Living by the Sea

IN

The second in a series of articles about island life, Hannah gathers perspectives from those who have always lived by, or worked on the sea. Romance aside, what does it mean for a community and its economy to be situated like Islay is?

The sea is an island’s main road, its larder and trade route, its defence, playground, friend and enemy. This witch-shaped piece of land in the Atlantic is almost severed in two by the inlet sea- lochs of Gruiniart and Loch Indaal. The sea has always been part of Islay life.

At some 40km wide by 25km, Islay’s heavily-indented coastline is estimated to be in the region of 233 km in length. Apart from the small passenger plane and the occasional helicopter, everything that arrives on these shores comes by boat – be that tourists, supplies, or Viking raiders.

The number of lighthouses, piers, slipways, and jetties reflects the fact that before modern roads were built, boats were a frequently used mode of transport. Pictures of paddle steamers teeming with visitors – like the Pioneer specially built for the Islay run in 1905 or her predecessor the Glencoe which was in service from 1857 to 1931 – can be found in books of Old Islay or at the Museum of Islay Life in Port Charlotte.  Emigrations to the new world by boat began in the 1730s and were relatively commonplace until the end of the 19th century. These documented movements of Islay’s people are just part of the story.

Scandinavian Vikings first arrived on these shores at the end of the first millennium AD, when the main “roads” were watery ones. These Vikings may have come as raiders but they became settlers and traders. Islay was along the trading sea-route between Viking colonies in Ireland and the Isle of man and Viking homelands in Scandinavia. The invaders married into local families and settled here – they were known as the Gael-Gall.

Into the 12 century, Islay was at the centre of a power struggle.  Somerled was a powerful warrior with a fleet of warships who invaded the southern Hebridean isles in 1156 and established himself as ruler in opposition to the King of Scotland. His son Ranald took his place after he died, naming himself King of the Isles and Lord of Argyll. In turn, his son Donald, founder of Clan Donald, inherited the kingdom of Islay.

And where are we today, in modern island life, in our relationship with the sea?

Production Director, Allan Logan in Bruichladdich boatyard

Today

The tides are strong around Islay. There are significant dangers on the Atlantic coast and around Portnahaven on the tip of the Rhinns where tragically, boats have overturned, and lives have been lost. It’s one of the reasons there isn’t much of a surf culture here, and sea swimming is undertaken with caution, only in locally-known safe-spots. As Allan Logan recounts, however, there was a generation of island children who were given their swimming lessons in the 13•C waters.

Allan is one of the nine people working at Bruichladdich Distillery who volunteers for the emergency services – either the local lifeboat or the coastguard. The local community effort, plus the amount of inclement weather that Islay experiences, keeps a respect for the sea permanently in islanders’ consciousness.

Fishing is still an occupation but, commercially, it is not what is was, even a generation ago. I interviewed our local fishmonger, Jean Grant, and independent fisherman, Paul Rennie, for their perspectives.

There are a variety of leisure activities available above and below the water; I talk to Gus Newman of Islay Sea Adventures about that.

Swimming 

Before the indoor community pool was built in Bowmore, it was in bays and coves around the island that youngsters earned their swimming badges.

It was in Port Ellen Bay that a 6-year-old Allan Logan, Production Director, got his first taste of the sea. 

“It never felt like summer, it was always a cold wet day they used to take us to the sea,” he recalls. “There were swimming coaches there and they would throw you in the water.

“It would probably be borderline cruelty nowadays! “ Allan laughs. “You waded into the sea and there was markers and if you could swim to one and back, you could get out, or if you wanted to go to the next one it was like a target and you could get your badges that way… I have vivid memories of coming out the water and running to my parents car, wrapping a towel round me and getting hot chocolate, and shivering.”

Swan’s Pool, near Port Ellen

Fishing for pleasure

Allan’s grandfather – his “papa’ – had his own fishing boat, as many people did. He was retired, and would pick Allan up from school. They would set out onto the water from Swan’s Pool, home to about a dozen other boats.

“We’d some lobster pots and we’d check the pots and then catch some mackerel for bait. I was fascinated by the sea and what came out of the sea,” he says.

Whether going down to the pier at night to see fishermen land their catch as a boy or later helping friends who went on to make fishing their living, the sea is part of the rhythm of life for Allan, since those early days on his papa’s boat.

When his papa died, the boat went out of the family, and Allan bought a similar one. Eventually he was able to buy back the original boat – now about 40 years old – and restore it. He still goes out whenever he can to check his pots and teach his own son to fish.

“It’s just a small pleasure boat,’ says Allan, leaning on it proudly, in the boatyard just across the road from Bruichladdich Distillery.

“Just going out to try for crab or lobster is a nice way to relax on an evening or weekend… We live on this beautiful island and there are so many places to explore. I love spending time out there.”

Commercial fishing

Paul Rennie skippers one of a handful of commercial fishing boats that remain in Islay. “It’s a good job, being outside, working. It’s been good to us over the years, if you work hard you get good money at it,” he says.

There are just a few fishing boats on Islay now – about 16 – employing around 30 people. Langoustines are his current venture, caught mainly in the waters around Jura and Colonsay. “A hundred kilos of langoustine is worth what a tonne of crab used to be in the summertime…”

Paul Rennie

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.

“Jean’s Fresh Fish”

The Local Market

Jean Grant, of Jean’s Fresh Fish, is the one to talk to about the local market. She has sold fresh fish and seafood around Islay for 23 years and is Islay’s only fishmonger. She has a kiosk in Bowmore from where fresh (still moving sometimes) shellfish can be bought one day a week. On other days she is either buying or delivering orders to houses and businesses across Islay and Jura from her van.

“Port Ellen used to be full of boats. Locally there was always someone in the family that was fishing.”

Her uncle used to get herring off the boats and go round selling them door to door from a barrel. Things have changed over the decades! Scallops used to be bought fresh from the boats when Jean began, but now they have to come via processing plants because of increased regulation. The scallops Jean sells come via Islay Crab Exports in Gleneagedale. Most of the crab and lobster are locally caught, but bought through Ishbel at the Sea Shack in Port Ellen. Whitefish comes from nearby Tarbet on the mainland – not far from Kennacraig where the mainland ferry leaves to come to Islay.

What she sells depends on what has been landed – local cod, haddock and monkfish are regulars – and whether or not boats have been able to put to sea. But what we are buying and how we are buying it has changed though, apparently, especially in the last year.

“It used to be all haddock and cod but people are getting more adventurous,” Jean says, “Now it’s squid and seabass. People realise it’s more sustainable than anything else… It’s fast food!”  she adds, “It’s organic, healthy and it’s filling.”

Lockdown meant the kiosk in Bowmore could not open, which forced Jean into the world of social media. To her surprise, it’s brought her new, younger customers. “I’ve always done deliveries,” she explains. “But I don’t think people knew? My customers were getting older and fewer of them.” Now every Monday she posts what she’ll have available on Islay’s community Facebook page, a text or a message secures an order, then she delivers it to your door on Friday.

Gus Newman “Just give me the sea and I’m happy”

Day Tripping, Sailing, and Diving

“Just give me the sea and I’m happy… It’s the whole community of the sea, not just the sea, but the community round the sea.”

Gus Newman is a member of the coastguard like Allan, and another who makes his living in, on, from, and by the sea. 

He’s an Ileach and his dad, like so many, worked in a local distillery – this time Lagavulin. He knew early on he knew that wasn’t the life he wanted to follow. “I could not sit there looking at the computer every day. I have the best job in the world… It’s not all plain sailing, but it’s very good.”

Gus owns Islay Sea Adventures, which has five charter boats, taking day-trippers around Islay’s coast to hidden beaches, the Corryveckan whirlpool, getting close to the wildlife.

“There was a day you never saw a dolphin, you saw porpoises, but now you do. We see minky whales sometimes, and the sea eagles and otters on the day trips. It makes peoples’ holiday special.” 

Gus is a qualified diver – his first business was organising dives – guided tours of the underwater kind, often people looking for wrecks. Diving reveals the cruelty of the currents around Islay in remnants of 260 shipwrecks. Gus has dived 96 of them – the oldest is from 1840, a puffer like the famous fictional Para Handy. Still today you can get into the accommodation on the boat down there.

He hand-dives for scallops; one of his boats is custom-built for it. “Diving around the Mull of Oa – we named it God’s garden – you can just pick what you want – I’ll have that scallop, that langoustine.” He is against dredging for the damage he sees it do.

I ask him what’s his favourite spot. Gus can tell a good tale but he is unusually silent for a while before giving his answer. “Nave Island,” he says softly. “It’s quite a spiritual place and I never thought I’d say anything like that, but it is.”

Gus has diversified beyond boats [read more in our coming Entrepreneurs series]. Yet in his spare time, he is chairman of the Port Ellen Harbour Association. Iain Montgomery has the day-to-day running of the pontoons for boats and yachts who moor up at the marina there.

After opening in 2002, the Harbour Association recently received a £350,000 boost from Coastal Communities funding to improve facilities and expand. Iain takes care of the 56 berths (38 are for visitors), collecting the overnight rent, giving advice and help. He looks after the facilities – beautiful new showers and a laundry area in the Marina office – a former RBS bank.

Port Ellen Marina office

The marina manager is a former telecoms engineer. He’d retired but was asked to look after the marina and has not looked back. He enjoys meeting people from all over the world.

“Before the pandemic there was a real mix of continental people and from the whole of the UK; people who love the sea and love to sail.”

He says all types of people come, many return year on year, but it’s the lure of the whisky that often makes them choose Islay as a place to tie up. On average they stay about two nights – that brings in about £120 per day per head average spend onto the island.

“It’s the Monaco of the West Coast,” says Gus. On a sunny day it would be hard to argue, with a huge yacht sitting at the “hammerhead” pontoon about to cast off. It’s not hard to see why it’s described as the gateway to cruising the Western Isles.

To Sum Up?

How we relate to the sea in Islay takes in economic change, climate change, social change, diet change, even political change. As long as people are drawn to Islay, or are living here, the sea is bound to play a part in their experience. I hope this snapshot of real life has added more detail to your idea of what that experience is like, and what it could be in future. 

Further Reading

You might be interested in fellow B Corp Finnisterre’s ocean saving campaign “Sea 7” >

How coastal living does and will affect us, from The Botanist site “On Coasts” >

We are Islay’s largest private employer and with that comes a big responsibility to the island. When we make an Islay whisky, we really mean that it’s from here. Read more in our “We Are Islay” Port Charlotte section >

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