Scottish salmon from Orkney waters

Wednesday 9 October 2019
Post in collaboration with Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation

Salmon is Scotland's biggest food export with it's quality revered throughout the world. Those involved in it's harvest are indeed proud to farm Scottish salmon and are passionate about the aquaculture industry. A trip to the Orkney Islands encompassed a visit to a Scottish salmon farm, coffee roastery and gin distillery alongside ample opportunity to sample the abundant Orcadian food and drink offering in local hotels and resturants where Scottish salmon is always proudly on the menu.

Almost a year to the day from when I boarded a Loganair flight in Aberdeen to embark on a Peedie Taste of Orkney I was back at the airport for a second trip to the same location. Thanks to Holiday Extras for organising Northern Lights Executive Lounge access and my short stay airport parking. Having these in place in advance makes for a smooth start to any trip be it work or pleasure. For me this visit was to be a combination of both with the best that Orkney and Scottish Salmon had to offer. The itinerary included taking to the water for a visit to a salmon farm and in addition to the usual admin and emails before any press trip I was asked to provide both my wellie boot and survival suit size. What on earth was I letting myself in for?! In the old adage of a picture painting a thousand words... see below!

Salmon is Scotland's biggest food export with it's quality revered throughout the world. It's a huge Scottish success story which alongside Scotch Beef and Scotch Lamb has been awarded EU PGI (protected geographical indication) status, marking its quality and distinctive origins. As a farmer's daughter and because of my work with Quality Meat Scotland I like to think that I have a reasonable knowledge of the production process behind beef, lamb and pork but aquaculture and a visit to a fish farm was to be a totally new experience for me. These days quality, traceability and provenance are demanded by retail buyers and consumers across the board and the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation who hosted my trip, work alongside the industry to ensure this.

Rather than dive straight in to salmon we got the opportunity to explore some of the area's exciting food and drink products and immerse ourselves in the rich heritage, history, landscape and culture of the Orkney Islands. It was the ideal opportunity to see the way and quality of life that can be experienced by those moving to Orkney for a job in the salmon farming industry.

First stop was for a very welcome cup of coffee. But first we had to wait for it to be transformed from raw green bean to cup by artisan coffee roasters Sara and Euan of The Orkney Roastery. Their coffee brand Aria is hand roasted with love and attention in small frequent batches so that it is as fresh as possible. We watched our batch go through the process using roast profiling technology as a guide but ultimately relying on human senses to adjust every roast to perfection. A delicious cup of of Melody blend was created which we enjoyed alongside a chocolate collaboration between Aria and local chocolatiers Mirrie Dancers. Fully caffeinated and set up for the day ahead we headed on our way with a bag of beans from Scotland's most northerly roastery. 

If Carlsberg did picnics... 
Prepared by Orkney based food writer Rosemary Moon we enjoyed a veritable feast of local produce on the idyllic setting of Skaill Beach. Admittedly we were all well wrapped up, it was September in Scotland after all, but the the views and minimal food miles more than made up for any discomfort from pebbly shores and the sea breeze. We feasted on; salmon pate, salmon salad, Donaldsons of Orkney hot smoked hickory ham and smoked beef, Wilsons of Westray Westray Wife 2 month old brine washed cheese, Orkney butter and extra mature Cheddar from Orkney Cheese, sourdoughs and crispbreads from The Orkney Sourdough Co and chutneys from Westray.

For dessert I tasted my first ever Fatty Cuttie. These are perhaps best described as the lovechild of a girdle scone and a Garibaldi biscuit. I could quite happily have eaten the whole pack, there is something very moreish about them. I'm definitely going to try and bake my own. Fuelled with good food we headed along the beach and stepped back 5000 years to explore Skara Brae and its neighbour Skail House.

Having delved back to Orkney's neolithic roots we came right up to date on out next stopping point with the infamous Twitter sensation that is @OrkneyLibrary. Bearing gifts of books, cake and salmon we stepped onboard Booky McBookface and touched the hallowed balls. #ifyouknowyouknow  Outwith their cult status online they are doing an amazing job in a challenging location and it was a particular delight to hear all about and see their book box service which has been operating for over 60 years to the most remote islands. Libraries really do matter. 

It's always lovely to get the opportunity to revisit somewhere that you loved the first time around. We all know how much I love Gin so on my previous visit to Orkeny Kirkjuvagr Gin was a real highlight. At that point their Distillery and Visitor Centre in the centre of Kirkwall had not long opened so it was fascinating to return and find out what difference a year had made. Awards, medals, two new gins - Aurora and Beyla, launch of a gin making experience and a lot more up their sleeves for the future. Their innovative HySpirits project has just been awarded funding which will hopeffuly enable them to use hydrogen power to distill in a more environmentally friendly way and create sustainable gin. 

Day two of our trip was full on Salmon. This meant full on glamour in terms of protective clothing. Hairnets, wellies, white coats, survival suits, lifejackets - the full works. First stop was Cook Aquaculture in Kirkwall where we visited their processing plant. Here the harvested salmon is cleaned, inspected, weighed, boxed and palleted before being sent on it's way to the main transport hub at Larkhall, just south of Glasgow. As salmon is a perishable product it needs to get from sea to market as quickly as is possible. In less that three days from swimming in Orkney waters, Scottish salmon can be on the menu in five star restaurants in New York and the Far East.

Time for a change of clothes before heading out to sea. At this point I discovered that I'd entirely coincidentally matched my nail varnish to my oilskins. You'd be forgiven for thinking for a moment that I was actually one of those glamorous Instagrammers! From the harbour in Stromness we headed towards Hoy to visit the Cooke Aquaculture farms at Pegal Bay and South Cava. Was very glad to have brought hat, scarf and gloves as the elements did their worst. Kudos to all those who work day in day out in such conditions.

As we arrived at the first site feeding was in progress. We watched the feed pellets raining down into the pen containing a somewhat mind blowing 23,000 salmon. The fish in the pen we visited were just under 12 months old and will be harvested at 18 months. We could see some of them from the surface but got a better view on the 'Fish Cam' which is lowered 10m down into each pen as feeding takes place to monitor the salmon. Although they looked quite bunched up on camera the amount of fish in a pen is very highly regulated. They naturally like to shoal and swim together and at feeding time all tend to rise towards the surface leaving tens of metres below them empty. They're certainly not camera shy.

Throughout my trip I encouraged my followers who were watching on Instagram stories to ask questions, all of which I put to SSPO. In some quarters farmed salmon has a bit of a controversial reputation. My take on this is that it's a relatively new industry which has only been in existence for around 50 years. We readily accept that beef, lamb, pork and chicken are farmed products and have been for thousands of years but fish farming can be seen as 'unnatural'. Questions are raised about mortality rates, disease, sustainability, use of antibiotics and such like that simply aren't as high profile in relation to traditional farm animals. Perhaps Old Macdonald needs to have a salmon on his farm?

As a result of a question from one of my followers I was very interested and surprised to find out that salmon are one of very few animals that have no trace of medicine in their flesh upon sale. This is not the case with regards to red meat and poultry. Nevertheless the use of medicines is highly regulated and increasingly used rarely and as a last resort. Organic salmon like those we visited are not treated with any antibiotics. 

The next question was about lice. Sea lice are a naturally occurring parasite which have affected stocks in Scottish salmon farms, however the levels are currently at their lowest levels for 6 years. The introduction of 'cleaner fish' has helped greatly and dramatically reduced the need to use other control methods such as medicines. The cleaner fish live in the pens alongside the salmon and provide biological control where they attack and eat lice.

But what about the effect of salmon farming on wild fish populations? The Scottish salmon sector strives to be a responsible neighbour and wild fish populations are being affected by a number of issues from long term overfishing and over exploitation through to climate change. Working together and sharing knowledge, skills and support is the key to help everyone overcome these issues and collaborate to find the answers. Interestingly wild salmon stocks have fallen most dramatically on the East Coast of Scotland where there are no salmon farms.

A final question was a very topical one about fishing's contribution to ocean plastic. The vast majority of plastic pollution from fishing comes from sea catch boats not aquaculture, however the Scottish Salmon sector supports a number of recycling initiatives and funds community beach cleans across the west coast, Shetland and Orkney. I was intrigues to learn about an initiative in which the plastic pipe from old salmon pens is recycled into frames for polytunnels. These are built to withstand high wind speeds and the harshest of climates.

Throughout my trip the passion of those who work in the industry was obvious. They are indeed proud to farm Scottish salmon and see the health and welfare of the salmon as being of paramount importance. Those who are sceptical about salmon farming may be surprised to know that all Scottish salmon is farmed and wild salmon is no longer fished commercially anywhere in the UK. It was clear to see that the industry has brought huge economic benefit to the Orkney islands alongside satisfying the increased demand for salmon in our supermarkets and on our plates. As well as being tasty and versatile Scottish Salmon are a fantastic source of healthy protein and are rich in essential Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. I love to cook and eat it and as a farmer's daughter was fascinated to be introduced to the similarities and differences between agriculture and aquaculture. 

Our accommodation on the trip was at the Foveran Restaurant with rooms. I'd dined there on my previous visit and had been impressed by both the views across Scappa Flow and the food so it was great to be back for more of both. I dined on Humes smoked olives, Kirkjuvagr Gin, Scottish Salmon, Orkney lamb and finished with Orkney Roastery Coffee.

Dinner on our second night was at The Lynnfield Hotel & Restaurant where I enjoyed 'Westray Wife' Cheese Souffle, a seafood platter and Whisky bread and butter pudding. The hotel stocks a huge range of over 300 Whiskies and Rosemary Moon used her expertise to guide us through a tasting of five of them. 

All too soon it was time to head home. The weather on the morning of my departure was clear and bright and I got a fantastic view as we flew back down to Aberdeen, even spotting a salmon farm enroute. My suitcase was packed with edible souvenirs, those really are the best kind and ensured that a true taste of Orkney was had in all senses of the word. 

Disclosure: I visited Orkney as a guest of the Scottish Salmon Producters Organisation. As always, all views expressed are my own.
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Additional photography courtesy of SSPO

1 comment

  1. Good educational story about salmon - thanks for taking the time to have a look for yourself Claire, and for sharing your experience.


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