In the latest in our Scotland's Larder series, Iain Macrury from Salar Smokehouse, South Uist discusses crofting, the call of the isles and getting through the covid crisis.

The Island of South Uist is one of the few places in Britain that hasn’t undergone industrial farming or been directly affected by heavy industry.

The result is a rare coastal habitat (Machair), plus miles of silver sands, rare birds and wildlife and an abundance of produce.

With a population of fewer than 2000, jobs on the islands are precious, and at Salar smokehouse, the small team share a love of the island and a passion for the food they make.

The company was set up in South Uist in 1997, as an artisan offshoot to provide extra income from a fish farming business.

The original owner, Eric Twelves, designed and built his own unique kilns based around the exact dimensions of a biscuit tin smoker he used at home to smoke his fish.

In 2008, the Salar smokehouse brand was born and by 2009, it was owned by a bigger company called Loch Duart.

A potential disaster for the local economy occurred in 2015 when the company was put up for sale, luckily the iconic local business was successfully purchased by Iain Macrury, who had been production manager since 2009.

He explains “I couldn’t let it disappear, I couldn’t be allowed to leave the island. So I went into discussion with the directors to buy the brand.”

He passionately wanted to continue with the business, taking it back to its heritage roots and relaunching the famous Salar brand which had become obsolete.

Was it fate?

“I don’t know, possibly, my mother believes in that sort of thing. Meant to be, I’d say it was. We are still based in the same factory space on the shore of Loch Carnan, in the same bay that my grandfather used to fish out of, it feels as if I’m going back to my roots,” he said.

Since taking over Salar Smokehouse the company has expanded their range of smoked salmon products to include: Honey and Thyme, Chilli and Thyme, Chilli and Lime, Lemon and black pepper, Lemon and Tarragon flavours.

The best seller is still the Hot Flaky Smoked Salmon which has won numerous awards.

The brand and company are named after the Latin name for Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) and today Iain employs a team of seven dedicated local people all year round, as well as a seasonal staff during peak times throughout the year.

Thankfully the original owner,Eric Twelves, is still around to offer advice,  as Iain explains: ” he was delighted it is owned by a local, and he has helped get things sorted. He tells us off if we get things wrong and he is a great source of information and support.

I’ve consulted him often. I ask him about new things to find out, what do you think.? He is very supportive, and he suggests try this or try that. The best part and I’m proud to say, he buys the product. That is better than any award you can win.”

Iain explains the unique smoking process is all done in a kiln, which was hand-built and made on the mod range by apprentices, and as a nod to its humble beginnings, in 2017 they made a 20th anniversary Salar tin like the original biscuit tin smoker with our logo on it.

Beach on South Uist Lemanieh Photograph: iStock / Getty Images Plus

Island Life

Iain Macrury counts himself to be fortunate to live and work in one of the most beautiful and unspoilt locations in the world – an island where community and culture are still prominent, surrounded by fantastic scenery, sea eagles, otters, and wild deer.

Iain tells us of his idyllic childhood on Benbecula, saying: “was a lovely place to grow up, safe and in such a nice area.”

He was the youngest of six children, with 13 years of an age gap between him and his eldest sister, who was off at school on the mainland in Inverness by the time he was born.

“It was a great upbringing where you could roam, fish or work on the croft, it was a happy place and safe,” he said.

With traditional machair grazing for cattle on the croft as well as some arable land it involved a bit of hard work,  Iain explains, “we had to muck out cows, make corn stooks and stacks or cut peat.

“You really have to be a jack of all trades with a real sense of community spirit, as the family were often drafted in to help when needed.”

When in his late teens, Iain noticed, “just how much my father worked, all day and night.” His father was a blacksmith on Benbecula in the 1940s and ’50s but turned his hand to anything, to do what he could to survive. Then he went on to work full time on the M.O.D defence range, in addition to crofting duties.

His mother was primarily a housewife, but as all island folks seem to do, ended up working a few jobs including cleaning at the doctors’ surgery.

Iain explains he was really spoilt with food growing up, saying: “high-class products,  langoustines, crabs, lobsters local lamb, beef mutton. Dad also shot, so we had wild duck or geese.

“Stuff now people pay for, it was a diverse diet and we never went hungry. My mother is a great baker, she is 87 years old now, but would always have a big cake, or pancakes on the table.”

Crofting life for you?

Iain’s nephew has taken over the croft and is now the fourth generation to live and work there, Iain’s grandfather was one of the 1920’s original land raiders.

While Iain lives nearby, he didn’t feel that crofting was for him, but he stays with his family a mile from the croft where he grew up on,  “I kind of regret it, but I made my own path,” he said before adding ” my wife Emma would have loved it, but it would be too much hard work”

This industrious couple certainly know the meaning of work hard, with two successful businesses to run, Salar smokehouse on South Uist and Charlie’s Bistro, 15 miles away on Benebecula.

Iain wryly admits: “so I am following in my fathers’ footsteps working all day and all night.”

What is Island life about? Iain said: “Peace, stunning beauty, it is lonely and empty, it is a great area with a diverse community. It is relaxed, maybe more relaxed than it should be, and sometimes too relaxed and there is a great music heritage that is still left.”

Charlie’s Bistro, Benbecula

The Call of the Isles

Iain also worked on the M.O.D. defence range prior to studying at Lews Castle College, on the Isle of Lewis to study business management.

After this, he worked in Stornoway, Inverness and Glasgow amongst other places in hotels and bars and restaurants to learn about those trades.

However he explains: “I was homesick all the time, I would come home at every opportunity. I wasn’t a city person. I have to see the sea, hear the sea. There is something in the islanders, something about it, that calls you back”

So fifteen years ago he came back when he was offered a chef job at Polochar Inn on South Uist, and he said  “with a free reign supporting locals in business.”

“It was sort of ready steady cook style, whatever comes in, shellfish, and plenty of it, that’s what is on the menu. About 150 covers a night, with just myself and a couple of local girls. Luckily they were just as passionate as me about local producers.”

Iain met his Emma, now his wife, briefly back in the 1980’s when her father worked for the RAF, and after a brief romance, they lost touch for 20 years.

Iain explains: “The call of the isles sent her back and the perfect fairytale happened we met again and ended up getting married.”

But in 2009 he was offered a job which was more compatible with young children and family life, a 9-5 job in the smokehouse and the rest is history.

Did you ever want to give up?

Tough question but the answer is clear: “Never not one day. Every day is still exciting, demanding. I have personal pride in getting it right, and Hebridean pride and every day is different.” he said.

The salmon is laid flat and dry-cured, within legal requirements for salt, the placed flat on trays and exposed to extreme heat, 60 kg every 30 minutes.

It is a fast procedure which retains the moisture and provides the perfect balance of flavours between fish salt and smoke. Iain said: “we  can smoke 500kilos a day or 1/2 ton of fish at Christmas time.”

Iain adds: “when it is busy, everyone jumps in to help, my brother and sister in law and friends, we are a hands-on business and family is important to me, I guess I’m the wee brother and they are all quite proud and want to help me succeed.”

They had explored the possibility of a new factory as part of a joint community project with a viewing corridor so visitors can see the whole process, however to date Iain said “funding for this wasn’t right,  we are not a cash-rich business” however the collaboration aspect and community sharing idea appeals and he said “it would be a great thing moving forward.”

The only thing hidden would be the exact secret process, which only a handful of people have ever been told everything.  Iain said, “we can’t have anyone copying it.”

Scotland’s larder

Iain is passionate about Scotland’s produce and in particular, those with Hebridean provenance, with seafood he said ours is the “freshest, no one handling it, comes out of the sea straight onto the plate within the hour.”

“You can mess about to add value and flavour, but we try to keep it as simple as you can, and our customers are always delighted. It is what the customers demand now”

“We smoke mainly salmon, although we have smoked local venison, goose and scallops.

“We like to experiment, if there is something, on a small scale that customers want they can request a unique product just for them,” he said. Iain joking adds, ” If it moves we smoke it and if it doesn’t, we smoke it. We also have a couple of ranges at Charlie’s bistro which is not available anywhere else.”

The Salar Smokehouse, award-winning Hot Flaky Smoked Salmon.

Lockdown

When lockdown happened it was a very worrying time and they didn’t know how they were going to survive.

Iain explains: “We had to close down, and everything was unknown, we didn’t know what support to expect.

“Employing people in both the smokehouse and at the Bistro is, a lot of responsibility. Thankfully the furlough scheme meant we could relax a little bit, as  staff would get paid, but he and Emma worked all the way through. No days off, all day and night just to keep afloat.”

At the smokehouse, demand went through the roof, “mail-orders really picked up, UK only but to every postcode from south England to Orkney and Shetland, like Christmas.”

The couple sat down and brainstormed about what else to do, Iain said: ” I thought about ready meals, as there was nothing like that in the community, people were stuck in the house, so low cost affordable basic mince and tatties, chicken stew.”

While his wife Emma had the idea of selling fresh fish and doing takeaways. With the two businesses 15 miles apart Iain said ” we worked 18 hours a day with travelling 100’s of miles also delivering as well. At one stage I couldn’t function, so we reduced the service.”

Juggling health provision, island life and tourism is a thorny subject and, Iain said “It is worry visitors coming from the UK and abroad, but we need visitors and we need to welcome them.

“We need to find the balance. Of course, it is in everybody’s mind, as we have an ageing population, and limited resources to deal with coronavirus.” He is confident it will be alright because people are abiding by rules to ensure that everyone remains safe.

Visitors spend money while they are here, but it’s economic effects are still felt long after they leave.  “Although they might visit once in 20 years, they perhaps buy online every year to support us in the Hebrides,” Iain said.

Since reopening Charlie’s Bistro, Iain and Emma have reduced the seating capacity and made a new outdoor seating area to help maintain social distancing, Iain adds “customers have been very understanding if we have to ask them to come back later, they have been helpful and supportive.”

Looking back Iain said, “it wasn’t good, but you have to do it and trust it will get better.”

Iain Macrury salar smokehouse

Iain and wife Emma outside Salar Smokery

Salar Smokehouse Ltd, The Pier, Isle of South Uist, HS8 5PD

01870 610 324

 

• READ MORE: Meet Aylett Roan from Roan’s Dairy

Scotland’s Larder: Meet Aylett Roan from Roan’s Dairy

About The Author

Catriona Thomson

Catriona picture edits The Scotsman magazine and Scotland On Sunday, aswell as reviewing restaurants for Scotland on Sunday and writing for Scotsman Food and Drink.

Let us know what you think

comments