Liam, 68, has been a commercial diver most of his working life. Since the 1980s he has dived for scallops on the West Coast of Scotland. The species he targets - the big luscious ones that grace your plate - are Pecten maximus, and they are the second most valuable commercial species in Scotland. While dredgers harvest the lion’s share of Scotland’s scallop crop, divers such as Liam collect some five percent.
Hand dived scallops can cost double those trawled up by dredgers. However, with the advent of the celebrity chef and a greater awareness about sourcing food in an ethical and sustainable manner, the consumer is, increasingly, willing to pay the premium that results from the relatively inefficient catch method for artisan hand-dived scallops.
“These are the babies our customer likes”, Liam said, holding up a shell about 125 mm across. “They are the ones science seems to be telling us we should be catching. The minimum legal limit is 100 mm, but personally, I land no smaller than 112 mm. I’d rather buy a bucket and ladder and go cleaning windows than make money landing small clams.”
How did a man from the east of side of Glasgow end up in Oban in a fairly unusual occupation - that of a scallop diver? Liam trained as a diver in the Royal Navy in the 1960s. “Suddenly, it’s 1972, and I was 25 years old. I’d more or less concluded I was destined for a bachelor’s life in the Service. I had been lucky enough to have been promoted through the upper yardman scheme to the dizzy heights of midshipman, when by happenstance, home on leave, I met my wife to be, Myra, on the last train out of Glasgow - a train I almost missed. We exchanged addresses and when I returned to my ship, we wrote to each other for several months as pen pals. However, on my next leave, romance blossomed and we became engaged. To this day, Myra sometimes says she wishes she’d caught a bus that night we met on the train. She’s kidding though…. some of the time!”
Liam was determined not to marry whilst in the Navy. So, at a suitable break point, he “withdrew from training at his own request” in the parlance of the RN, and began a career as a civilian commercial diver working in the North Sea and Middle East oil fields.
With a wife and two sons, the shine soon wore off a life working away from home on installations or civil engineering projects abroad. “I was down in Bombay High, an oilfield offshore India, for four months working on a French construction barge, helping install a production platform. In those days, there was no shore leave, no e-mails or mobile phones, no contact with home. We did get mail from time to time, but more often or not the letters from home caught up with me when I was back in Scotland!” Liam grimaced, “And I realised that I was out of the frying pan into the fire. The very thing I’d left the Navy to avoid was now my lot.”
However, it seems fate again intervened. Now domiciled in Stirling, the Griffins inherited a top of the line towing caravan. Liam had no wish to be part of what he describes as a “thrombosis of caravans” meandering along Scotland’s highways. So he looked around for a suitable site to create a holiday home. He found such a site at Gallanach Boatyard on the shores of the Sound of Kerrera. Weekend breaks at Gallanach became the norm, as Argyll wove its spell round the family. The homesickness he’d suffered was now exacerbated; Liam wanted not only the company of his young family, but also the magical freedom of Scotland’s west coast. He was in the Oban Inn one Saturday, when he noticed a crowd of guys noisily enjoying their drinks.
“From their dress and patter, I was pretty certain they were divers, and I was well aware that many leisure divers used Oban as a destination of choice. The iconic David Tye ran a first class dive shop at Lagan to cater for their needs, but these guys didn’t fit the profile of a bank manager or factory worker up in Oban for a weekend’s sub aqua fun. I could see and hear they were obviously some kind of working diver. They were rough looking dudes! They were downing pints like the beer-well was about to dry up and when one of them produced a penny whistle and kicked off a sea shanty, I just had to join their company. Turns out they were a clam diving team, just back from a four day trip down to Gigha, had landed their scallops that morning, been paid up and now- well, let the games begin!
“The skipper and sea shanty crooner was Davy Stead, my best friend to this day”, explained Liam, “Davy lit a light in my brain, and I suddenly realised if we set up home in Oban, I could make a pound as a clam diver, bring my kids up in bonnie Argyll and be home most nights to Myra’s home cooking - not be trotting off to the other side of the world for four month spells.”
He had to sell the idea to Myra, who was committed to her own career as a medical secretary. The kids were settled in school in Stirlingshire, with their own network of friends and activities- Boy Scouts, ski classes and the like. However, finally in 1988, the family moved to Oban.
Liam purchased and upgraded a wooden launch that he named STEALAWAY after an Irish folk song Myra liked. As well as diving for clams, he responded to the occasional request for dive work for the burgeoning fish farm industry, or removing a rope from the propeller of one of Oban’s fishing boat fleet. “But my first love was always clam diving”, he insists. “ I was never much good in a big team. I was too opinionated, ‘mouthy’ as they say in the Navy. I liked being on my own, making my own mistakes and learning at my own pace. Myra says I am not so much bad tempered as quick tempered, and am definitely better in my own space. As always, Myra’s probably right! ”
Next week we continue Liam’s story as he weighs in on the issue of conservation in the scallop industry.