Share a day in the life of a Small Isles creel fisherman

The soft, southern accent coming from the other end of the line is entirely unexpected. “I’m from Hampshire originally,” said 33-year-old Craig Martin. “I came up here in 2014.”

‘Up here’ is the Isle of Canna, the westernmost of the Small Isles archipelago, in the Scottish Inner Hebrides. At 4.3 miles long and one mile wide, and with a population of just 18, the island is a far cry, and a journey of over 600 miles, from Craig’s home town of Hook.

Fishing from Canna presents some unique challenges. Craig – seen here drilling new holes in the bracket of a deck wash pump that was sent with an incorrect pulley wheel – said that it ‘can be a pain waiting for parts’, which arrive, along with his copy of Fishing News, by ferry. “In the summer the ferry comes every day, except Tuesday and Thursday. In the winter it’s only Tuesday and Thursday.”

“I came up here to catch rabbits,” he explained. “The National Trust for Scotland put out a tender for a rabbit cull. The company I was working for got the job. We came up for three months initially, but I never really left.”

Craig initially began potting as a hobby. “I had a little boat and used to muck around doing a few pots,” he said. “I then got chatting with one of the fishermen who fished here, Peter Banham.”

Known locally as the ‘red boat man’ because of his iconic, red-painted vessel Jean Frances OB 147, Peter proved to be an instrumental figure in Craig’s life.

“He offered me a go on the boat. So I started fishing with him – that was four, five years ago.

He then retired at the end of last year, but helped me get a boat sorted so I could carry on.

“I was quite lucky really. Without Peter I wouldn’t have been able to do any of it. He went and looked at the boat – Boy Nathan BA 269 – with us and helped me pick it up, along with all the gear, from Stornoway.”

Craig mainly fishes for langoustine, lobster, brown crab and velvet crab. “The langoustines are just for the wee café here on the island, which opens in the summer. The owner takes around 10 lobster, 10 crab and a tube of langoustine a week. I just do the prawns for him really. The main thing is the brown crab, the velvet crab and the lobster.”

However, it’s not the catching that presents the biggest challenge, but the landing. “I have to go to Mallaig to land, a three-hour steam away. It goes to C&J Shellfish, and they’re down in Tarbert – so they have a fair drive to come and pick it up.”

Island-based fishing also presents other challenges. “If in the winter the weather is rough, and I’ve not been able to get to Mallaig, then running out of bait is the main problem. That’s why I was out fishing for bait this afternoon, to catch some to put in the freezer.

Another challenge for Craig is landing his catch, the majority of which goes to Mallaig – a three-hour steam away. “I can only land on a Sunday, or Monday morning. The lorry comes on a Monday.” In summer, Craig also lands some of his catch for Café Canna. This doubles up as the local pub – where a pint of The Jack, a pale ale brewed on the island, can be found.

“That’s another thing. I can’t really get a big walk-in freezer because all the power here is done by the community. We’ve only got six windmills and some solar panels. A big walk-in freezer would use too much power.”

Despite the trials he’s encountered, Craig now considers Canna home, and last year he was married on the island. “My wife Caroline is from Canna originally. She works on the farm with her aunt, and her other aunt does the campsite here. She’s got another aunt, too – and she does the Post Office. Half the island is pretty much Caroline’s family,” said Craig, laughing.

With Caroline currently lambing, their day begins at the same time – around 5.30am.

Without cooking facilities onboard, Craig’s first job of the day is to make a packed lunch, before beginning his ‘commute’ – a traffic-free journey of around half a mile down to the pier.

After collecting his bait, he rows out to the Boy Nathan. “I head out between 6am and 7am. Where we live, we effectively live on the grounds, so I’m out in the bay and starting to fish pretty much straightaway, and work my way around the island – depending on the weather.

“The only time I have to steam anywhere is when I land – so it’s the other way round to most fishermen. I don’t have to steam to go fishing as such, I just go round the island – but when I land, I have a three-hour steam.

“The Boy Nathan is a self-shooter – which is nice. Peter’s boat, the Jean Frances, wasn’t. It was a case of picking the pots up and then putting them over, which used to do my back in.”

Soak times vary, depending on what species he is targeting. “The velvets are quite quick – you can leave the pots for just a day when it’s good. At the minute, everything is pretty quiet, so I’ll leave them for a day or two. I’ll haul at least once a week – but I’ve got enough gear to try and do everything every other day.”

Being busy means Craig has had little time to reflect on his long-distance change of career, but he very much sees his future on the island, and in fishing. “I enjoy it all, to be honest. Even when there’s bad weather, there’s stuff to do ashore,” he said.

“The idea is to carry on fishing, so me and Caroline can stay here.”

NEXT WEEK: A day in the life of NFFO safety and training officer Charles Blyth

This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here

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