The mussel man

Christopher Thomason

If you’re a mussel, there are few better places to live than Shetland. In the clean, chilly North Sea, the plankton is plentiful, while the stress and pollution are minimal. The same might be said of Christopher Thomason, a mussel farmer who lives in the beautiful little village of Cullivoe, towards the northern tip of Yell, Shetland’s second biggest island.

After a cup of tea on his terrace — which overlooks the village across the Bluemull Sound to the neighbouring island of Unst — Christopher’s morning commute is a four-minute drive through the village and down the road to the Cullivoe pier, during which he’ll likely pass more seals and Shetland ponies than people. Then, he’ll don his overalls and, with his small team, start processing Europe’s freshest, tastiest mussels. No stress. No drama.

Chris was born and bred in this little place, known across the island for its strong sense of community, and its epic feats of boozing around Hogmanay and the Up Helly Aa viking festival. He spent 16 years as a fisherman, part-owning a trawler, but when he got married and had kids just under 20 years ago, he spied an opportunity in Shetland’s nascent aquaculture industry.

Things have gone well since. Aquaculture — the farming of fish and shellfish, especially mussels and salmon — has become one of Shetland’s fastest-growing sectors, and Shetland now produces almost three quarters of the UK’s mussels, with the local industry worth GBP7.4 million in 2016. If you order mussels in a decent London restaurant, the chances are that they’ll be the plump, organic, flavourful Shetland variety, which tend to be a fifth bigger than other Scottish mussels due to the cleanliness of the water and the strength of the tides up here.

Chris has tens of thousands of thick, eight-metre ropes dangling into various voes, or bays, around Yell, each with millions of mussels clinging to them. After a three-year process, he’ll process around three tonnes of mussels a day at the mussel factory at the pier. Most will end up in the UK, though some will go as far afield as Israel or Dubai. His is a relatively small business; other Shetland mussel farms might process 25 tonnes a day.

“The mussels are mainly good because of the environment they grow in,” he says. “It’s absolutely pristine, with beautiful clean water washing through twice a day, and the whole process is completely natural and organic. Because the food they look for is there in abundance, they get nice and plump, and taste good.”

Chris admits that a large part of his secret is letting nature do its thing, and he is adamant that he won’t harvest mussels in the summer, when they are spawning. “Locally, we say that you should only eat mussels in a month that has an ‘r’ in it — but a lot of places don’t stop harvesting, because there’s still a demand. We like to follow nature, not the other way round.”

We like to follow nature, not the other way round.

More widely, the growth of aquaculture has been good for Yell. “When I was growing up, employment was always a huge problem,” says Chris. “Now, it’s almost the reverse — we’re struggling to find enough people to work. We need more people to come, more families. The work is here. Young families, in particular, would be welcomed with open arms. It’s good for the community.”

Chris paints a rosy picture of family life in Yell. “As a place and a community to bring up children, it is absolutely idyllic. It’s safe, there’s really good education, good healthcare, and a real sense of community. Even people coming in that have no friends or family in the area, they still get welcomed. If they get involved in the schools or local events, they soon get rolled into the community. But they’re not forced to.”

As an example of how the community welcomes newcomers, Chris introduces us to Jeremy Coffey, a young Irishman who is one of four people working a conveyor belt of mussels, checking for broken shells. Jeremy moved to Cullivoe in January with his French wife, Liz. When he’s not working for Chris, he likes to go diving for scallops in the chilly waters around Yell.

The couple had been on a career break (he was a psychiatric nurse), cycling the South Island of New Zealand, when they decided to stop at Stewart Island, a remote outpost of 402 people off New Zealand’s southernmost tip. He became a mussel farmer, while she worked on a salmon farm. They got hooked on remote island life, and — when it came time to move back to Europe — Yell stood out not just for its beauty, but its employment opportunities.

“It was the closest we could find to Stewart Island,” says Jeremy. “And we had a sense from emailing Chris that we’d be welcomed, even if we really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.” Arriving in January, in the depths of the Shetland winter, the couple hadn’t considered the fact that their huge Argos order would take a month to arrive. Luckily, Cullivoe’s famous hospitality soon kicked into gear. “We’ve been amazingly welcomed,” he says. “Everyone was offering us things: blow-up mattresses, gas stoves, you name it. It was like having this instant extended family. We only have each other up here, but somehow we feel safe.”

When we visit, the couples’ baby is due any day, so Jeremy hasn’t been able to get out to dive for scallops. But a week or so later, we hear that baby Norah June Coffey has been safely born, adding another member to Cullivoe’s small community.

Chris’s own life revolves around work, family, going out fishing or hauling up lobster pots, and playing his fiddle, especially with the Cullivoe Fiddlers, a longstanding local act who have not played together for a while. From his terrace, he can see the fierce tides swirling on Bluemull Sound, on the way to feed the mussels that are his livelihood. Like his mussels, he has the air of a man who is exactly where he should be.

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We need more people to come, more families. The work is here. Young families, in particular, would be welcomed with open arms. It’s good for the community.
Christopher Thomason

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