Oyster Shell Community

Shortly after lockdown had been announced, I spoke to my friend Kyle on the phone. Last year, he moved from Glasgow to the Outer Hebrides, landing a job on a fishing boat. I was surprised to hear that his work had dried up as the global markets wobbled. Reduced to a single day per week, Kyle noted that the fishing industry had not been prepared for the pandemic.

My situation felt somewhat similar – I had been working as a tour guide, unaware of the seemingly precarious nature of my profession. The preceding weeks had seen international tourism spasm as flights were grounded and borders were temporarily closed. I felt embarrassed that I had assumed he would not be suffering in the same way as those of us on the mainland. 

The skipper of Kyle’s boat had decided to change tack and focus on revitalising the local island economy. After the virus had officially reached the UK, it seemed that the same processes bound even those in remote locations. Fear compounded fear, as panic buying helped to wipe clean the shelves of supermarkets. Deciding to meet the challenge head on, Kyle and the skipper fished exclusively for the locals; selling the produce as they once would have by word of mouth. As the markets sloshed from side to side, and supply chains contracted, it appeared to be the right time to anchor the local food distribution network.

However, the response was initially wanting. Locals had become accustomed to the tarmacked parking lots and extending opening hours of the supermarkets. It seemed as though the islanders had forgotten the ways of the ‘sharing economy’ once integral to the Hebrides1. Not that long ago, produce was shared and distributed across a smattering of island communities. Word of mouth supported various channels of supply and demand, ensuring that people in the communities did not go short. Kyle said it took a little time for them to re-establish a more traditional approach of catching and selling fresh seafood on the island.

Further down the coastline, a friend from Oban had tried another approach. Angus and his family produce oysters. Caught by the paralysis of the markets, the family business was selling only a fraction of the oysters that they usually would. With restaurants closed and no foreseeable end in sight, the outlook appeared grim. To help a mutual friend, Angus had agreed to drive to Edinburgh.

Deciding that he could cover the cost of the fuel, Angus placed a message on a Facebook community group in the city, offering his oysters. The response was huge. Countless people requested a dozen or more of the Loch Etive oysters. The community group’s administrator waived the notion that the page was not for selling, suggesting that in these circumstances it was imperative to support Scottish businesses. Angus more than covered the cost of fuel and was able to help his family. The oyster, once a common part of people’s diet here in Scotland, is rich in zinc and omega-3s. Exploring ways to reintroduce local, healthy produce at a fair price, would not be the worst thing to happen to us.

Everywhere I turned, I was witnessing the same thing – people seeking to support one another. The shift in attitudes had not been intuitive, as Kyle had proved. But the motivation was there. Global trade had undoubtedly provided vast sums of wealth and connectivity to a highly interdependent system. However, the pandemic revealed the precarious nature of those lofty international agreements. So as the going gets tough, the tough start on the ground floor, by supporting local grassroots and community-led projects and businesses.

Unfettered growth – it has been shown – has done little to provide us with the resilience that we need to face a pandemic. Instead, it has created huge amounts of excess that contributed to an initially lethargic government response. Therefore, a call to revisit leaner times is not a call for poverty. It is a call for healthier and more robust people and businesses.

Personally, I think that my work in tourism is likely to rebound with the immediacy of an iron ball. Travel options are still shrinking as international travel appears to have all but stopped. The only viable choice really is to travel domestically, supporting the local economy. In doing so, we are helping to rebuild a society that is stronger and better prepared for the next global crisis. If we succeed, we could very well be eating oyster pasta and crab salad on the shores of one of Scotland’s beautiful lochs.

Liam McGuckin

Reference 1 - Alistair Mackintosh – Soil and Soul