How I Found My Sea Legs Scallop Fishing In Mull

I recently spent an amazing day out Scallop Fishing In Mull… Here’s how I made it from the hills of Perthshire to the sea.

The Isle of Mull - Far from the Logiealmond Hills

The Isle of Mull – Far from the Logiealmond Hills

I have always had an unstinting respect for fisherman. They are the last true hunters; taking to the wilds of the sea to provide us with a vital part of our staple diet. Whenever I tell people I am a sheep farmer there is invariably comments about how tough it must be, especially in winter. While I am gracious to the fact that people appreciate what we do, it sometimes feels like a wee bit of a fraud.  Sure it can be bloody cold and unpredictable; but when I think of the environment and living conditions of the guys who go to sea mine seems fairly close to being a cushty number! They hunt to bring us our taken-for-granted fish and chips!

In 2010 my good friend Graeme Pallister was nominated in the CIS awards for chef of the year. We’d been doing a lot of work with Graeme that year.  We supplied his restaurant, 63 Tay Street, with lamb and beef and he, in turn, had helped us create our festival food menu. So there we all are, celebrating good style, Graeme, his business partner Scott, myself and my wife Anne. As the wine flowed and the back slapping camaraderie amongst the chefs gained momentum, they announced an award for some sustainable supplier or other.  I wasn’t really paying much attention and as the winner stood up, ready to make what I assumed (wrongly!) would be yet another predictable acceptance speech, I began to switch off.   But then he started to speak…. His voice carried over the hubbub of five hundred drunk foodies and I was pulled out of my trance and into what this man was saying. To start with it wasn’t what he said; but more how he said it.

It was staggered…. It came with the weight of a man who had something more pressing to voice. The glitz and glamour of the award ceremony didn’t appear to matter; he had something he wanted to get off his chest.

“Heh… well, thanks for this, but……”

And then it came. This man’s speech left every “I’m very honoured, thanks to everyone who knows me” type of acceptance lying in a dishevelled, plenty-forgettable-heap, in the corner of the room.  His came out and it was raw and passionate.  It was powered by belief, frustration, anger and a demand for honesty. This was an imploring speech to a room full of chefs that he believed could have a major impact on his industry. He was asking them, us, to help stop the destruction of the crucial kelp forests and coral reefs of Scotland’s inland waters.  Like I said, passion and fury… It’s a powerful combination!

I was hooked. Anne and I looked at each other and knew we had just listened to someone who felt as passionately about the sea he fished as we did about the land we farmed and the food we served. I was fortunate enough to meet him later that night; one Mr Guy Greive of the Ethical Shellfish Company. Fifteen minutes in his company cemented our belief that this was a man who had an absolute belief in his particular battle.

Cut to me a few years later; I had been made aware of the all-powerful connectivity and wonder that is twitter! 21st Century Jim if you will…  With a bunch of foodies, chefs and agricultural politics in between us it wasn’t long before I began to pick up wee gems from Guy.  He described in 140 characters, yet with great clarity, being swept along in a tidal current, plucking scallops as he went. He also talked of a fifteen hour shift that left him tired and emotional. I got it. I decided there and then that I wanted to go and see what he was seeing.  A tweet to that effect from me was met with a “definitely, head over as soon as you like”. So I sat patiently watching as a month of crazy horrible weather unfolded in front of me. And then eventually, a flat calm was forecast, ferry times were ascertained and a day on the boat was agreed.

So it came to be that on 27th February 2013 I was up and about early! A 3am rise, a drive to the Corran

The Sound of Mull can be a Violent One.

The Sound of Mull can be a Violent One.

ferry, then the Loch Aline to Fishnish before my meeting with Guy at Tobermory Bay. I had made my 8.30am rendezvous with my host, his temporary boatman Charlie and his beloved boat Helanda – it was already a glorious day.

I’m told the sound of Mull can have a fairly lively lilt in stormy weather but I wouldn’t know myself. The weather gods were smiling sweetly on the day I visited; it was flat, calm and stunning. Other than the 15 minute chat we had had in the award ceremony some two and half years previously, I had never met Guy Grieve. Here, he looked different; he looked at home.  From his bright yellow fisherman’s oilskin and wellies to the heavy, wool jumper, unshaven chin and big, work-beaten hands, he was the epitome of a man who knew and loved the sea. He is the kind of person I am drawn to naturally. I sensed he loves working and living among nature and wildlife as much as I do.

Then came my first question. His face turned first to surprise, then horror, when I asked if I’d be diving with him.

“Do you dive?” he asked

“No” says I.

“Then no mate, no way can you go down there.”

To be honest, in the excitement of the adventure and the pictures he had painted in my head, I hadn’t really thought this through. I had only ever snorkelled in the clear waters off Australia!  There was no way I was going to turn up to a dive boat, pull on an iron lung, flippers and a mask and be sent to the bottom of the ocean.  It would be like the Sunday hillwalker turning up at the farm, hillside, and expecting to be able to head out and gather the sheep.  Two different worlds. The thrill seeking boy in me had overtaken the reality of the dangers!

I took my first land lubber’s steps onto Helanda and immediately realised I was not a natural fisherman! The safety of this worthy little boat was never in question but as I stood trying to find my sea-legs I could hear terra-firma calling me to return.  It wasn’t for long though…  as soon as Helanda started to move I realised that a) she was rock steady and b) I was in very good hands with Guy and Charlie. I was going to enjoy this day.

Guy was going to have a strange days diving with me there; for one thing, we literally did not stop talking. As we chatted, he was all the while giving me instructions or information about his boat, what we were doing and why we were doing it.   I could feel myself slipping into the role of his sidekick – this was very much a working day for Guy and here I was, seeing first-hand the boat side of this extraordinary quest for food. Witnessing the delicate balance of sustainability for both the diver and the sea was a privilege and I was honoured to be there.

Guy Grieve and Charlie of The Ethical Shellfish Company with Jim Fairlie at Logiealmond

Guy Grieve and Charlie of The Ethical Shellfish Company

Guy has built a first class business by telling his customers the truth. There’s no bullshit, what you get is the genuine article. When he says he dives for them, that’s what he does. When he says he puts the small ones back to regenerate the tidal currents, that’s what he does. It became very clear to me as the day progressed that, while he is undoubtedly a fisher of scallops, he is also a farmer of the sea. His thinking and his methods are very similar to upland and hill farmers’ methods.  Working with nature; fighting her when we’re forced to fight but embracing her when she lets us.

I said as much to him. “You and I are brothers in arms; just on different battle fields.” He looked at me, thought for a second, and said, “That sums it up perfectly.”

I’m not going to describe how Guy dives, that’s his story.  But I have to tell you about his stature just before he dives.  He would stop talking, get his mind into the zone, and become intensely focussed.

“You have to find that zen like state, so you’re focussed. You don’t want to make any mistakes down there,” he told me.

After he went over, and I saw how the tides were ripping through below the surface, it was abundantly clear that there was no room for error – or amateurs (me!) – down there.

Jim Fairlie at Logiealmond fishing with Guy Grieve of the ethical shellfish company

Me, Happy As Larry on The Boat!

Scallop Smalls for The Ethical Shellfish Company go back into the water

The “Smalls” all went back to repopulate Guy’s hunting grounds

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The day opened out and rolled on; a sea eagle, the controversial flying giant o’ Mull, passed by and gave us a curt nod. We had pods of porpoise regularly dance a greeting in front of us, and grey seals lapped a lazy flipper to say hi. The scenery was mesmeric with changing light casting genius colours and shadows on the water. And all the while we brought scallops on board, graded and stored them. Then we took the smalls to Guy’s secret chosen spot to repopulate his hunting grounds.

It was simply over too soon, and we found ourselves heading back with the days catch. With scallops graded, netted, fleet tied and left in the sea, we headed for shore. The trip back was much like the rest of the day; me asking endless questions and Guy and Charlie explaining everything from the migratory patterns of the sea birds and fish, to how to read the sea by the swells on the surface. It was fascinating.

Before I knew it we were back on the pontoons and the graceful Helanda was safely tied off. I bid old Charlie a fond farewell with the promise that this would not be our last meeting. My sentiment was genuine.

As Guy and I headed for our respective vehicles I noticed two laddies who could be no older than twelve years old playing with the outboard motor on a wee boat in the jetty. Guy described them as a “right pair of wee sea dogs”.

The dad in me freaked out a bit..   “What?” I said, “Do they go out on that wee boat themselves?”

“Oh yeah, their house is just there, and they’re not allowed out of the bay, but they go and set pots for langoustine.”

My immediate thought as a parent was concern, but Guy assured me these were true sea dog kids who were absolutely fine. I thought about my own daughter, Caitlin, now eighteen. She would regularly come with me on the quad bike – had done for years – and would drive it over to me after I had jumped off to catch a ewe or lamb. I realised these two wee guys were no different to her – just a different vehicle! Guy called the young captain over to show me his phone picture of the now legendary langoustine he had caught the previous week.  This young boy manfully tried to keep his swelling pride in his chest – and just about managed it. The langoustine was a cracker, nearly the length of the wee lads forearm. No doubt about it, sea dogs indeed, and the next generation of fishermen.

We arrived back at Guy’s home and I was introduced to his lovely wife and two boys. They were as welcoming and friendly as Guy himself and made me feel completely at home. The pattern of the day continued, we just talked, this time with Juliet and Guy together. And then, to top it all off, as I sat with the family bustling about their evening routine, Guy placed in front of me a plate of that day’s catch – scallops with fresh rocket and a squeeze of lemon.  I knew I was sitting scoffing the ingredients that eased many a tortuous road to Michelin stardom.  Food at its best, this simple dish still brings a smile to my face when I think of it.

We eventually called it a day some 19 hours after I got out of bed, and I slept very soundly. Next morning Guy headed back to the sea, and I headed back to the hills. When we parted company and said that this would not be our last meeting it was a promise that will be kept. So when sea faring Guy heads over to the Logiealmond hills to live a day of my life, I’ll tell you all about it.

Guy Grieve owns and runs The Ethical Shellfish Company; I’d recommend it! Find out more about Guy, Juliet and Helanda at http://ethicalshellfishcompany.co.uk/