Catherine Brown negotiates the long

and winding road to a community where

there's always a catch in its welcome

You travel to this remote corner of Wester Ross along a twisting single track road known as the wee mad road. It makes you mad if you're in a hurry. At its end is Achiltibuie, a scattered crofting township with a population of 300, a hotel, a pub, a shop, a salmon farm, a hydroponicum, a smokehouse, and a timeless view out to the Summer Isles.

Small fishing boats, piled high with creels, steam out of the sheltered anchorage each morning to drop and lift their creels, returning at night with their catch of langoustines which the fishermen call ''prawns''. Other fishermen work on the salmon farm. The smokehouse is smoking fish. The hotel makes every kind of fish a focal point of the menu. Fish is their livelihood, the most natural asset in a region where the land is mostly barren rock.

But it's also a sea catch coveted by the rest of the world and made available in the past 50 years by new technologies, high-speed transport, and air freight. There are now also predators from Europe fishing these waters. It has all combined to create a situation which some believe is slowly making the sea as barren as the land.

At the Summer Isles Smokehouse in Achiltibuie the managing director, Keith Dunbar, is a trustee of the North West Sutherland Fisheries Trust. One of the many charitable fishery protection trusts which

have been set up by concerned

interests about the alarming decline in fish catches.

His concern is about the dramatic decline in wild salmon and sea trout. ''They are both fantastic natural fish, possibly the greatest native fish we have, and yet they are on the way to becoming extinct.''

He admits that it's extremely difficult to know exactly what is going on under the sea. If trees were disappearing at the same rate from the countryside it would be easy to rouse

public concern. But in the sea it's extremely difficult to put a finger

on one thing and say this is the

problem, since so much is interrelated and unseen.

For the moment, however, they

can only keep on quoting the decreasing catches of wild fish. Though this could also be due partly to natural causes. In the fifties and sixties there was a period of boom in the sea stocks, thought to have been caused bycold water coming down from the Arctic, bringing good feeding. This movement of food is a natural occurrence which we don't fully understand.

What is clear, however, is that there are a number of factors which are likely to destroy wild fish. The pollution of the local marine environment by salmon farms is one cause, says Dunbar. The salmon farm in their bay is probably producing the same amount of effluent as a town of

10,000 people.

Another factor is that for every tonne of farmed salmon produced, the fish will have consumed three to four tonnes of small fish such as sand eels, caipelin, and blue whiting, in the form of meal, and this raises the question of sustainability. Dunbar is not against salmon farming since it is important to the local community. But he would like to see more effort made to reduce the damage to marine life. There is always an argument about salmon farming bringing jobs to the area.

But what about the hotel which was once a mecca for visiting anglers

and which used to employ more

local people?

Organic farmed salmon, which does not damage native wild stocks of fish, is already being produced in Norway where ecological issues rate highly. Dunbar could buy organic from Norway for smoking but he does not want to. There are still many issues about the specification of organic farmed salmon which have to be resolved. Like whether it can be organic if it

has by nature identical, but not natural, colouring.

One of the main issues is about pollution and organic fish farms would have to be sited in deep water with a strong tidal flow. The present inshore farms could never be organic. And of course the use of chemicals which may have been proved safe to humans, but which destroy other sea life, would not be allowed.

These issues were debated round the dining table in the Summer Isles hotel over platters of seafood in different combinations.

Perfectly fresh, perfectly cooked, and simply presented, their colours, shapes, and sea aromas speak

for themselves.

The chef, Christopher Frith Bernard, had made a loaf of granary bread hot from the oven, there was unsalted butter, a dish of homemade mayonnaise, and a large bowl of

green salad.

What the people of Achiltibuie need - and any others in remote, isolated fishing communities at the end of other wee mad roads - is less

damage to the marine environment and more visitors.

Those who will stay longer than half-a-hour to gaze at the view and who will ask for platters of local seafood, creating a demand for a

product at its best, straight from the boats in the harbour.


n From the Summer Isles Smokehouse shop there's a wide range of smoked fish and game in season which can also be mail-ordered.

Undyed kippers are a popular buy, which has prompted the setting up of a Kipper Club. For #55 a year you can have two pairs of plump kippers delivered every month.

Though smoked salmon is the largest part of their smokery business, they also smoke the rarer sea loch trout.

Look out for wild Summer Isles smoked salmon in July when the season starts.

Keith Dunbar uses a sweet brine of salt, rum, molasses, and juniper berries for salmon. It is smoked slowly for around 20 hours in a small kiln which can be controlled easily. The smoke aroma comes from oak shavings from sherry and whisky casks, combined with juniper and

allspice berries.

n Summer Isles Foods, The Smokehouse, Achiltibuie, Ullapool, Wester Ross. Telephone: 01854 622353.