The irresistible rise of the Ishga brand – from the sea to the spa

Seaweed, the key ingredient in their products, is collected from the shores around the Hebrides.Seaweed, the key ingredient in their products, is collected from the shores around the Hebrides.
Seaweed, the key ingredient in their products, is collected from the shores around the Hebrides.
There is always something happening with Ishga, the business that has turned Hebridean seaweed into an international brand of skincare and spa products.

​This week they launch Little Ishga in response to a growing market for youthful skincare products. Director Martin Macleod says: “We get requests all the time from people who want to know if it is ok to use our products on children’s skin.

“So we decided to produce a range suitable for all kids, including those with problematic skin. The fact these are completely natural products is what makes them so suitable for children as well as adults”.

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Little Ishga Marine Cream offers “a gentle and mild luxury moisturiser developed specifically for babies to early teens”. The Soil Association has added its blessing to an “approved formula” to “protect children’s sensitive skin”.

Ishga market their products as high-end skin treatments.Ishga market their products as high-end skin treatments.
Ishga market their products as high-end skin treatments.

Then there’s Little Ishga Hair and Body Wash, with the assurance that “fucus serratus extract has been found to help soothe irritation and skin rashes, whilst nourishing, healing and protecting”. Fucus serratus, for the uninitiated, is one of the brown seaweeds you are likely to find on Hebridean shores.

It is a resource as old as the world itself and seaweed’s beneficial properties have been known for thousands of years. It has taken a long time in the Hebrides for them to be turned into products which bring added value and employment to the place of origin.

Business is booming and Ishga’s next plan is to open a flagship store in Stornoway which will immediately become a fixture on the cruise ship trail as well as the base for a flourishing on-line trade which now sends the Ishga products all over the world.

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Having started life as a spin-off company from Hebridean Seaweed, Ishga now employs 28 people in its own right, has a multi-million pound turnover and is probably Scotland’s biggest producer of skincare products with agents across the world.

The hair and body wash is a top seller.The hair and body wash is a top seller.
The hair and body wash is a top seller.

In a story that’s been told here before, Hebridean Seaweed at Arnish had its origins in Stornoway Golf Club’s Winter League when two Leurbost lads, Martin Macleod and Malcolm Macrae, were paired together for a season.

Martin had worked with seaweed at the Keose factory since he left school; Malcolm was a chemist and marine biologist who had been employed by Scotia Pharmaceuticals at Breasclete. Many hours of conversation and clubhouse pints led to the formation of Hebridean Seaweed in 2005.

The basic processed product, mainly for fertiliser and animal feed supplements, was high in volume and low in value. Martin and Malcolm knew that in order to create a sustainable business, they also needed to put seaweed into products with higher value.

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Hebridean Seaweed has continued to grow into a notable success story in its own right. As has long been recognised, the uses for seaweed are astonishing in their diversity and they soon found potential customers queuing at their door, mainly from the food industry which was under pressure to reduce salt content in processed food.

More and more people are drawn towards seaweed infused treatments.More and more people are drawn towards seaweed infused treatments.
More and more people are drawn towards seaweed infused treatments.

The fact that Malcolm’s wife, Joanna, is a beauty therapist helped push interest in another direction - health and skincare products. After all, there was nothing new about seaweed being used in this way. The Romans were very keen on thalassotherapy and the tradition of seaweed baths is common across much of Europe and Asia.

However, there are 40,000 different types of seaweed and there was no such history using the Hebridean species. Martin says: “We started to increase our knowledge of seaweed and we had to find things our species were good for. There are different uses for different extracts. Our research and development work led us to believe we could make an extract that was very good for putting on the skin”.

The catalyst for taking that discovery forward was the establishment of Blythswood Square Hotel in Glasgow which opened its doors in 2009 with its luxury spa as a major selling point. Transforming the iconic Royal Scottish Automobile Club building, which had been closed for a decade, into the city’s only five star hotel was an extraordinarily brave venture by an hotelier, Peter Taylor, who had a fortuitous affinity with the Hebrides.

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The timing of that development dovetailed perfectly with the early days of two new island businesses. First, the place was kitted out from top to bottom in fabric from Harris Tweed Hebrides at Shawbost and the Blythswood became a showcase for the brand and its multiple potential uses in interior design.

From left to right: Martin Macleod, Leon Trayling and Malcolm Macrae.From left to right: Martin Macleod, Leon Trayling and Malcolm Macrae.
From left to right: Martin Macleod, Leon Trayling and Malcolm Macrae.

Second, on his visits to Lewis, Peter got to know Hebridean Seaweed and asked for samples to be sent down, to find if it was suitable for seaweed baths in the Blythswood Square spa, which was to be a major feature of the hotel.

Leon Trayling, who was spa director at the Blythswood from its opening, takes up the story. “The first fresh-cut seaweed arrived in vacuum-packed bags and that was the start of us sourcing from Lewis for the seaweed baths. As the relationship developed, Malcom sent me down a pot of brown cream and asked if this was something that could be sold in the spa. There was no label on the jar.

“I said that it seemed promising but the branding would need a bit of work! From there, we went on a journey of refinement. The Blythswood Spa was a wonderful testing ground and it took a couple of years to refine five face products, three body products and two treatments. They weren’t called Ishga until the company, Hebridean Spa, was registered in 2013. That was when we sold the first Ishga products in the Blythswood”.

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At this stage, Martin Macleod recalls that what was to become Ishga “started life in a portacabin bought on Ebay, with Malcolm and one employee”. Once the Ishga brand was established, the rate of growth was rapid, helped by Edge funding (for environmental business start-ups) and support from HIE.

Leon, who became sales director, says: “The fact the products were used in the Blythswood Spa was not a bad place to start. I have worked in spas for 30 years and have a lot of good relationships but it all comes down to the quality of the products and the strength of the brand story.

“There are very few brands which carry such authenticity. People want a connection with nature and having something from the remote islands appeals to them. We talk about the provenance of the products, the science behind them and the benefits that they deliver. But if your products aren’t good, you’re not going to sell them”.

One of the early adopters of Ishga was Turnberry Hotel in Ayrshire, prior to it being taken over by the Trump organisation in 2014. When Donald Trump visited, he was attracted to the products in the spa before noticing they were made in his mother’s native island, leading to one of the few recorded instances of him taking any interest in the place. Martin was summoned to his presence and the relationship with Turnberry continues down to the present day.

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The reach and reputation of Ishga have continued to grow year by year. Leon says: “There are now 45 retail products, the same in professional products and 26 different treatments in the range”. At the latest count, Isgha products are used in 110 high-end spas across the UK including the Dorchester in London, Turnberry, Loch Lomond Golf Club, the Balmoral in Edinburgh, the Fairmont in St Andrew’s, the Fife Arms in Ballater, Macdonald Hotels … the list goes on.

The most popular product is still the one that was, in its pre-refinement form, sent by Malcolm to the Blythswood in the unlabelled jar – an antioxidant marine cream, the ingredients for which also include “Shea butter, extract of macademia that contains essential fatty acids (Omega 6 and 7) which absorb excess sebu while nourishing thirsty skin”. Not to mention “fresh citrus peel” which gives a “refreshing, lightly tangy and clean scent”.

In other words, while seaweed is the basis of each product, a lot of blending with other ingredients takes place in the lab at Willowglen to create the final balance which smells good, feels good and has the beneficial effects which consumers are looking for – or, as Leon puts it, to say “my skin feels amazing!”.

There are other brands using seaweed in their skincare products but Leon believes Ishga is distinguished by at least two features. “Compared to anyone else, we use the maximum amount of active ingredient. There’s 30 per cent of seaweed in our products. Also, there’s not many businesses that harvest their core ingredient and then take it all the way through to use it in their own end products”.

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That distinction underpins Ishga’s right to guarantee “sustainability” throughout its production process – from the harvesting of the seaweed to the packaging. As it says in the marketing: “Results-driven organic skincare derived from the ocean, backed by science”.

Ishga has further diversified into related products, including candles which has led to one unique collaboration. “We have a very strong relationship with the Dorchester in London”, says Martin. “When you check into the Dorchester, there are roses in every room. When the roses are done, they gather the petals and send them up to us to be turned into candles”. Or as it says on the base of the candle: “Our hotel’s vibrant spirit, distilled into a sustainably-minded scented candle … The Dorchester Rose”.

Given the golf club origins of Hebridean Seaweed, it is appropriate that Ishga has established a strong connection with the sport for marketing purposes. For the past decade, they have been a sponsor of the British Women’s Open and are also continuing a relationship established last year with the men’s Senior Tour. Locally, they have been supportive of swimmer Kara Hanlon and other individuals and sports clubs including, of course, Lochs FC!

There is plenty more in the pipeline. There’s a big focus on the United States where the business already has an office in San Diego. Ishga has launched on Amazon US. A strong relationship has been established with Mastercard Corporate Gifts. More widely, they are about to launch an Ishga Wellness app. And then, of course, there’s the Stornoway flagship store.

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One particular piece of ongoing scientific work on a skin cell protection product is particularly exciting or, as Martin puts it: “We hope to develop a fully organic sunscreen which will revolutionise the way people deal with the effects of the sun on their skin”.

That really is the holy grail of skin products – and given the irresistible rise of Ishga, from the humblest of beginnings using the most disregarded of natural Hebridean resources, who would bet against it being achieved?