The twin oyster-catchers of Loch Ryan have a unique plumage that separates them from the more common black and white waders that gather elsewhere on Scotland’s jaggy coastline

They come in orange waterproof overalls and green wellingtons and fish from a 10-metre long Clyde-built boat called (of course) the Vital Spark.

At regular intervals, they’ll fire up hand-rolled cigarettes and discuss football and local politics in a raspy dialect where a hard, elongated ‘a’ does much of the heavy lifting usually performed by consonants: “a’ ower the place”; “a’ tae f*ck”; “and an a’ thing”. Amidst this and my lazy glo’al stop Glaswegian idioms an accommodation is quickly sorted and we all rub along contentedly for the rest of the morning.

The Herald: Scotland's last wild, native oyster fishery is adjacent Loch Ryan. Pictured are people eating native oysters. Photograph by Colin Mearns.Scotland's last wild, native oyster fishery is adjacent Loch Ryan. Pictured are people eating native oysters. Photograph by Colin Mearns. (Image: Newsquest)

Skipper Rab Lamont and his mate John Mills have been trawling this sea-loch for the last 15 years or so. Loch Ryan fans out in a horseshoe from Stranraer before it meets the North Atlantic and the Firth of Clyde. These are hallowed waters that occupy a sacred place in the UK’s marine eco-system, forming the last abiding wild oyster bed in Britain.

In recent years they have become a lifeline for Stranraer after it was dealt arguably the most wanton act of civic and corporate economic vandalism suffered by any community in Scotland since the death of Ravenscraig.

Later that day the Vital Spark will put on its evening suit – a chain of coloured pennants – and Rab will steer it slowly into Stranraer Harbour. There he’ll hand over a ceremonial basket of the day’s catch to a reception committee of civic chiefs, local schoolchildren and a detachment of pipers. And they’ll all proceed the short distance to the large marquees strung out along the harbour-side.

The Stranraer Oyster Festival now in its fifth year will be declared open. Yet, the rituals associated with this event are of the ages. The harvesting of a natural bounty; the ancient rites signalling sacrifice and re-birth; a community gathering en masse to give thanks and then to celebrate in a three-day bacchanal of food and drink; singing and dancing.

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This festival though, is all of this and a lot more. It’s also a community-wide howl of defiance in the face of profound adversity. Until 2011, Stranraer’s ferry terminal, situated at the East Pier, brought hundreds of thousands of travellers to and from Northern Ireland: truck-drivers, bus-loads of football supporters and those stopping here awhile before travelling up through the west coast of Scotland.

Almost overnight, the ferry operators moved their business six miles up the coast to Cairnryan, spending £300m on a new pier. That Stranraer, the second largest town in Dumfries and Galloway was permitted to suffer this fate with no intervention by local or national government was bad enough.

That little was done in the years immediately following this blow is wanton civic neglect. As Rab Lamont put it as he gathered his catch that morning: “If this was the Highlands and Islands, it wouldn’t have been allowed to happen. But Stranraer is located at the wrong end of the country as far as our political leaders are concerned.”

The Herald: Children from Stranraer YMCA with oyster festival posters they created as they wait at the harbour for the fishing boat the Vital Spark to land a basket of native oysters to mark the opening of the festival. Photo Colin Mearns.Children from Stranraer YMCA with oyster festival posters they created as they wait at the harbour for the fishing boat the Vital Spark to land a basket of native oysters to mark the opening of the festival. Photo Colin Mearns. (Image: Newsquest)

And so, as they came to realise that their elected representatives were doing nothing to ease their plight the Stranraer townsfolk, led by a handful of local heroes, decided to do it for themselves. The Stranraer Oyster Festival was born and each year since 2017 it has grown at an astonishing rate. By the end of the weekend, more than 25,000 people will have attended an event hosted by a town of 10,000 souls.

Romano Petrucci, owner of the local chippie and chair of the Stranraer Development Trust is the man they all point to. Earlier the same day, Rab Lamont had told me: “He’s the man mainly responsible for making all this happen. There’s been talk of building a statue of him and you wouldn’t get me disagreeing with that.”

The kenspeckle Mr Petrucci – “speak to Romano”; “Romano’s your man”; “Romano knows all about it” – tells me he’s been blown away by the numbers this year. “Not only am I seeing the ticket sales reaching 25,000, I’m seeing where they’re coming from: all over England and then Italy, Malta, the US and beyond. 

“There are 97 stall-holders and they’re telling us this is the best festival of its kind they’ve ever attended. Once, people only stopped here to board the boats to Northern Ireland and we never thought the boats would ever leave.

“And then 500 lorries became 50 and then 10. It was heart-breaking. The weeds on the pier had grown to a level where you were embarrassed to take visitors.”

The Herald: Tristan Hugh-Jones who runs The Loch Ryan Oyster Fishery Company Ltd pictured with native oysters. Photograph by Colin Mearns.Tristan Hugh-Jones who runs The Loch Ryan Oyster Fishery Company Ltd pictured with native oysters. Photograph by Colin Mearns. (Image: Newsquest)

No-one I spoke to over the course of the weekend could adequately explain why the largest ferry port was abandoned in favour of one situated in a tiny village and at a cost of more than £300m. It seems though, that Stena were looking to the freight market, requiring bigger and heavier vessels. The cost of dredging and the excess fuel expense sealed Stranraer’s fate.

“Yet, surely in the years since there could have been a plan to re-imagine the Stranraer pier and make it vibrant and industrious once more,” I suggest.

“The problem is that it’s multi-owned by Stena, Sealink, the Crown Estate and the Council. And we can’t get them to come to an agreement,” says Mr Petrucci. “They all know that if they take it on they’ll have to invest in it.”

And yet it’s okay to throw £300m at another pier just up the road and leave this much larger one twisting in the wind?    

He tells me when the germ of an idea began to form that would signal a community-wide fightback. “In 2016 I’d asked for ideas in the local paper to help this place recover,” he says. “I was frying chips one evening when a lady came in and showed me a picture of her grandfather fishing for oysters in Loch Ryan.

“I realised we had a natural oyster bed that had been gifted by royal charter to the local Wallace family, descendants of Scotland’s great warrior-king, by William of Orange in 1701. But also that it was the UK’s only natural wild oyster bed. The idea of an Oyster Festival was born then and we got full support from all the hotels, fishermen and local businesses. More than 10,000 people turned up at our first one the following year.

“But now, I’ve never been more optimistic about what the future holds for Stranraer,” he says. “We have a detailed plan to improve the marina; develop water sports and regenerate the town’s oldest buildings If you get 25,000 people turning up for three days at an Oyster Festival then there’s little we can’t do. And for the first time in many years we’re keeping young people here who would otherwise have departed for opportunities elsewhere.”

Crucially, Ben Wallace, present head of the Wallace clan, formed a partnership with Tristan and David Hugh-Jones who have been breeding native oysters for more than 50 years. The Loch Ryan Oyster Company was formed which was world-leading in its ethical and sustainable methods.

By the 1950s, pollution and over-fishing had driven oysters to the brink of extinction in Scotland, but beneath the waters of Loch Ryan they are thriving due to the rigorous management and monitoring of the species. 

The Herald: Crowds at Stranraer Oyster Festival. Photograph by Colin Mearns.Crowds at Stranraer Oyster Festival. Photograph by Colin Mearns. (Image: Newsquest)

Tristan Hugh-Jones is proud of this commitment. “These creatures are vital for our marine eco-system,” he says. “We only take fully-frown oysters from the loch – about 5% of the total catch – and only during the most appropriate times of the year. These, of course, are cold waters which means that oysters grow much more slowly here than, say, Australia. It’s only by doing this that we can maintain and grow the population of native oysters.

“At the start, people didn’t really know about the oysters. Now they absolutely do and they’ve all bought in to the story. We have enquiries about the festival now from all over the world.”

It’s due to the unique eco-sustainability of the Loch Ryan oysters and the forensic discipline of their harvesting that demand is high, especially from London’s most storied fine-dining establishments where a single oyster can cost up to £10.

At the Stranraer Oyster festival though, you can slip have a dozen of them across your thorax for the same price. “We try to juggle supply and demand,” says Mr Hugh-Jones. “We want enough to keep them supplied but we don’t want to over-fish. We only harvest what is sustainable.”

My crash course in marine biology

AT eight o’ clock in the morning, the two Loch Ryan oyster-catchers are giving me a crash course in basic marine biology. As each muddy catch emerges from the waters they’re hoisted on to the Vital Spark and the sifting process begins. The smallest oysters will eventually fill more than ten baskets to be thrown back into the Loch at points guaranteeing an even spread of them.

The adolescents are gathered in other baskets destined for sustainability projects in Wales. The mature ones, pale and gorgeous in their fanned and ribbed shells, fill less than two baskets.

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A few hundred yards away across the loch there’s a little boat with divers aboard. “They’re research students from Heriot Watt University,” says Rab, handing me my breakfast bacon and sausage roll, sustainably harvested from Tesco’s.

“They’re good kids,” he says, “but they take the sustainability a bit too far with their cous-cous and energy bars and walnuts. I mean, who wants walnuts for their breakfast … apart from those who want to live longer than us. But is that a price worth paying?”