His father John, originally a cooper, brought his young family to Islay from Stirling when he landed a job at Bunnahabhain. John worked later at Bruichladdich Distillery as a warehouseman. He was one of just two men left to look after the stock in 1995 when the distillery was mothballed.
A life in whisky was not going to be for Paul – definitely one of the “ones that got away” – but more by default than design. As a kid, he worked summer jobs on farms and loved farming. But also got a taste of fishing through that work.
“The first fishing I ever done was when we were kids, we came to Islay and lived up in Bunnahabhain. The farmer up there, Hugh Currie from Ardnahoe, had a boat and used to go fishing, just part-time, as a hobby. He had a few creels, and that’s how we started.”
When the family moved to Bruichladdich, Paul worked at various farms, including Sunderland – now one of the farms growing barley for the distillery. That led to another job on another farm, where they also fished. They needed someone who could do both, and that’s how he started full-time fishing. This farm is where the RSPB centre is now, up at Gruinart, one of the large sea lochs that comes into the middle of Islay. Farming and fishing are intertwined by the topology of the land.
He had lobster ponds at Ardnave. Lobsters would be caught in the summer and kept in the ponds until Christmas – when their price would have tripled.
He has a library of books from the 1980s he filled in, charting his catches. “In the early days, when I worked on the big crabbers… The Amadeus was 24 metres, there was eight of us on that,” he says, as we discuss over-fishing, shorter natural seasons, ineffective regulations, the prohibitive costs of small boats for anyone starting out. Paul’s fishing boat, The Kingfisher, is a 10-metre vessel, crewed by him and one or two others.
Paul feels a duty of care for these waters and the seabed that he knows so well, after spending days, years of his life, “steaming over soft sand for miles until you found a rocky patch,” where the shellfish are likely to be. “You could point to a spot on the map and I could more or less tell you what depth it is!” Now everyone has high-tech equipment and 3D mapping of the sea bed, is that knowledge worth anything? It depends how you value the connection between a product and its source. “We’re hauling a creel which might have 10 crab in it, but we only keep one. We need to look after it.” Creel fishing, which is static, is more sustainable than trawling or dredging – where nets are towed, pulled and dragged along the bottom of the sea.
Shellfish from a week’s fishing will stay in the creels on the side of the pier until Sunday, when Paul and his crew will land the catch and a lorry from the mainland will take them away. Most are bound for Spain “That’s where the market is now,” says Paul. A few years ago the market in China opened up – a pristine crab would be landed, sold, boxed up and flown to China to be eaten within hours.