Winklepicker, merchant, marketeer, processor, auctioneer, chef, restauranteur, podcast host – but despite his earliest aspirations, one of the few roles industry pioneer Jim Cowie hasn’t undertaken is actual fishing.
“I had no other interest than being a fisherman,” he told Fishing News. “My mother told me in later life that the only problem they ever had with me was in the morning going to school – because I would just say: ‘Mum, I don’t need to go to school – I’m going to be a fisherman.’ That was all I ever wanted to do.”
However, encouraged by his father to find a trade before going fishing, Jim’s career began not at sea, but as a slaughterman-cum-butcher. He took the job because the apprenticeship was shorter than others on offer at the time – enabling him to fulfil his dream of going to sea sooner – or so he thought.
“On the day I passed my apprenticeship, I left. However, by then my father had come ashore. At that time, in the 1960s, prices were really poor. He came ashore to find markets for his fish – and was quite successful with it. Friends and relatives then asked if he would market their fish as well. He did, and it turned into a business.
“So rather than my lifetime ambition to go to sea, I started shoreside, selling, marketing and merchanting fish.”
Following his father’s retirement, Jim took on the business – and soon began showing the pioneering spirit that has featured throughout his career.
He moved the business to Wick, renovating and converting an old engineering works into a fish factory and sending locally caught fish and shellfish to retail, wholesale and catering sectors throughout the UK and Europe. Today, the factory is owned by the Wick Heritage Centre and is part of the museum – and is known as the Cowie’s building.
“I was trading with a lot of boats, and some of them came to me and asked if I would sell their fish on the auction. I was never an auctioneer before that. So I started a fish-selling agency called Cowie Fish Selling Company.
“That grew. I then started dealing with boats landing in Scrabster. So I contacted the commercial attaché for the Faroe Islands based in Aberdeen. Through him, I contacted Faroese vessels fishing in Faroese waters – and they began landing into Scrabster.”
Bringing Faroese vessels into Scrabster was a pioneering move, and the town would also play host to Jim’s next innovative step in the 1990s – purchasing the Scrabster Salmon Bothy and Ice House.
“In its working life it was a salmon station. It’s a wonderful building. It’s barrel-vaulted, built with the local natural stone – it’s just like a cathedral. The building was a stone’s- throw from being condemned. It was lying unused and in a really bad state.”
Jim and his wife Mary sympathetically renovated the building, and in November 2002 Captain’s Galley Seafood Restaurant opened.
“I was 52 at the time. I enrolled at college for a professional cookery course with local tutor Helen Campbell. I thought, I just need to learn the basics – and if I can’t do it after that, well, I’ve only myself to blame.”
As it turned out, he could do it – and very well. Not only was he soon running the kitchen himself, but the restaurant was winning a host of awards.
Now aged 74, Jim sold the restaurant last year, which he describes as ‘a sensible decision’, before adding: “Quite often the sensible decision is the last one you want to make. Who wants to be bloody sensible!”
His move from restaurateur to podcast host stemmed from a conversation with his eldest son Ashley, a writer, producer, filmmaker and television presenter. “I was speaking with him, and seeing what he was doing. That’s what made me think – I have access to somebody who can do the backroom bits – editing, producing, uploading.”
The Seafood Matters Podcast features interviews with people from across our industry.
“I always email people a link to the podcast studio, along with all the discussion points. I’ll do that days in advance, so they know exactly what we’re going to be discussing. They can rehearse, get their answers together – so they’re comfortable with it.”
After the podcast is recorded, Ashley takes over, editing the interview before publishing it on the Seafood Matters website.
Jim says he loves doing the podcasts. They’re also enabling that pioneering spirit to burn as brightly as ever.
“Michel Kaiser of Heriot-Watt University came on and made some really interesting points about the industry taking ownership and controlling its own destiny.
“I’m now taking that a stage forward – and I’m going to be speaking within the industry to get that moving.
“It could be massive. Imagine if we end up with our UK fishing industry with one voice, that has its own stock assessments, works out its own quotas and policing. I just find it hugely exciting.”
All episodes in the Seafood Matters Podcast series can be listened to on all the main podcast networks, or here.
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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