdeen University.

A clinical trial led by Dr Madalina Neacsu and Professor Wendy Russell compared a plant-based hemp meal vs meat and came to the conclusion, ‘could be relevant for aid and prevention of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes’, in addition to promoting satiety and being a valuable source of amino acids.

hemp scotland

In a refreshing change of approach, a booklet titled ‘Hemp For The Future’ has been created by Dr Neacsu and Professor Russell specifically for schools to educate children on the benefits of this carbon-neutral, climate-resilient, zero-waste crop.

A ‘hemp pancake cooking kit’ has also received funding to be distributed to schools across Scotland along with an information pack and recipe book. Sustainable hand-crafted hemp products have appeared in fashion shows worldwide from companies like Hemp Eyewear based in Edinburgh, raising awareness of how hemp can replace plastic.

Scottish Farmer’s Perceptions

When speaking recently with farmers and early re-adopters of the crop in Scotland, a common theme emerged about previous hesitations to start growing hemp, despite being aware of its benefits for some time.

hemp scotland
That’s me!

As one Forfar farmer said, “I’d been thinking about growing hemp for a few years, and I’d heard how beneficial it could be for the soil and the environment, and there are many useful products we can make from it, but I’d always hesitated because, you know, what would the neighbours think?”

While the Scottish hemp fields still have to be kept out of sight from main roads and are not permitted next to public footpaths due to licensing conditions, now the neighbours all know. Sometimes it’s best just to ask, and you may find out that your neighbour is your new best friend.


Cultivation information, and media is given for those of our clients who live in countries where cannabis cultivation is decriminalised or legal, or to those that operate within a licensed model. We encourage all readers to be aware of their local laws and to ensure they do not break them.

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Kyle Esplin