Standing on the deck of Jan Mackinnon's fishing boat as we pull out from the harbourside at Arisaig, it is easy to appreciate why the west Highlands have always been a place apart. From half a mile offshore, the houses of the village and the shoreline crofts are dwarfed by barren mountains that recede into an infinity of wilderness.
It was the beauty of this awe-inspiring landscape that attracted Ian to the Rough Bounds of Inverness-shire 12 years ago, for Arisaig, like any west coast village, has amongst its population a high proportion of "incomers" seeking a new start in life far from all the usual pressures of the modern world.
But scenery alone does not provide a living, and work is hard to find in such communities. The land is far too poor for cultivation; the tourist season is finished by October; and with the closest town an hour's drive along a narrow, winding road, few other options are available. For Ian, as for many of Arisaig's inhabitants, the only opportunities lie out to sea.
On a perfect autumn morning there are half-a-dozen boats beside our own navigating the North Channel. There are divers after razor-fish and scallops, dinghies heading for the coves where whelks and oysters may be found, launches like our own piled high with prawn and lobster creels. The plats de fruits de mer on sale in some of Europe's finest restaurants feature seafood caught by this flotilla of small, ramshackle craft. In the wheelhouse Ian checks the echo-sounder as he brews a pot of tea. "It's man the hunter off to work," he says with a grin, "and there's no hiding from the boss."
In the summer, Ian's favoured quarry was prawns. At pounds 30 a stone, the price is good and steady, but with recent catches proving to be disappointing, Ian has decided that the breeding grounds now need a season of respite to allow stocks to recover. Also, in the autumn months the big clam-dredgers are coming out in force, scouring the deeper sea-bed day and night. They will not even notice if they also dredge a "fleet" of Ian's creels, worth pounds 1,000, so we're off to move the creels into safer inshore waters.
He already has several fleets around the rocks where velvet crabs are found. The Spaniards are particularly partial to the little velvet crab. It's just the right size for tapas.
Our first fleet is moored off Camusdarrach. We're looking at a sweep of empty sand dunes, with the jagged peaks of Knoydart in the distance, as the first of 50 creels is winched into the boat. Half a dozen velvets fall into the crate, red eyes furiously glinting, claws waving in defiance. Some edible brown crabs are thrown back, too small to be landed. Also a small octopus, squirting ink as its tentacles pump down towards the safety of the sea-bed. "Look at this," says Ian, holding up a silvery wrasse the size of his thumb. "We used to get pounds 2.50 each for these. Fish farms bought them to eat lice off salmon when the chemicals they used were banned. Now they're back on chemicals under some new name, and the fish aren't worth a penny." He tosses it back into the sea.
And so the hunt goes on. From Luinga Mhor to Loch nan Uamh, winching creels, sorting through the catch and shooting back the fleets into new positions. The tide is turning and the small boat pitches in a heavy swell. Not many days are as as fine as this in the west Highlands. The only weather that will keep Ian at home is when stepping out of doors is like falling from a boat and drowning on the doorstep. Otherwise he goes to work, cursing the conditions and trying not to think too hard of the risks.
By the time the sun is setting over Rhum, we've gathered up the last of the prawn creels and repositioned them where Ian's instinct and the echo-sounder suggest that velvets may be found. Back in the bay of Arisaig, the day's catch must be sorted. Just a dozen giant prawns, weighing up to half-a-pound apiece. Perhaps there will be more around in spring, but no one can be certain. For the moment there are velvet crabs; 200kg to be transferred into sacks and hung on buoys in readiness for the truck that will transport them down to Barcelona in aerated vats of sea-water. By the weekend they'll be tapas on the menu of some pavement cafe.
To the small group of French cyclists watching from the quay, Ian might appear to be a simple local fisherman with no concerns beyond the beautiful west-coast horizon, rather than a businessman working in an international market. But in order to survive he must keep an eye on fluctuating currencies and ever-changing European regulations - and he must even keep abreast of current eating fads. Last month he went down to London to check out the moules frites in Belgos, for he's thinking of diversifying into mussel farms.
Few businessmen, however, are subject to the same elemental forces that affect the daily life of Arisaig. As Ian hoses down his boat there's a gale warning on the radio. He looks up briefly when the Hebrides are mentioned. "Sometimes," he admits, "I do dream about a bank job, with a cut-price mortgage and a pension."Reuse content