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Scotland's Larder: Simon Clark of Clark Brothers Musselburgh

Cat Thomson chats to Simon Clark of Clark Brothers Musselburgh, who explains how his family’s fishmonger business has gone from strength to strength.

Published: April 20, 2022

Simon Clark’s sons are now the fifth generation to help run the family business, Clark Brothers the fishmongers on Fisherrow in Musselburgh.

Simon's great grandfather, started the business in 1920 when he came back after the First World War.

He said: " He was in Gallipolli as a trooper in Duke of Atholl's private Scottish Horse regiment."

He began with a horse and cart selling fish around Tranent and Musselburgh but he went into Edinburgh every morning to buy fish from the market at Newhaven.

Advertising photograph back in the day, "Large and small we have them all"

The next generation were Simon's grandfather and his brother John, he said. "That is basically where the Clark Brothers name came from."

Family tree

Simon recalls: "They were great guys, one was older than the other so my granddad, Simon sr. took more control of everything while Johnny was a bit younger."

He has researched his family tree back to 1794 and found a lot of his ancestors were fishermen.

Clark Brothers Fishmongers, Musselburgh
Squid on sale at Clark Brothers Fishmongers, Musselburgh. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

Simon also discovered his grandfather was a professional sprinter who won the youth Powderhall sprint in 1922 before joining the family business. "I have his gold medal in the house."

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He also found another distant relative was George McNeill (born in 1947) who was the fastest man in the world. He was a Scottish former world professional sprint champion who won the New Year Sprint in 1970, having previously played football for Hibernian, Greenock Morton and Stirling Albion.

Memories

David, Simon's father, came into the business in 1961 with his son joining him in 1986.

Simon's earliest memory of the fish shop are of a wooden hut which was used to prepare fish that his great grandad had built. It had stabled the horse and cart but had been turned into a fish shop in the 1930s.

By then, he said, "My grandad and his brother Johnny had passed away so in 1992 we took the decision that
the old shop was probably going to fall down, so we built the new current premises we are in now."

He spent a lot of his childhood in the old shop speaking to his grandad. "I remember him teaching me how to fillet a herring when I was eight."

It was all done without a knife, just with your thumb and fingers, "in the summertime herrings are that soft. I had just produced the things when a Dutch couple came into the shop and bought them, so it was quite exciting."

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Clark Brothers Fishmongers, Musselburgh
Clark Brothers Fishmongers, Musselburgh. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

Jingling tills

Simon began working alongside his father after finishing school at 15. "I was going to leave school and started looking at what options I had. So that was that, it just made sense."

Prior to that he had enjoyed fishing for pleasure and kept a boat in the harbour.

Clark Brothers Fishmongers, Musselburgh
Crabs and other shellfish are bought direct from local boats. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

He learned the ropes from his father - "He taught me how to prepare fish and serve customers." Over time, he explained, "you kind of progress yourself and get a feel for things and how to get better at doing it."

The art of making a window display is important in a fish shop, he said, "if it looks the part, it will sell."

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He said getting a good mix the colours on show is key. "I put big Nigerian Prawns which are dark next to white scallops and sea bass fillets which are blue, next to samphire which is green."

He also sells Shetland rope-grown mussels, Cumbrae oysters, razor clams, surf clams, sword fish, kings scallops, squid red snapper, Scottish wild halibut, hake and rock turbot, so it makes for quite the display.

He said: "Now the choice is so great, I sometimes struggle to get it all out in my three window displays."

Simon Clark Clark Brothers Musselburgh
Simon Clark with his sons

Family

Today it is still a proper family concern with his father and partner Jean as well Simon's wife Thip and their two sons all involved.

In more recent years Simon's father David,76 has taken a back seat.

However, David still volunteers to get up early every morning, at 2.30 am to go to Newhaven to buy fish and see his friends.

"He buys haddock and cod and hake with the heads on, then we prepare everything here. We are one of the few fish shops left who are doing that ourselves," said Simon.

Thip is from Thailand originally and is responsible for their famous Thai fish cakes.

Clark Brothers Fishmongers, Musselburgh
Thip Clark. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

Clarissa Dickson Wright was a fan of them, and persuaded her to make them to sell. Her recipe contains a mixture of fish and king prawns, mixed with her unique curry paste that contains kaffir lime leaves and chopped French beans.

He met Thip over 30 years ago when he went on holiday to Thailand. "I had no idea where I was going, we went to spend time on the beach."

Simon says Thip has now been in Scotland longer than she lived in Thailand and she loves Musselburgh.

Her family are rice farmers in Buri Ram province in the north east, and it is the only place he has visited abroad, he said "We keep going back and forward to see family."

He always makes a point of visiting the fish markets when he is there. " it is really interesting you see things you never would see here. It is a different thing all together."

A vendor prepares salt grilled fish at a makeshift food market in downtown Bangkok on January 13, 2020. (Photo by Mladen ANTONOV / AFP) (Photo by MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP via Getty Images)

The couple have twin boys aged 27 who now both work in the business. "They started when they were 18. They were keen musicians but they needed a proper full-time job.

Next generation

The boys are in charge of the products they make in the shop, smoked salmon, kippers, cooked mussels.

Simon said: "Our dry cure Gravlax is fantastic and people rave about it. The boys have always got new ideas. When they started we didn't have a card machine. they were the ones that got me to do that -I probably wouldn't have done it otherwise."

Working surrounded by his family, "is great for me, we are a very close family."

Musselburgh

Musselburgh is a place where everyone knows each other but he said: "a lot of people don't recognise me out with the shop, they associate me with a blue apron and a white coat. We are basically on the harbour here at Fisherrow."

Clark Brothers Fishmongers, Musselburgh
The display of the fruits of the sea. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

Over the years people's taste have changed but "the old favourites such as lemon sole and haddock are as strong as ever." Exotic fish like tuna, swordfish and snappers are available but hake is popular with his customers. i

He also gets a twice a week shellfish delivery from Cumbrae Oysters, he said - "Oysters, razor clams, surf clams and mussels, so everything is really fresh."

Clark Brothers Fishmongers, Musselburgh
Scallops, Photo: Lisa Ferguson

During the pandemic, people started shopping locally more and he explained: "People were able to rely on us to be here and once they saw what we had they will never go back to a supermarket. "

In the early days of the pandemic, he said, "we only let in one customer at a time and people queued along the street, we put signage out saying stay 2 meters apart. It worked out well."

Fish on a dish

What's his favourite fish dish? "Lemon sole. I had it pan-fried in breadcrumbs last night for my tea, it was crispy and lovely. I had a lot of fish when I was young."

He can't imagine doing another job. "Nothing is the same from day to day, apart from setting up in the morning. It is just the diversity of it all I love."

He added: "Sustainability is important, we have been around for a long time so I always keep an eye on what is happening."

Clark Brothers Fishmongers, Musselburgh
Clark Brothers Fishmongers, Musselburgh. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

Simon wants the shop to continue as it is. "I'm quite happy and I don't believe in expanding too far because that is where mistakes can happen. We are lucky we are in such an excellent position right at the harbour and when you get a good sunny day you are absolutely heaving."

Fresh fish

The family sell fish direct from the shop and this ensures everything is fresh and there are no delivery issues

He also supplies local restaurants such as The Longniddry Inn, The Coronation Restaurant in Gorebridge, Kings Manor Hotel in Portobello and Dal Patino in Musselburgh.

His advice for customers looking for the freshest fish is to come directly to him. "I wouldn't sell anything that is bad because customers aren't going to come back.

Clark Brothers Fishmongers, Musselburgh
Clark Brothers Fishmongers, Musselburgh. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

Clark Brothers
224 New St
Musselburgh
EH21 6DQ

0131 665 6181

Catriona is a freelance writer based in the Scottish Borders, and a nominee for Food and Drink writer at this year's Scottish Press Awards.

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