Community Voives #5 - Creelers of Arran: a seafood dream come true
Tim and Fran James have always cared “for quality produce from the sea to plate”. In this interview, Fran shares with us the lights and shadows of building their local business and making a difference. Be sure to get in touch with Fran via www.creelers.co.uk asap if you would like to enjoy Arran sea delicacies for Christmas!
How did your adventure begin?
Following a break from my acting career, I took a job as an auxiliary coastguard in Oban. Tim’s family was from Skipness and he spent his summer holidays creeling for lobster and crabs. After we met in London we decided we wanted to go back to Scotland. While I lived in Oban with a fisherman and his wife from South Uist, Tim would come to visit and we’d talk about getting into fishing. Following Alan Gilles advice, we bought a large vessel to keep the catch alive, a 56 feet French wooden trawler which we sailed up from Cornwall.
Neither of you came from a fishing family, how did you learn to fish?
Tim was fortunate to learn the trade from Alan, and out at sea on a trawler he experienced the pros and cons of working at sea. Not impressed with how dredgers and rock hoppers damaged the seabed and keen for Tim to spend more time at home with the children, we decided to buy our first creeling boat, the “Margaret Eliza” (named after our daughter). Our trawler was decommissioned and our second boat, the “Gisra” sunk in the harbour after the gales of 1986.
How did your first venture, the Skipness Seafood Cabin, come to be?
The “Margaret Eliza” was a fast worker with a 140 horse engine that would leave from Skipness every morning, fish around Arran and Loch Fyne to land the catch in Tarbert.
We soon realised people wanted to buy their langoustine and lobster when it was landed, so I bought a portacabin for £650 which we converted into a Seafood Cabin where I would cook scallops and lobsters as well as baking scones and cakes. Tim's sister now runs this popular business during the summer.
What made you move your business from Skipness to Arran?
I used to enjoy looking at Arran from Skipness, it was my "mystical island” until we visited the island and fell in love with it. We thought our idea could work on Arran and after looking around we found out about a building at the old Home Farm that was up for lease. The owner, Ian Russell, surprised us coming over to Skipness. He ordered some mussels and then told us who he was, he said: “I love what you’re doing here, let’s talk”.
So we took on a 21 year lease which has sadly now ended, and borrowed what we needed to build and set up the “Creelers of Arran” bistro/fish shop. At 29 I was probably one of the youngest women in business on Arran! Soon after, we extended the business to set up a smokehouse. Despite not having a culinary background, we are real "foodies" and enjoyed crafting a menu that would appeal to different tastes, so we were thrilled to win the Taste of Scotland awards in 2014 and 2015.
You have said you wanted to make seafood accesible to more people, how did you go about this?
We found that the public generally know very little about seafood and fishing techniques (We would always have to explain what a creel is). Just over 5% of our food budget is spent on seafood. Our idea was a restaurant where people could enjoy seafood, have a great dinner without it being too posh. We wanted everyone to feel attracted to seafood, not just the elite. When we started the business, the culture of going out to eat was just starting so there weren’t that many restaurants on Arran. We recognised that sourcing our products locally with our own creeling boat was key to our success.
Talking about sourcing locally, what have been the biggest opportunities and challenges of working in the seafood industry?
The support of our community has been key to our success. For example, the Coop is an important market for us on Arran and a fantastic supporter of local produce. There is a market out there for local Scottish produce and we sell at the Edinburgh Farmers Market and at various restaurants and delicatessens such as the Edinburgh Larder. What we have found very difficult is the provision of refrig
erated distribution for small quantities, distributors are not interested and this is where governmental organisations should support small businesses.
Businesses on Arran need to keep a good standard of local, high quality products and services. Visitors want local produce at good value. By selling it you are supporting local industry and local livelihoods. On the other hand, local consumers and visitors need to understand the care and energy that goes into what is done locally, it cannot always come at a low cost but is the only way island and coastal communities can keep traditions along with top quality visitors experience.
How important are healthy seas for your business?
We’ve all been taking from the sea for so many years it will take time to recover. Although its too early to say, Arran's MPA will have a positive impact. There are signs of improvement already from the No Take Zone. Our "Julie-Ann" creeling boat catches lobster, crab, langoustine and other shellfish sustainably.
We try to source our salmon from sustainable companies, for example Loch Duart.
What projects lay ahead for you now that you have closed the restaurant?
We'll be closing the circle, going back to where we started off in Skipness, focusing on our new smokehouse but continuing to supply Arran in various ways which you will be hearing about next year!
Find out more about Creelers of Arran on their website