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By Promote ShetlandSeptember 30th 2021

The cold, clean waters around Shetland make the isles a perfect location for cultivating mussels. Carlton Boyce visited one mussel farm in Yell to find out more about the industry.

Basta Voe in Yell is about as far from London as you can get while still in the UK.

Yet rope-grown mussels nurtured in the pristine waters of Yell are in high demand in top London eateries.

Marketed under the Shetland Select name, you won’t find these mussels in supermarkets. They are so prized for their quality and consistency that hotels and high-end restaurants are prepared to pay a premium for them.

The common mussels, scientific name Mytilus edulis, cultivated off Yell are an entirely natural and organic product that requires nothing more intensive than a helpful nudge from brothers Christopher and Marvin Thomason.

Christopher tells me that local knowledge, gained during more than two decades of farming mussels as well as many more years working as a commercial fisherman before that, allow them to pinpoint the spot in Basta Voe where the spawn laid by mature wild mussels naturally gathers.

Driven by tide, wind and undersea topography, the clouds of eggs and sperm collect in clusters and it is here that the brothers place their ropes, giving the mussel larvae something to cling to.

And there are a lot of ropes. Each main line is 220m long, with maybe 20-30 of them in place at any one time. Ropes, spaced seven metres apart and hanging down five metres into the water, give the immature mussels something to latch onto as they grow.

The brothers then keep a keen eye on their infrastructure, thinning out the millions of baby mussels as they develop to give the molluscs space to fulfil their potential. The baby ones they take off are not thrown away but seeded onto new ropes where they will grow to their market size of up to 10cms, a process that can take up to two years. Usually purple or blue in colour although brown isn’t uncommon, they’re a member of the same family as clams, cockles, oysters, and scallops.

Each group of lines also provides a micro-climate for other sea life: “We see otters out there every day,” Christopher told me. “They come there for the butterfish, or swarfish as we call them here.”

He then shows me a huge bin filled with undersize mussels that had fallen through the sifting frame that is the first step in the quality control process; there are small crabs there too, and they often find lobsters and scallops and starfish and seaweed too. “It all gets put back in the sea,” he says.

Mussel farming is highly sustainable and what bycatch there is, is carefully managed and returned to the same part of the ocean it came from to prevent any unnecessary impact on the environment. Unobtrusive, the only sign that a mussel farm exists are the discreet dark grey floats that sit in geometric lines.

The mussels aren’t fed, relying instead on the naturally occurring plankton that flourishes in the waters here where the Atlantic meets the North Sea. With a twice-daily flow of water into Basta Voe – “voe” is the Shetland word for an inlet or bay – the waters here are fresh and pure.

In fact, the mussels do such a good job of further filtering the water that another local company, Shetland Salt, collects the seawater it needs to create table salt from the ocean around mussel farms like this.

At Shetland Select, while Christopher oversees the sorting and packaging, Marvin is out in all weathers in their purpose-built boat scouring Basta Voe for the high-quality mussels the brothers have become famous for. They harvest every month except June, July and early August, the break intended to give the mussels time to rest after spawning.

Marvin brings the catch to Cullivoe from Basta Voe by road, a journey that takes around 10 minutes. Unless the road is blocked by snow, in which case they continue to work as normal, their sole concession to the foul winter weather being to bring them round by boat instead.

Their determination to maintain the highest standards sees them halt work if their regular quality tests show unacceptable levels of toxins in their catch.

“It’s the natural algae that causes it, mainly in the summer months,” Christopher says. “And while the government sets a limit, we stop work well below that level. Our customers sometimes complain when the flow of mussels dries up but we won’t take any risks with the quality of our product.”

Mussel farming, along with salmon farming is categorised as aquaculture. The Thomasons’ base in Yell is one of several mussel farming businesses operating from Shetland, with Blueshell Mussels the largest of them.

Some 81% of all Scottish mussels are grown in Shetland at a value of about £81 million. The industry employs around 100 people at sites around the isles which produce approximately 6,700 tonnes annually, according to Seafood Shetland.

The Thomason brothers employ 12 – providing vital employment in Yell. The workforce includes three on the boat hauling up and stripping the ropes while the rest work in their packaging plant in Cullivoe hand-selecting and bagging the mussels. No machine can match the keen eyes of the skilled men and women who use years of experience to judge which mussels meet the brothers’ demanding standards.

Each yellow net is filled and sealed with mussels before being carefully placed in a polystyrene container – four to a box if they’re being flown to places as far away as Dubai and Beirut, five in the deeper boxes that are used for the UK market – before being covered in ice and then sealed.

The team works hard to process the two or three tonnes that will pass through their hands every day before the 1pm deadline: “The lorry’s waiting,” Christopher says as he points outside.

“It’ll go from here to Lerwick to catch the overnight ferry to Aberdeen where it’ll continue south to Heathrow and London.” This means that it’s entirely possible that you could be eating mussels in the West End that were still in the water 48 hours earlier and 875 miles away here in Shetland.

So, if you are ever near Billingsgate it would be worth popping in to see if you can spot the distinctive yellow nets that mark Shetland Select mussels from their competitors.

Or you could treat yourself to a meal in the sort of restaurant that might sport a Michelin star or two, which is surely the very best way of all to enjoy the unique flavour of wild Shetland mussels, albeit ones that have been carefully nurtured by the Thomason brothers’ exacting team…

Thai-spiced Steamed Mussels

If you fancy a warming plate of Shetland mussels, why not try this delicious Thai-inspired recipe...


  • 2kg live mussels, cleaned and de-bearded (discard any mussels that do not close tightly when tapped)
  • 400ml unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1 tbsp ready-made red curry paste
  • 300ml chicken stock
  • 1 red chilli, finely sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 spring onions, trimmed, finely sliced
  • 2 tbsp roughly chopped fresh coriander


  1. Pour a little of the coconut milk into a bowl. Add the curry paste and whisk until well combined. Add the rest of the coconut milk, a little at a time, then add the chicken stock, whisking until all the liquid has been incorporated into the mixture.

  2. Heat a lidded pan, large enough to hold about twice the quantity of mussels you have, over a high heat.

  3. Add the mussels, then the coconut milk mixture. Cover the pan with a lid and bring to the boil. Continue to steam the mussels for 2-3 minutes.

  4. Add the chilli and garlic and stir the mussels carefully. Continue to boil for a further 1-2 minutes, or until most of the mussels have opened (discard any mussels that have not opened during cooking).

  5. To serve, divide the mussels and cooking liquid equally among four serving bowls. Sprinkle over the chopped spring onions and coriander. Accompany with crusty bread.

Recipe courtesy of Shetland Select

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