For three days on the Isle Skye the wind, rain and snow has battered us, but this morning the wind has dropped, the rain has eased off and the sun has peeked out from behind fluffy white clouds. It’s the perfect weather to head out on the boat with David Oakes and his son Ben from Sconser Scallops.
We meet them both by their inflatable dingy on the cool clear waters of Loch Sligachan, which is on the east coast of Skye. Ben hits the throttle and we head out to a buoy which marks the territory Sconser Scallops are allowed to dive in. This area is protected by the Highland Fisheries Authority which awarded David a ‘Several Order’ to dive for Scallops in these waters 18 years ago. 18 years later he is still the only person allowed to dive in these waters. He tells us that “The scallops are lifted from the deeper waters of the Loch and then re-laid in the shallow waters, where the plankton is thicker and the scallops can achieve their full growth.” This move speeds up the fattening process creating more meat and flavour.
We head slightly up stream of the diving buoy and Ben kills the engine, the boat slowly drifts and David starts to kit up. He puts on his mask, goggles and flippers, and pours hot water into his wet suit gloves. Yorkshire-born David is Skye’s most-celebrated scallop diver, and has spent the last 30 years cultivating this local speciality.
“There is nothing else I’d rather do. No day is the same, the weather, the scenery, the wildlife - that’s the joy of it.”
He tells us that the visibility is poor today so he intends to dive on instinct. Ben stands up alongside his father and helps him on with his breathing apparatus. With all his gear on, David perches on the side of the boat and leans out, gravity pulling him into the water. Ben reaches over and passes David a rope sack to collect the scallops. He reaches up, grabs the sack and then drops into the waters below. Ben turns and whispers, “Now we wait”.
Ben joined the family business after studying for a degree in Sustainable Management in Edinburgh. He helps his father but is also setting up a cosmetics business using seaweed as the core ingredient. 30 minutes later Ben spots his dad surface, he spins the boat around and speeds over to pick him up. David pulls his way back into the boat and Ben lifts up the sack crammed with scallops. He has managed to collect around 180 shells that they quickly sort into bags of 60. These scallops will be delivered live in their shells to some of the best hotels and restaurants across Skye and Scotland. David says, “These scallops are the best in the world, and should be cooked as simply as possible… coated in oil and thrown into a very hot pan for a minute or two with seasoning and a knob of butter. Leave them to cool, then squeeze some fresh lemon on top.”
We head back to shore and Ben grabs a shell, which he opens with his knife. David gestures to us to try, “You can’t leave without trying one as fresh as they come.” We do. He stands there dripping wet, smiling as we appreciate the subtle flavours from today’s catch.
David goes out five days a week all year round in every type of weather, diving to around 30 metres at times searching for scallops on the sea bed, sometimes with zero visibility and in incredibly cold water. At times he says it can be 3 hours before he warms back up but despite the physical extremes he puts his body through on a daily basis, he says, “There is nothing else I’d rather do. No day is the same, the weather, the scenery, the wildlife – that’s the joy of it.” And the joy is felt by all those lucky customers who buy and eat Sconser Scallops.