Foraging in Scotland’s Bay of Plenty
There’s a bit of the hunter-gatherer in most of us and Scotland’s west coast offers especially rich pickings
Adrian Dangar goes hunter-gathering
Iremember the first time I visited the Bay of Plenty on the west coast of Scotland as if it were yesterday and the fizz of baitfish rupturing the sea swell beneath a hot blue sky. Shoals of mackerel lurked offshore and every few minutes they charged into the clearer shallows to
attack the smaller fish with such ferocity that the ebbing tide left behind quivering silver heaps on the damp seaweed. I left a few hours later lugging a rucksack full of mackerel and buckets of whitebait to feast on for months to come. That discovery was made nearly a decade ago but the Bay of Plenty has rewarded the long walk out to her shores every summer since, and offered up memorable sightings of sea eagles, roe deer and seals for the delectation of my family. I am not the only hunter-gatherer to visit the west coast of Scotland for her rich pickings but I have yet to meet another soul at my favourite and most secret of locations.
Perhaps that is because everyone has their own special place to forage fruits of the sea and shore. The Tyacke family visit
a remote cottage on the rugged west coast a little farther south for hunter-gathering holidays, where langoustines are the ultimate prize. Also known as prawns, these vivid orange crustaceans thrive in deep sea lochs with firm sandy bottoms and are caught in small creels with side entrance funnels. “On a good day our five pots can yield a dozen prawns,” Richard Tyacke reveals. “It is hard work pulling them up through 25 metres of water, and you need a boat to reach the middle of the loch, but they are easier to catch than lobsters and even better eating.”
The Tyackes’ pots are baited with mackerel and sometimes catch dogfish and squat lobsters. “Dogfish aren’t popular because they have to be skinned before eating,” Tyacke explains, “but they make delicious fish and chips when fried in batter.” Others boil dogfish to loosen their sandpaper-like skin before peeling it off but, according to Tyacke, that renders the meat mushy and tasteless.
One April the Tyackes took me up the sea loch to visit a spectacularly remote and beautiful bay where we found a beach bubbling with thousands of squirting razor clams that had been exposed by a low spring tide. These delicious bivalves are seldom as easily harvested as they were that morning and we dug up several to barbecue in their shells; cooked this way, the sweet and succulent meat tastes like fresh calamari, only better. Razor clams are often caught by pouring salt into the small, key-shaped imprints that betray their presence beneath the sand, and grabbing the long, thin shells the instant they pop up from their sanctuaries. Beaches littered with broken razorclam shells are a sure indication that a colony is living close by; however, you may not always find them without the help of extreme low tides.
We also found an edible brown crab that had burrowed so deeply into the sand that just a couple of square inches of carapace showed like a submerged red brick. Tyacke uses a glass-bottomed tub to spot brown crabs here in summer and a hooked stick to prise the most stubborn from well-dug-in lairs. The crab invariably seals his own fate by grabbing hold of the stick with a strong front claw and refusing to let go until it’s too late. Crabs can also be found in deep rock pools at
We found a beach bursting with thousands of squirting razor clams
low tide, although extracting them can prove challenging – it’s easier to catch them in lobster pots baited with fish or dog meat, which can be thrown off rocky headlands when the tide is out. Beware flimsy mesh traps advertised as suitable for crabs and lobsters; they are fine for prawns, shrimps and tiny crabs but anything decent will tear its way out in no time, as I have found out to my cost. Pulling in an empty trap to find a ragged hole where the catch of the week has made good his escape is disappointing; better to spend 10 times more on a proper, escape-proof creel.
The different textures and taste of brown and white crab meat provide more variety than the uniformly delicious lobster, but they are infinitely pickier to prepare. The novice will find clear instruction on how to dress a crab on the internet, and the task is much easier with the help of a specially designed crab fork to prise out meat from the most inaccessible crevices of the body section and spindly legs. By contrast, there is nothing simpler to prepare than a lobster for a quick and delicious feast; having killed the crustacean by pushing a sharp knife through the head simply wrap it in tinfoil, add a knob of butter together with a pinch of salt and steam for 10 minutes on the barbecue.
Iain Paterson works on the MOD ranges on Cape Wrath in the far north-west of Scotland and enjoys running a few lobster pots in his spare time. I joined him last September to learn the tricks of his trade, which include using an echo sounder to identify especially rocky areas of seabed where lobsters thrive. Paterson knocked off the engine within minutes of leaving harbour and let down lines of feathers to catch mackerel, coley and pollock for bait, although he lobbed out the largest fish for the benefit of two magnificent sea eagles watching our progress from rocky promontories onshore. We kept most of the mackerel to eat ourselves, for they are delicious barbecued, fried, smoked or made into pâté with a dash of hot horseradish sauce.
With sufficient bait soon landed, we followed the rough coastline south for a mile or more to haul up pots Paterson had baited two days earlier. The first held an angry conger eel and some dark-green velvet swimming crabs that were discarded, although the latter’s meat is considered a delicacy in Spain and they can also be made into a tasty bisque. The next creel contained two large and menacing brown crabs shuffling into the corners of the trap that were destined for supper, but special care was needed to remove them without being grabbed by the strong, black-tipped claws; the trick is to pick the crab up from behind where the pincers cannot reach. “No matter how many creels I’ve set in my life, I am as excited pulling up my last pot as I was my first,” enthused Paterson as he heaved another one into the boat, which held a beautiful, blue-black crustacean gleaming like Whitby Jet. The lobster was checked for size against a stiff board carried in the fishing box; any with a carapace measuring less than 87mm long must be returned to the water; crab shells
must be at least 140mm long and 65mm wide. In Scottish waters, unlicensed fishing boats are also restricted to a daily limit of five crabs and a single lobster, and berried females carrying eggs beneath the tail should always be released, along with any crabs that have new, gleaming soft shells.
Lobsters and langoustines are rare treats for the hunter-gatherer but much can be foraged without a boat. Mussels must represent the most reward for the least effort, for they are easily gathered from colonies exposed at low tide. Mussels farmed on long ropes are ridiculously cheap but never taste quite as good as those plucked straight off the rocks, and the fact that all wild Scottish mussels technically belong to the Crown adds a frisson of excitement to their collection. My favourite beds are a good 40 minutes’ walk from the nearest road, which is probably
why the silvery black shells of the largest molluscs contain nearly as much meat as a roast snipe. They live beside a clean estuary of constantly running saltwater, which I have always taken to exempt the colony from the dangerous algae blooms of high summer that can put mussels temporarily off the menu.
On the way back from collecting mussels last summer I bumped into an elderly crofter wearing a tartan kilt, knee-length socks and unlaced boots beneath an old tweed cap. Alistair Sutherland was scouring the foreshore for periwinkles – the blacker the better, he said – and collecting the tiny molluscs with a tool normally used for picking up litter, having exposed them by using a walking stick to brush aside mounds of seaweed. Winkles have never quite shaken off their association with poverty and the East End of London but Sutherland’s bucketful of shiny black jewels inspired me to try some
myself, which were delicious when boiled and prized from their shells with the aid of a needle.
I once came across a beautiful scallop on the floor of a rock pool the size of a swimming pool. These delicious, fan-shaped molluscs are only found on permanently submerged seabeds, making them easy pickings for the scuba diver who knows where to look but a lung-busting, ear-splitting free dive for everyone else. Put on a wetsuit and seek them out with goggles, snorkel and fins on hot summer afternoons wherever currents mix in clear water but the sea bed is within reach of your strongest dive. Carry a spear gun and look out for dabs, too – perfectly camouflaged flat fish that lie motionless on sandy bottoms and are delicious pan fried.
I always carry a spinning rod and Toby lure when foraging the shoreline in summer, for schools of suicidal, greedy mackerel can appear out of nowhere as they did on my first visit to the Bay of Plenty. Watch the surface for baitfish and look out for seagulls, because even the smallest gathering of gulls often betrays the presence of baitfish that mackerel pursue in a David Attenboroughstyle feeding frenzy. Given warm, settled conditions these intermittent attacks can last for days on end, which is when a casting net thrown a yard or two offshore can sometimes yield baskets of scrumptious whitebait. As Tyacke is fond of saying, “the whole point of hunter-gathering is that you are up there living like a king on food you couldn’t afford in a London restaurant”. Not only free but a lot fresher, too.
Carry a spear gun and look out for dabs, delicious pan fried
Left: the writer landing an impressive lobster Above: foraging for mussels at low tide beneath the covering of sea wrack. Inset: delicious winkles – the blacker the shell the better
Above: setting a lobster pot – buy good-quality creels if you want to keep your catch. Inset: you can dine for free on seafood that would cost a fortune in a restaurant. Below: cooked and ready for the table
Don wetsuit, goggles and snorkel and dive for dab, perfectly camouflaged and motionless on the seabed
Left: setting out to check the prawn creels, which are placed in the middle of the loch. Top: five pots can yield up to 12 large, tasty prawnsAbove: checking the size of a lobster