Dry Island Shellfish - The Scottish island with its own shellfish industry
In a remote corner of Wester Ross, Sandy Neil discovers a tiny coastal economy that punches above its weight
What would you do with your own island? Well, Ian and Jess McWhinney, the ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ of Dry Island in Loch Gairloch, Wester Ross, gave their four acres, house and pier its own name (Islonia), currency (the crab), flag (a crab in a Saltire) and legislation such as ‘all visitors must smile’.
One half of the island’s industry, skipper Ian, hauls up dripping baskets of langoustine, crab, lobster and squats from the depths of Loch Gairloch and Loch Torridon’s crystal-clear waters – and even runs ‘Shellfish Safaris’ – in his traditional creel boat.
The other half, Jess, sells Ian’s catch, alongside Wester Ross smoked salmon, hand-dived scallops and peat-smoked mackerel at the couple’s fish stall five miles away on Gairloch pier, as well as at farmers’ markets in Inverness, Gairloch and Poolewe, and through their website.
Moreover, it’s a green economy. Ian’s freshest pink langoustine leave a tiny carbon ‘claw print’, he says, far lower than seafood companies shipping prawns 12,000 miles over nine weeks from Scotland’s west coast to Thailand, where they’re ‘hand-peeled by workers earning twenty-five pence an hour, and shipped back to Scotland, breaded and packaged as premium “Scottish Island” scampi for British supermarkets.’
And that’s not all that bothers Ian. ‘Ninety per cent of Scottish shellfish is exported,’ he continues, ‘and the chances are the prawns in your Spanish paella come from here.’ After Ian and Jess saw their shellfish flown live all over Europe, and a crab from Wester Ross in Madeira selling for 25 euro (Ian was getting one euro a kilo for brown crabs), they decided to sell shellfish direct to locals and holidaymakers.
So now, thanks to Ian and Jess, not all of Scotland’s shellfish is sent abroad, and visitors can enjoy the bounty straight from the sea, with views across to Skye and the Outer Hebrides. Although the pair began trading five years ago, Ian’s ancestors, the Mackenzies, have caught and cured fish in Badachro Bay, Gairloch (literally ‘short loch’) since the 15th century. Maybe one day, when their ‘royal weans’ Iona and Isla are on the throne, Islonia will become an independent country. ‘We still have to pay tax, unfortunately!’ Jess jokes.