Lindsey Laing and her partner, Gerry Murphy, have turned their foraging hobby into a business, supplying top restaurants with the best of Scotland's wild larder.
During the week Lindsey works as an employee relations manager but turns into a weekend forager running educational events, another aspect of the couple’s business.
She grew up in Stirling with three sisters and jokes: “It was my poor dad, four girls and my mum. I grew up in the 1980s, so it was get out and don't come back until the lights are on, so not like it is now.”
As a bit of a tomboy, she could usually be found playing in the mud or climbing trees. “I was that kid that always came back in berry season with a carrier bag full of brambles, most of them all over my face.”
Her love of nature meant that she'd bring home creepy crawlies, too. “I was that kind of kid.”
After school, she wasn't sure what to study, but opted for business with marketing and management and HR at Caledonian University and only returned to messing about in the woods in her twenties as a part-time hobby.
She met Gerry nine years ago online and, luckily, he shares her love for the great outdoors. Within six months of getting together, they had enrolled on courses to learn plant and mushroom identification as well as doing a lot of their own research.
But it took them time to be confident enough to eat what they picked. Gerry adds: “With mushrooms, you have to be a bit more careful.”
Gerry, who grew up in the village of Glenboig, near Coatbridge, jokes: “I spent my childhood in the Inchneuk woods to escape a household of women.”
Once he spent so much time there that a search party was called to look for him. Another time he swallowed a rowan berry he was using in a pea-shooter.
He'd always been warned not to eat them, and says: “I wasn't sure whether I'd die or whether my mum would kill me first.”
Thankfully, he lived to tell the tale, but explains being in the forest feels like home. “They are magical and absolutely beautiful places, with all the sounds, smells and different animals and plants.”
After school, he started working as a door-to-door salesman, which he did for over 20 years, selling anything from energy, solar panels, to Sky and Virgin media.
However, it was a stressful career, based on the buzz of a sale and the thrill of commission, but he decided to give it all up when he was diagnosed with a rare auto- immune condition called mucus membrane pemphigoid.
He had suffered from sore red eyes for over a year and was continually told it was hay fever, but Lindsey wasn’t convinced and took him for a second opinion. She is really glad she did.
The optician recognised that something was seriously wrong with Gerry’s eyes and he was referred to the hospital.
After a battery of tests, they learned, if untreated, he could go blind within a year and he was strongly advised to reduce his stress levels.
That made the decision to turn his hobby into a business and become a full-time forager very easy to make.
Although not cured, thankfully, his eyes are now in remission.
So the couple set up their business and initially ran foraging walks.
Lindsey says: "We love teaching and taking people out and reconnecting them with nature, showing them that they walk past 10 or 15 plants every day on their regular walk that are edible and free."
A worrying time worked out well and Gerry wishes he had swapped careers earlier. He says: “There is not a day that goes by that I don't think how lucky I am to do this job.”
He began foraging for top restaurants and wholesalers when another forager asked for help gathering three cornered leeks, Allium triquetrum.
It took Gerry three days to gather 10kg. “I was very meticulous and cleaned every single one individually and it snowballed from there.”
The Kitchin Group were then looking for chanterelles and, as the couple are major foodies and Tom Kitchin fans, they were thrilled to help.
Gerry says: "It is one of the best restaurants to go into because the atmosphere in there is amazing and they are all buzzing to see the produce you bring.”
Lindsey adds: “Tom wants his staff to know exactly where the food they cook comes from, so we have taken them on mushroom foraging safaris.”
The couple also supply; The little Chartroom, New Chapter, Brioche, Forage & Chatter, Pompadour, The Palmerston, Haar St Andrews, The Harbour Cafe Elie and The Croft & Creel Falkirk and a few greengrocers and wholesalers.
Gerry travels across the whole country to forage but points out: "You have to make sure that you are doing it sustainably; you never go into an area and take everything."
Not all commercial foragers are as ethical, Lindsey stresses. “That is definitely not what we are about because there are other animals that eat these mushrooms and plants and other people who might want to forage and it is not for us to take it all."
During mushroom season, Gerry will camp for up to two days before he comes home to keep the produce fresh, but some things even need to be picked and delivered the same day.
Lindsey says: "We are seeing a notable difference in the seasons because of climate change and this year saw the earliest record for chanterelles being found in Scotland, and St George's mushroom season has been delayed by a week."
Gerry explains the excitement last year when they found their very first Scottish morels. “I was just walking along a path and I thought it was a stink horn, but it caught my eye. I crawled through the hedge through the jaggies and brambles and, sure as hell, there were three morels sitting there.”
Lindsey takes up the story. "You don't tend to get them because we have the wrong soil type, but I was on the path holding the basket and Gerry was in the bushes screaming.” Sadly, the morels were past their best, but they hope to revisit the site later this year.
When it came to naming their business, Lindsey says: “Gerry was called the wee man in the woods and, as we are both quite short, we thought why don't we call ourselves the wee folk of the woods.”
In the next few years, Lindsey is hoping to give up work and join Gerry foraging full-time. Gerry adds: “I don't think working 9-5 is natural. I don't think we are designed to be like that. We shouldn't be shut in an office all day.”
Lindsey explains the reason Scotland has amazing wild food is the one thing that everybody complains about, the weather. She says: “Scotland is in such a position that it gets the right amount of heat, cold and wet, and it just produces some of the best food products in the world.
“Our position on the planet means we are ideally positioned for wild food.”
Both believe in the benefits of being outdoors and reconnecting with nature through foraging.
Lindsey says: "These are skills we had thousands of years ago that we have forgotten and we are having to relearn them, but, with rising food prices and climate change, they are skills that could be invaluable in years to come."
Making the leap into the unknown has worked out well for the couple despite the challenges that lockdown caused when all restaurants closed.
Gerry had to shield because of his health condition, but, looking back, they both wish they had done this
earlier. Lindsey says: "I went down the corporate business route with my career and I do think that I put myself through a lot of stress I could have avoided if I had just got into this sooner."
Their plans for the future are to keep enjoying the woods. Lindsey adds: “Just to keep doing what we are doing, perfect it and do it well.”