An inside look at Scotland's seafood industry
Renowned the world over, Scottish seafood is the country’s largest food export and something we can be rightly proud of. In this special feature Ailsa Sheldon profiles some of the leading figures in the industry – from fishmongers to celebrated chefs to award-winning fish and chip shop owners. So tuck in folks!
VOICE OF THE INDUSTRY: ADAM WING, SEAFOOD SCOTLAND
Scottish seafood is second only to whisky in its value to the economy. Scottish vessels land around 540,000 tonnes of seafood each year, and 80 per cent of that is exported to over 120 countries worldwide. Across Scotland, thousands of jobs rely directly or indirectly on the sector.
Adam Wing is head of trade marketing for Seafood Scotland, focussing on the UK, USA, and new markets. “My job is to represent the interests of the Scottish industry, and introduce people to our incredible seafood,” he says. Seafood Scotland was set up in 1999 “by the industry for the industry” with the aim of increasing the value of the sector.
Part of Adam’s role is encouraging increased seafood consumption in Scotland. “We have some really accessible seafood options here in Scotland,” says Adam, “you don’t need to do a lot to it, the quality, the flavour, everything just shines. Even if it’s simple breaded fish that you can throw in the oven, make sure that it’s quality fish from home waters. We don’t always check labels, but there’s such a difference between Scottish haddock and say, pollock from Alaska. It’s not just the flavour, it’s the texture, the whole package.”
“Even on a tight budget there are options,” says Adam, “you can get amazing Scottish mackerel in a tin, it’s so delicious just warmed up with some rice – that’s a cheap, flavoursome, and nutritious meal. We’re trying to change behaviour in a way, to help people understand and appreciate what we have.”
“Scotland exports some seafood species that are harder to deal with if you don’t have a lot of culinary experience,” says Adam, “Many people in Scotland, if presented with a lobster or a crab, wouldn’t be sure what to do with it. Other countries have a higher level of confidence with seafood. It just needs education, that’s partly why we do what we do. In Asia they might steam the whole fish with spring onions, and garlic, and then just serve it with rice,” says Adam, “you don’t need to hide the flavour or do a lot of preparation, simplicity is best.”
When we talk, Adam has spent the day introducing a three Michelin-starred chef to Scottish shellfish. This attention to the fine dining sector is intentional Adam explains: “We’re a small organisation with little budget. We focus on the high end to influence the key opinion leaders in food and drink. It’s just like fashion: what you see on the runways trickles down to the high street a few weeks later.
“We’re working with chefs and culinary ambassadors to increase their awareness and understanding of the product, which will hopefully lead to more people being open to trying it.”
The last few years have been turbulent for the seafood industry. The increase in paperwork required to export to the EU, “is still causing difficulties for market access,” Adam says, “and border inspections have a knock-on effect on delivery times.”
“It’s not easy,” he continues, “but we’re seeing companies getting more excited about other markets. We’re not saying it’s a great thing, but the companies have their eyes open and they’re looking for the best opportunities at the moment, they’re not just walking away.”
I ask Adam how the seafood industry approaches concerns about sustainability. He tells me there have been huge improvements in fishing technology, including using special cameras on nets to check species before the net is pulled up. Light technology is another exciting development. Adam says: “Academic research has shown that certain fish species are attracted to different lights and colour, and employing this technology ensures they’re not just pulling any old thing out in the water.
“At the end of the day, the fishermen and people in this industry have to look out for tomorrow,” Adam says, “because most fishing businesses are family owned and run, and they’ll pass them on to their children. It’s in their interest to ensure there is fish for the future in Scotland.
Sustainability is crucial for everyone who relies on this industry.”
SEAFOOD CHAMPION: GARY MACLEAN, NATIONAL CHEF
Dietitians say that a healthy diet should include at least two portions of fish a week, including one of oily fish like salmon and sardines. Oily fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids which help prevent heart disease and are a good source of vitamin D (NHS). However, UK seafood consumption figures show that most of us don’t come close to hitting this nutritional target (Seafish 2022).
Gary Maclean is Scotland’s National Chef and Chef Lecturer at the City of Glasgow College. He won MasterChef: The Professionals in 2016, writes cookbooks, and runs Creel Caught at Bonnie & Wild food market. Who better to quiz on Scottish seafood?
I asked Gary why he champions Scottish seafood.
“The main thing is the quality,” Maclean says, “I do a lot of showcasing Scottish fish and shellfish abroad. When you’ve been a chef for a long time you kind of take Scottish seafood for granted. Then you go to a top restaurant in New York or Los Angeles and meet a chef ten times better than you, and he’s opening up a box of Scottish langoustines and he just melts. There’s even a Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo that serves Scottish lobster. To me it was a no-brainer to be working with such quality food.”
So why is our seafood so good? “We have a massive habitat,” says Gary, “Scotland has more shoreline than France and Spain combined.” The Scottish coastline is 11,000 miles long and lies where the gulf stream hits the cold Atlantic. “In Scotland our fish are much slower grown, it’s a really high end product,” says Gary.
Gary McLean has five children so knows a thing or two about encouraging children to eat more fish. “Make it more accessible, things like smoked haddock, my kids have grown up with it,” he says, “It’s easier to deal with than say stonebass with the skin on.
Poach smoked haddock in milk and serve with veg and potatoes, or make a classic Cullen Skink,” he suggests. “Things like hot smoked salmon and smoked mackerel always go down well,” says Gary. “You don’t have that strong fishy smell that can put kids off before they taste it. Also, a lot of kids will eat fish and chips”.
THE CHEF: DEREK MARSHALL, GAMBA
This year Gamba, Derek Marshall’s Glasgow city centre seafood restaurant will celebrate 25 years in business. “That’s 25 years I’ve been stuck in this tiny kitchen, I can’t believe it,” laughs Derek. He started as head chef and director in 1998, and took the restaurant on by himself 11 years ago.
“We’re the oldest fish restaurant still in the centre of Glasgow, and we’re busier than we’ve ever been so we must be doing something right,” he says.
I ask Derek what has changed over the last quarter century, perhaps expecting to hear about changing fashions, dishes he cooked in the nineties that now seem outdated. His answer though, is not much: “Food trends come and go but we’ve been consistent,” says Derek. “I’m quite classically trained, my kind of cooking has a bit of an old-fashioned feel to it, but we’ve got a real following for that. I think chefs panic and think they need to move with the trends instead of building something that really works.”
Small plates and sharing platters may be fashionable, but Derek isn’t concerned: “Personally I’m not into sharing food,” he admits, “I want to go to a restaurant and have a three course meal and leave feeling full up”. Gamba’s regulars clearly agree. “We have loyal customers who have been coming for 25 years and now we get their sons and daughters too. People see it as a special destination, to me that’s great.”
There are dishes on the menu at Gamba today that have been on since the very beginning. The fish soup, with Portland crab, ginger and coriander, “couldn’t come off the menu,” says Derek, “it’s been on for 25 years. We even sell it through a fish shop, Wilson’s Catch of the Day, in Finnieston.”
“Our classic dishes – lemon sole meuniere (cooked with butter, brown shrimp, capers, parsley), and monkfish and king prawns with ginger and spring onions, these dishes have been on for decades.” Derek’s favourite? “Seabass tartare, “I’d eat that every day if I could.”
Quality and simplicity are the guiding principles with Derek Marshall’s seafood dishes. “I believe that fish should always be quite simple, it shouldn’t be over-elaborate,” he says. When we speak Derek is about to sign another 15 year lease for Gamba, and despite the challenges of the industry, his enthusiasm for serving the very best seafood is undimmed: “You need to love what you do, have a passion that drives you,” he says.
Looking to the future, Derek would like to see more conversations in the restaurant industry about sustainability.
“We try to buy the best and what’s sustainable at the time, but there needs to be a bit more drive,” he says.
THE FISHMONGER: CLARE WELCH, WELCH FISHMONGERS
W hether it’s a big restaurant order or just a nice bit of fish for your tea, Welch Fishmongers has been supplying Edinburgh with the very best seafood for over sixty years.
The company was started by Kenny Welch, who was born in Leith in 1933 and started learning his trade in a local fishmonger aged 14. He opened Welch Fishmongers in 1959 after his National Service. Today his granddaughter Clare Welch, 33, is the company’s operations manager.
“When my dad and uncle were old enough they joined in, my aunties too,” says Clare, “I still work with my uncle, my cousins, my sister, it’s very family orientated”. Clare says she felt no pressure to join the family business: “I was really keen, I liked the industry, and I was good at it.”
“Traditionally the men did the filletting and ‘wet’ jobs and the women served in the shop,” Clare says, “These days it’s changing. I was taught to do everything, there was never a gender question.”
Today Welch Fishmongers has around 25 staff members between the shop and the factory, serving both retail and wholesale customers. There’s also The Fishmarket restaurant, a collaboration between Welch and Ondine, now one of Edinburgh’s top seafood destinations.
I ask Clare how buying fish from a fishmonger and a supermarket compares. “You just can just see the difference in the quality first of all,” she says, “and when you buy from a fishmonger, we can tell you exactly where the fish is from, who caught it, and how to cook it. In a supermarket it’ll be traceable but they won’t have the same knowledge, there’s nobody there to advise you. It’s a totally different experience”.
A fishmonger can also tell you about sustainable choices Clare explains: “For example if the haddock are spawning we’ll suggest alternative similar species. The fishmonger’s knowledge is invaluable in
Clare thinks customers are gaining confidence with seafood: “We get people coming in with recipes printed out, and you always know when something’s been on TV – everybody’s asking for the same thing.”
As we chat Clare fields calls from fishing boats and suppliers. Welch buys hand-dived scallops and langoustines from the west coast, crab and lobster from St. Abbs and Eyemouth on the east coast, and fish from Peterhead and Scrabster.
“We used to go up to Scrabster in the lorry on Fridays,” remembers Clare, “I used to skive school on a Friday sometimes and go up with Dad, I loved it.”
“We have good, long-standing relationships with our suppliers,” she says, “I’ll go down to St Abbs and have lunch with the boys from the boat.
“We work with a lot of family businesses like ours. It was my dad dealing with their dads and now it’s me dealing with their sons or daughters.”
A challenge for fishmongers Clare says, is engaging with a younger demographic, “the TikTok generation”, who perhaps didn’t grow up accompanying their parents to the fishmongers and can find buying fish a bit intimidating.
Better food education is part of the solution but school home economics budgets seldom stretch to fresh fish.
“It’s a real shame,” says Clare, but there are green shoots: “We have a nursery that takes fish from us. The kids all cheer when they see the fish van. There are places that are really encouraging kids to eat fish.”
So surrounded by the best seafood, what does Clare Welch recommend? “You can’t beat a nice piece of halibut,” she says, “I also really like megrim. It’s a really nice sole, not as light as lemon sole. I like it on the bone with butter, capers, brown shrimp – very simple.
“I’d really encourage people to try different species – coley and pollock are the same family as cod, you can do the same things with them. Plaice, witch sole, and megrim are all delicious. Fish is so good for you, it’s a lighter protein, and there’s so many health benefits from eating it.”
THE PRODUCER: SALLY MCCOLL, TOBERMORY SMOKED FISH CO
If you’ve visited the Isle of Mull you’ll know Tobermory Smoked Trout. You can find this delicious tender smoked fish in restaurants and delis across Mull, in the company’s Tobermory smokehouse shop, or have it posted to you wherever you are.
Director Sally McColl tells me how the company started: “My grandfather farmed trout on Mull. It was hard to compete, so to add value he started smoking trout. He crafted this recipe, and to this day, it’s not changed. It’s kept under lock and key. Even my husband doesn’t know the recipe, just me, my mum and my uncle.”
Sally’s grandparents had a shop in Tobermory and built an impressive mail-order business: “Tobermory smoked trout really took off and he sent it all over the world.
“He used to just send it in a jiffy bag all the way to the USA with no ice or anything. We obviously can’t do that now! To this day, we still send out to people who were on my grandparents mailing list, and their kids and grandkids who are continuing the tradition.”
After Sally’s grandparents died the company stopped trading, then Sally and her mother relaunched the company in 2010.
“I worked at a local café and I really found a passion for Scottish produce,” says Sally. “I remember this French family coming in and they asked, ‘where can we buy local seafood?’ and I realised that unless, like us, you knew the fisherman who would deliver langoustines, these visitors couldn’t taste this amazing seafood we had at our door.
“I went to my parents with a rough business plan,” says Sally, “for a smokehouse and a shop where people could buy local langoustines, crabs, scallops and oysters and share all this incredible produce.” Thankfully Sally’s mum, keen for a career change herself, agreed.
The family spent a year redoing the smokehouse to meet modern environmental health standards and dusted off the family recipe. Using fish farmed on Mull, production began again. “We find the quality of Scottish farmed salmon and trout second to none,” says Sally. Hot and cold smoked salmon, cold smoked trout and smoked mussels are the core products at Tobermory Smoked Fish Co.
“We’ll gradually add more products,” says Sally, “but our smokehouse is really small. It’s a long process from when the fish first comes into us, it’s three weeks of resting, salting, smoking, slicing.
“So we have to be really selective about where we sell our fish.”
“The business has grown slowly,” says Sally, “but luckily we have a really loyal customer base that keeps coming back for more. I’m so glad I took this path, it’s really exciting and I’m looking forward to where we go next.”
Over the past ten years Mull has flourished as a food-lovers destination of choice.
Being part of a community of food producers: “is something I’m hugely passionate about,“ says Sally, “we all work together and promote each other’s produce. I only see Mull growing and growing in the food and drink market.”
Sally also launched Tobermory StrEAT Food Festival, running four street markets a year: “We welcome any producers from the island to come and showcase their dishes and sell them.
“It’s great for visitors to come and sample everything that we have here.”
Sally published, ‘The Tobermory Seafood Bible’ in 2021: “I do love to cook and I love using seafood,” she says, “but with the local seafood and our smoked trout, I love it most quite plain. When you can really just taste the product, like a langoustine with a little bit of mayonnaise, or Tobermory smoked trout with brown bread and a bit of lemon.
“It doesn’t need anything extra, it’s so good, and it reminds me of my grandparents too. I love the taste of our trout and think it’s got a unique flavour, and it’s also such a nice tradition we’re carrying on through
THE FISH & CHIP SHOP OWNER: CARLO CROLLA, EAST COAST FISH & CHIPS, MUSSELBURGH
Whether you call it a chippie or a chipper, and love or loathe salt ‘n’ sauce, fish and chip shops are an integral part of the Scottish food and drink landscape.
I spoke to Carlo Crolla of East Coast Fish and Chips in Musselburgh, about the enduring popularity of the fish supper, and the challenges the industry is facing.
Fish and chips is a family industry for Carlo and Katia Crolla. Carlo’s parents opened The Coral Reef fish and chip shop in 1974, raising their family in the flat upstairs. Carlo took over the family business in 2002, joined by his wife Katia in 2006. Her family had also run a fish and chip shop so she was no stranger to the long hours and pressures of the industry.
The couple took a few years out and when they returned, “the industry had changed so much that we couldn’t continue the way it was,” says Carlo. There was an empty property next door, so we came up with the idea of an upmarket fish and chip shop, and a fish restaurant.” The couple were keen to continue the family tradition, but in their own way.
Since East Coast launched in 2018 it has won just about every fish and chips prize going, it’s often voted best in Scotland, and recently made the Food Awards Scotland finals. I asked Carlo what makes East Coast stand out.
“We really concentrate on the seafood,” he says, “we source the best quality local ingredients – JK Thomson in Musselburgh for haddock, cod, sole and smoked haddock. We also use David Lowrie, Welch fishmongers and Belhaven lobster. Everything is the highest quality, from the high oleic oil to the biodegradable packaging.”
East Coast has a small but interesting menu, so instead of pizza or kebabs, there’s calamari, and beer battered king prawns. “We’re selling more seafood products than my father did,” says Carlo, “people are a bit more adventurous now.”
Carlo and Katia put quality first: “All seafood is cooked to order, so there’s no fish staying warm in the fish box,” says Carlo, “and our chips are twice cooked, so it’s more of a restaurant style chip.”
“We also don't do deliveries,” Carlo explains, “because we know the product will suffer if the delivery is slow. It needs to be perfect.”
In March last year East Coast teamed up with the National Federation of Fish Friers to launch a nationwide ‘Save Scotland’s Fish & Chip Shops’ campaign after rising costs caused hundreds of shops to close.
“It’s still a real challenge,” says Carlo. “The costs are just continuing to rise. Getting supplies is getting a bit easier, but many ingredients have boomed in price.”
Fish prices have also increased: “I had to change the cut of fish that I use, because I just can’t pass on the increased cost,” says Carlo. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, up to 70 per cent of the fish sold in Britain’s fish and chips shops came from Russian boats, a statistic which many customers may be unaware of.
“The trade sanctions introduced since the invasion have vastly increased the demand for fresh fish – which in turn raises prices for fish and chips shops that have always used fresh fish, like East Coast.
I asked Carlo why, with changing fashions in food, fish and chips has always been popular.
“I think firstly, because it's British and it’s traditional,” he says, “and I’d say it’s fantastic food. I disagree when people say fish and chips is bad for you.
“The fish inside the batter is boiled, yes the batter is fried, and that’s not the best for you. But you’re getting your potatoes and vegetables if you go for mushy peas, and your fish which is a great source of protein.”