Andy Race, of Andy Race Fish Merchants, based near the quay in Mallaig, is a familiar name on Skye as his vans constantly traverse the Island, bringing freshly caught fish to a restaurants, cafés and other outlets across the Island.
And his face became better known this winter when he joined actress Julie Walters on the first of the four-part Channel Four series Coastal Railways in which she travelled the West Highland Railway on the Jacobite steam train, memorable for its starring role in the Harry Potter films, before getting some practical training in “extreme violence” and blowing up railway lines at Arisaig House – home to the Special Operations Executive that trained agents in World War Two.
Arriving at Mallaig, once the biggest herring port in Europe, Julie got a lesson from Andy in, among other delicacies, gutting and smoking herring to make kippers before catching the ferry from Mallaig to the Isle of Skye where she met George Macpherson of Glendale, one of the last ‘seanchaidh’ or traditional Scottish storytellers.
Andy found he had something in common with Julie – they both originate in the West Midlands of England – he is from Wolverhampton and she is from Smethwick in what is now called Sandwell, made up of Oldbury, Smethwick and West Bromwich.
Coastal Railways, produced by Alaska TV, was shown in November 2017, having been filmed the previous summer and was repeated in March 2018. It is available for download from All4.
Overall, Andy Race Fish Merchants is seeing continued development of mail order and internet business, particularly in the run-up to Christmas which, over the years, has transformed their work flow and the opportunities for full-time rather than seasonal employment.
Andy is unequivocal about the philosophy of the business he founded more than 30 years ago. “The quality of the fish must be very good. We are competing with national companies and what we try to do is get to know our customers so that they are buying the fish from us as people, not a faceless organisation. We offer personal service and a quality product at a realistic price,” he says
Andy did not start out in this business or even by the sea, although fish have fascinated him since being very young. In fact, beginning life in Wolverhampton, he was about as far from the sea as it is possible to get in the UK. He then worked for the giant engineering firm GKN before moving to Mallaig in 1979.
After about a year, Andy found he needed more work to keep him interested. So he started selling fish, then still being landed in Mallaig in vast boatloads with trains and queues of articulated lorries waiting and ready to ship the haul out. As the company’s activities grew, it expanded its supply services to include Skye, building up demand from local hotels and restaurants and taking fish and shellfish from fishermen across Skye and Lochalsh as well During the summer there are as many as three vans trips a week delivering around Skye. Vans also travel out towards Inverness and Oban.
Andy’s personal drive for business success derives from his childhood enthusiasm for fish and fishing – “I always find fish to be fascinating creatures” – and from the support that GKN gave him in his first years at work. “They gave me responsibility and authority at an early age. They were willing to trust me. I am always grateful to them for that.”
Coastal Railways: The West Highlands – first broadcast Sunday 26 November, 2017 on Channel 4 An Alaska TV Production. Photographs of Andy and Julie courtesy of Alaska TV.