Growing rainbow trout in the sea required a sheltered sea water site in close proximity to a constant supply of fresh water. Lochailort provided the perfect location, and included a number of buildings built by the army when the estate was requisitioned during WWII. The estate’s owner, Mrs Cameron-Head, was also keen to lease the site to Unilever, as a means of bringing employment to the area.
The site at Lochailort comprised a small se a farm with four pens, a set of experimental pens for research, a hatchery and a small processing/packing plant. During construction, to avoid delays in the programme, the first batches of trout were reared at the Hydro-Electric Board’s hatchery at Invergarry and then transferred to three cages at Lochailort, with the f ourth containing some parr, which Marine Har vest had been asked to grow on and r elease into the River Ailort.
Responsibility for the day-to-day running of Lochailort was given to its first manager, Dr Robin Bradley, although by 1968 this function had been taken over by Unilever Research, which had its own permanent team at Lochailort alongside that of Marine Harvest. By the late ‘60s/early ‘70s the decision had also been made to concentrate on developing salmon commercially, partly because the demand was there, partly because salmon commanded a much better market price.
In 1970 Marine Harvest acquired the lease of the hatchery at Invergarry. By then it had been demonstrated that fish could be transported safely around the country, which meant that it was unnecessary for a hatchery to be attached to a farm. Initially, broodstock were kept in freshwater tanks at Invergarry, until it was established that stripping could also be done in the sea. In its first year, 30,000 smolts were produced at Invergarry. Until it was decommissioned a few years ago, it was producing around 200,000. Unilever had also by this time developed and patented a process to transfer smolts directly into the sea, which it eventually sold to the Highlands and Islands Development Board for £1 in the mid-70s.
1971 was an important milestone in the history of Marine Harvest: its first harvest, a modest 14 tonnes. Importantly, however, the quality of the fish was exceptional and the company had shown the world that farming salmon could be done. The visit to Lochailort by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1974 signalled the arrival of Marine Harvest as a company
with a future.
With Unilever satisfied that salmon farming was commercially viable in 1975 Marine Harvest established its second sea farm, in Loch Leven. By 1976 Lochailort had expanded to three farm sites and the harvest that year was 116 tonnes. There was further expansion between 1978 and 1979, with the establishment of sea sites in Skye (Cairidh), Loch Sunart (Laudale) and Kingairloch, a new hatchery at Inchmore and its first freshwater site in Loch Shiel (Dalilea). The freshwater site was developed in response to a lack of tank space to keep smolts, which forced the company to experiment – successfully – with putting fry directly into fresh water to smolt.