The natural world serves up some extraordinary bounty - particularly so perhaps at this time of year as the harvests are gathered in. One of the less predictable sights is when literally hundreds of millions of young herrings, called "shielachan" in the Gaelic, gather in enormous shoals to feed on the rich plankton blooms that develop in the warmer waters of Loch Indaal. Following them are huge shoals of mackerel that gorge thenselves on the little fish. The mackerel are hunted in turn by predators such as tope (a kind of shark), seals and dolphins. We had a pod of bottle nosed dolphins in the loch last week that were photographed by Kevin Wiggins. They can be seen on the Islay Natural History Trust blog.
The villagers of Port Charlotte like to catch and eat the mackerel too. We enjoyed four for lunch yesterday, sold to us at our door by a proud young fisherman. They are best eaten grilled with plenty of salt and lemon and fresh brown bread. The shielachan have been in such numbers this year that the water has been literally thick with them at times, and they are driven up the beaches and onto the rocks by the voracious mackerel which themselves become so excited by the chase that they sometimes launch themselves up the beaches and become stranded on the sand.
The young shielachan are a delicacy too. Eaten whole as whitebait, one scoop of the net provides far more than a family can eat at a single sitting.
The recipe for shielachan was provided by Bob Paget, father in-law of Duncan McGillivray who is distillery manager at Bruichladdich. Bob recommends that we dry them and roll them in flour before deep frying them in oil for about five minutes, until they just start to turn crispy. Serve them with salt and parsley and lemon or garlic. Perfect with a dram of Port Charlotte Scottish Barley, they were a lovely starter last night, just before enjoying a shoulder of roast Islay lamb.