Loch Fyne Oysters have been embracing the importance of sustainability for nearly half a century – and the future looks brighter than ever.
When it comes to sourcing sustainable food, nature and history have much to teach us. It was those twin tutors that local landowner Johnny Noble and marine biologist Andy Lane drew on in the 1970s, when they launched Loch Fyne Oysters.
Just as an oyster needs grit to produce a pearl, the pair’s hard work, tenacity and persistence has seen the business go from strength to strength. From selling oysters from a roadside shed, they now supply major airlines, corporate clients, Michelin starred restaurants, prestigious retailers, and the Loch Fyne chain of Oyster Bars with Scotland’s finest, sustainably sourced fish, seafood, meat and game.
They laid the foundations for the company, which has evolved to include not only the original oyster farm, but also an award-winning smokehouse, mussel farm, deli, and internationally acclaimed restaurant, recently awarded the accolade of Scotland’s best seafood establishment.
The fact that all this was done from the picturesque village of Clachan Cairndow, at the head of Loch Fyne, in the rural heart of Argyll and Bute, makes their achievements all the more impressive.
Back in 1978, long before ‘sustainability’ became a buzzword in the food world, Johnny, owner of the Ardkinglas Estate, was looking at ways to generate income. Little did he realise that the cold clean waters of Loch Fyne, which stretch out before Ardkinglas House, were to provide his salvation and global success. Teaming up with fish farmer and marine biologist Andy, the pair discovered that the sea loch, one of many that form the rugged outline of the west coast of Scotland, was the perfect breeding ground for both oysters and salmon.
Keeping the loch’s waters in pristine condition was and is key to both the production of high-quality shellfish and the company’s global success. From day one, Loch Fyne Oysters has prided itself on championing provenance, quality, and sustainability. That trio of commitments don’t only apply to their products, but their work and employment practices, and their support for the wider Loch Fyne community.
Highland history is littered with schemes for economic self-sufficiency, intended to prevent the drain of people. Many have failed, but Johnny’s has been a very large success. Today, there are 22, independently-owned, Loch Fyne fish restaurants throughout Britain, while around the original oyster bar and its smokehouse there has grown a museum, cafe, and shops selling plants, food and handicrafts.
These and other enterprises provide about 200 jobs around Clachan Cairndow. As the village’s entire population is only around 160, there is actually a labour shortage. Workers travel 30 miles from Dunoon to a village that, 30 years ago, faced the common Highland prospect: a settlement of retirees and often-absentee second-home owners.
The guiding principle behind the business is to present the best in authentic Scottish seafood whilst minimising its environmental impact and making a positive contribution to the local community.
Commitment pays off
Right from day one, Loch Fyne Oysters has aimed to minimise its impact on the environment.
- Since 2012, they have made a huge impact on waste being sent to landfill and reduced their waste uplifts by 70%.
- They’ve helped businesses in the local community to recycle their cardboard, paper, plastic and polystyrene.
- They were awarded the Highland & Island Environmental Award 2015 and a Highly Commended award in 2016 and shortlisted again in 2017.
- In the last 4 years, they have recycled nearly 316 tonnes of various waste and over 700 tonnes of biodegradable waste.
- All their electricity is supplied via hydro and wind farms.
Amazingly, their commitment to sustainability doesn’t stop there. In conjunction with partners, including other local businesses, they organise an annual beach clean at the head of Loch Fyne, and take part in the ‘Seafood in Schools’ project, to help raise students’ awareness and understanding of seafood and aquaculture as well as environmental issues.
This ‘from loch to plate’ philosophy benefits more than the environment. The company boasts a very high retention rate amongst both full-time and seasonal staff.
The proof is on the plate
From small beginnings, Loch Fyne Oysters has continued to grow and expand its seafood offering. First came a smokehouse, where they could add value to their products. Their salmon is smoked using redundant whisky casks, which adds a unique flavour to the flesh.
Next came a mussel farm, in Loch Roag on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, which, in 2017, became the first blue mussel producer in the world to receive certification against the ASC bivalve standard, awarded by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council.
Cameron Brown, the managing director of Loch Fyne Oysters, said:
"Our teams work tirelessly to ensure our mussels maintain a low carbon footprint. With this certification, our customers around the world will have the confidence they are purchasing the best mussels, harvested under the best practices".
Loch Fyne Oysters is the only oyster farm in the UK to have its own hatchery and nursery. This ensures that they can offer a range of oysters with subtly differing characteristics throughout the year. The oysters feed naturally on plankton, helping to ensure a completely sustainable process. After growing for 2-3 years each oyster is size graded and puriﬁed in ﬁltered natural seawater, before being hand selected, packed and despatched live to their customers.
The same level of environmental care goes into the fish Loch Fyne sources for customers. All their farmed fish are GLOBAL G.A.P. approved to ensure that they support the highest farming standards. Loch Fyne see their role as not only delivering seafood of impeccable quality, but also honouring and preserving the environment from which this resource has arrived.
Motorists driving to Cairndow in electric or hybrid cars can even recharge their vehicles, while they dine, by using the Oyster Bar's own charging points.
The company not only sets the highest environmental standards for itself; it insists that its outside suppliers meet or exceed those same high standards.
Onwards and upwards
In August 2007, the Loch Fyne restaurant chain (but not Loch Fyne Oysters) was bought by the Greene King Brewery for £68m, while in 2012; the then employee-owned company was taken over by Scottish Seafood Investments.
Today, Loch Fyne Oysters still supply their exclusive seafood, meat and game products to the restaurant chain, while also feeding thousands of home diners through their successful mail order business. Drive to the head of Loch Fyne, and you can still drop in for a dozen oysters, or a fine seafood chowder, and savour both the fabulous flavours and the sensational views.
A Noble cause
Although Johnny Noble died in 2002, his oyster empire continues to grow, and he’s still helping local businesses. After his death, Johnny’s family set up the SJ Noble Trust, to help fund and encourage new and emerging businesses in the Argyle and Bute area.
If you ever take the road north to Inveraray, make sure you stop off at Clachan Cairndow to down an oyster or two, raise a glass and a word of thanks to Johnny Noble, and his dream of building a sustainable seafood business in one of the most beautiful corners of Scotland.