History of Hemp Cultivation in Britain
Cannabis hemp was widely grown across Britain in the Middle Ages, from at least 800 to 1800 AD, though the amount grown varied widely through the centuries. It was mainly grown for fibre which was used to make sails, ropes, fishing nets and clothes. Old clothes were recycled into paper. Oil was produced from the seeds and was burned in lamps. It may also have been used as a folk medicine and for food, but it's a mystery whether or not it was taken as a drug. In this section we'll first explain what types of evidence of hemp cultivation there is, then summarise where and when hemp was grown in Britain.
The evidence that hemp was grown in Britain comes in several different forms. First there is some written evidence in parish records and government reports. There aren't that many references to hemp, because agricultural practices were not widely written about. Secondly there are many places in Britain today with names such as Hemphill or Hempriggs, and many more places are marked on old maps such as Hemp-buttis, Hempisfield and Hempriggis. Thirdly there is evidence from pollen analysis of lake sediments, although again not much for two reasons. Firstly the sites chosen for pollen studies, tended to avoid agriculturally favourable areas. Secondly, until 1987 it was diffficult to identify hemp's pollen.
Sediment accumulates slowly at the bottom of lakes and the pollen of whatever plants were grown around the lake is buried with it. A metre of sediment contains a few hundred years of history, and deeper you core the older it gets. The sediment can be carbon-dated or there may be distinctive bands of other plants' pollen which have known dates. Gradual variations in the amount of hemp grown can be seen across the years.
There was an early peak in hemp production in England from 800 - 1000 AD, followed by a slackening in interest by farmers as new crops were discovered. In the early sixteenth century hemp was re-introduced and its growth recommended. Large quantities of hemp were needed to supply the English navy, and Henry the Eighth ordered his subjects to grow hemp. Large amounts of hemp were grown in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but not enough for the British Navy - the war against Napolean's France in 1812 was fought, in part, to control the supplies of Russian hemp. In Victorian times peasant produced imported hemp undercut domestic hemp, and its growth died out in Britain.
Hemp didn't appear in Scotland until about 1000 AD, 200 years later than in England. There was a general explosion in agriculture around this time (shown in the pollen records) and hemp was one of a number of crops, such as cereals and carrotts, that were grown widely for the first time. By 1200 agriculture became more intensive in Scotland, and specialist crops were grown in different areas. Thus hemp became less common in most of Scotland, but stayed an important crop near the fishing communities where hemp was used for fishing nets, ropes and sails for the fishing boats, and where manure and seaweed were availiable for fertilizer. Hemp was grown in Scotland up to the 18th century when hemp fields were replaced by the wooded estates of the gentry.
Place names which still exist include:
- Hemphill (Kilmarnock Parish, Aryshire)
- Hempland (Torthorwald, Dumfriesshire)
- Hempriggs (Wick, Caithness)
- Hempy Shot (Oldhamstocks, East Lothian)
Placenames found on old maps include:
- Hemp-buttis (1556, Auchtermuchty, Fife)
- Hempriggis (1571, Alves, Morayshire)
- Hempisfield (1642, Plenderleith, Roxburghshire)
- Hempshaugh (1663, Selkirk)
The Kelton (Kirkcudbright-shire) Kirk Session Minutes of 1724 mentioned that a man appeared before the church court because he had thrown a woman against a hemp rigg, while another old history book records that a papal legate travelling in Scotland in the fifteenth century observed in every rural habitation, the people employed in speparating the hemp from the stalks. Other old books mentioned hemp being grown in:
- Lewis, Outer Hebrides, 1771
- Islay, Inner Hebrides, 1814
- Mouswald parish, Dumfriesshire, early 18th century
In Medieval times religious hospitals commonly grew hemp. Hemp features in the recommended plants section of the great religious gardening books! Many monastic houses have areas of land named after hemp, and some have remenants of hemp-retting pools. It is likely that hemp was mainly grown for its fibre, but also for medicine for the hospitals. Little evidence exists of the growth of hemp at archeological sites because traditional archeologists threw away the soil etc looking for artifacts. Only a few environmental archeologists bothered to look for (and find) hemp pollen in the grounds of medieval hospitals.
SHARP (1989) Third report into the medieval hospital at Soutra, Lothian/Borders Region, Scotland. ISBN 09511888 28
Whittington, G. & Edwards, K.J. (1990) The cultivation and utilisation of hemp in Scotland. Scottish Geographical Magazine 160 p167-173.