Alister MacKinnon:

‘How can I work with recovery … that’s £10m-worth of investment Skye has lost’

Organic Sea Harvest co-founder Alister MacKinnon has expanded on the reasons that led him to resign from key roles with Highland Council after fellow councillors rejected the salmon farming company’s application for a new site.

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And he confirmed that Organic Sea Harvest (OSH) would be appealing against the refusal once it had received official notification from the council and had consulted with legal advisers.

MacKinnon quit as chair of the council’s corporate resources committee and his role as budget leader earlier this week. The council is led by a coalition of the Independent, Lib Dem and Labour groups, with the SNP and Conservatives forming separate opposition groups.

‘Narrow-mindedness at its worst’

In a press release, MacKinnon alleged opposition to the fish farm at Balmacqueen in north-east Skye was based on “purely political motives”, and criticised members of the North Planning Applications Committee (NPAC) who spoke against the application, which was defeated by eight votes to six.

He accused Raymond Bremner, leader of the SNP opposition group and member for Wick and Caithness, Richard Gale (Liberal Democrat, East Sutherland and Edderton) and Margaret Paterson (Independent, Dingwall and Seaforth) of showing “local council narrow-mindedness at its worst” by opposing the fish farm, which had been recommended for approval by the council’s officers and had the backing by three of the four Highland councillors from Skye.

Second farm to be refused

The NPAC’s refusal was the second time it had turned down an OSH application. In previously turned down an application for a site off Flodigarry, around 2km from the Balmacqueen site, and OSH later lost an appeal against that decision.

MacKinnon, who like Paterson is also an Independent councillor for Dingwall and Seaforth, has been chair of the corporate resources committee since 2017, and said he was leaving with the council “in a far healthier position than it has been for many years because of our prudent financial management” but that efforts to help the economy recover from the Covid-19 epidemic had been hindered by NPAC’s decisions.

“As a council we are looking to recovery, to get inward investment, to encourage businesses to come to the Highlands, and here we had a firm that I’m involved in as one of the co-founders, and our investors are willing to put up £4 million minimum, and that would create nine jobs in the north east of Skye,” said MacKinnon, who originally hails from Skye.

“These are very valuable jobs. Also, our cages are built by Gael Force in Inverness, our smolts are from the hatchery in Gairloch, it’s the whole knock-on effect. And for councillors on the mainland of Caithness, Sutherland and Dingwall – these were the vocal ones – to pontificate that they want to go against the councillors on Skye… It happened the last time with the Flodigarry application and it happened this time.

“I’ve had a bellyful of it. How can I work with recovery? We’re supposed to be focusing on localism, to ensure that local issues are dealt with by local people. That’s basically why I have resigned.

“I have spoken to Ian Blackford, the (SNP) MP, (rural economy secretary) Fergus Ewing, and they’re in favour of aquaculture, they believe it’s a sustainable way forward, and here you have the leader of the Highland Council SNP group voting against it.”

MacKinnon also disagreed with an argument made during the NPAC meeting that the farm would spoil the view from a coastal path for walkers.   

How the Balmacqueen site would look from the clifftop path. "When you’re looking out to sea, you’re not looking down on a fish farm, you’re looking right out, right across to Gairloch," says Alister MacKinnon. Click on image to enlarge. Photomontage: Munro Landscape Ltd.

“The walk is totally overgrown, nobody uses it,” he said. “Yes, you could enhance it, but my point is that when you’re looking out to sea, you’re not looking down on a fish farm, you’re looking right out, right across to Gairloch. You can see the Western Isles on a lovely day, you can see right down Rona. There’s fishing boats and other boats out there day in and day out, and I just feel that the two (tourism and salmon farming) complement one another.

“Take Uig Bay, for example. There’s a viewpoint at Uig Bay, you look down on the pier and what do you see? One of Grieg’s fish farms. It doesn’t stop people taking photos. You go into the Uig Hotel restaurant, you’re sitting there in the restaurant looking down the bay and you see a fish farm. You’re up at Portree at the Cuillen Hills, one of the best hotels on Skye, you’re looking out from there, having food at night, and what do you see? A fish farm. Sconser Golf Course, one of the only golf courses on Skye. What do you see? A fish farm.

“They’re everywhere on Skye, so I don’t accept the argument that they put off tourists. The fact is that councillors have once again turned down inward investment into one of the most fragile economic areas of Skye.

Revitalising Staffin

“In Staffin (the village near OSH’s existing farms), the primary school was under threat. About 16 or 17 years ago there were over 60 pupils there. It was down to about 16, it’s now up to the early 20s. If that (decline) had carried on that school would have closed, and a primary school is the heart of the village, the heart of the community.

“We’ve got people who are coming back into Staffin. Some of our staff stay in Staffin, they’re wanting to build houses in Staffin. We rent two houses in Staffin for our workers just now. Some are staying in Portree, but they’re all down in Staffin, they shop in Staffin, we buy all our fuel from the filling station in Staffin.

“Everybody in the community was benefiting, and these anti-fish farming people, the bulk of them don’t even live on Skye. They’re keyboard warriors as far as I’m concerned.”

MacKinnon was already planning to stand down as a councillor next year and would have preferred to stay in the budget role until then if the situation had been different.

“I just feel after discussing it with my wife and my family that I need to focus on business interests including OSH and the decision has been to resign,” he told Fish Farming Expert.

“I believe we need every investment and every company to come in here with money now because there is a lot of uncertainty out there. I’m sure there is throughout the country, but Highland, I believe, is different because of the rurality. For example, we’ve got 230 schools in the Highland Council area, from Dalwhinnie right up to John O’Groats, right up to Raasay, to Skye, to the Small Isles, it’s just so different. A company creating nine jobs in north-east Skye, that’s probably the equivalent of 200-300 in Glasgow.

20 jobs

“But when you look at the fact that Flodigarry went against us, and now this, that’s £10 million-worth of investment Skye has lost, probably with about 18-20 jobs, plus the spin-off. There’s transport, we’ve got contractors coming up there working the farms, there’s Fish Vet Group, there’s divers up, and when people were able to stay, they were staying in local accommodation as well, as was I.

“I’m originally from Skye, not far from Staffin, and I know a lot of people there and I know the Gaelic culture, and as a company we want to embrace that. We’re never going to be the biggest company, but we want to be the best organic company, adhering to all the standards and working with our staff and the community so that the communities benefit from it as well.”