The Seafood Cabin, Skipness, by Tarbert, Argyll PA29 6XU. Rolls £3-£5, salads £5-£13.50, specialties £5-£13.50, desserts 75p-£2.25, wines from £15
The Kintyre peninsula, which hangs down the western edge of Scotland, is not particularly northerly but it is surprisingly remote. By car, you have to go up to go down and the journey ends looking across Kilbrannan Sound to the coast you drove along three and half hours earlier. There is a nicer way of doing it, via two ferries and a trip across Arran, but miss the boat and you may get stranded. So it remains relatively unvisited, which is why I guess Paul and Linda McCartney chose it to escape Beatlemania. I, too, have found refuge here for the past 15 years or so, as an annual visitor rather than a temporary resident, and love its beauty, its wildlife, its seclusion so much I wonder if I should write about it at all. The McCartneys did, in Mull of Kintyre, the video filmed at Saddell with its wide and pristine beach, and a bit further up, just past the harbor where the little ferry from Arran comes and goes, is Skipness.
The village is stretched along the bay, with a peeling post office and a tiny kirk, and, at the end of the road, through two odd iron gateposts, is the castle, now in the care of Heritage Scotland. A Victorian laird was looking for more comfortable accommodation and built a Scots baronial replacement with a turret stair and huge crowstep gables. This was seriously reduced in size in the 1930s by a fire, which killed the new owner, an industrialist from Derbyshire, attempting a heroic rescue. The estate was divided in rather a peculiar way, so his four surviving grandchildren, the James family, do their own thing while contributing to the whole. There is the farm, with sheep and cattle and a bit of forestry; there is the smokehouse, run by one of their brothers and his wife, and there is the Seafood Cabin, run by Sophie James, helped by another brother and her nephew and various family members and their friends who come for the summer season.
Years ago it really was a cabin – an old caravan parked outside the smokehouse where you could get a smoked salmon roll and a can of pop. Eventually, the caravan was moved down the hill to the big house, where it stands today, incorporated now into a permanent structure, with a kitchen inside, a washing-up station outside and a new oak-framed barn next door providing cover if needed . Most customers prefer to eat outside at picnic tables looking out towards Arran, a view so majestically lovely you have to blink a couple of times to make sure you’re not seeing things. If the sun is shining, as it does reliably in May, Chinese bamboo hats are available to save your neck from sunburn. Rare-breed chickens run between the tables, dogs are at liberty (water bowls are provided), and a young and efficient waiting staff try not to fall over them bringing out the orders.
It is all seafood, and locally sourced, the salmon prepared and smoked in-house, oysters and scallops from Loch Fyne, kippers from Tarbert, creel-caught langoustine from the Sound and mussels from the marvelous Dougie, a fisherman who sold his catch from a little back shop in Tarbert until he retired, to the consternation of many, but still runs down to Skipness in his van for Sophie.
When we arrived, there was a small queue at the Cabin, just off the lunchtime sailing from Arran. It was only the second day of opening for the season, but the Cabin has now become so popular it is busy every day, from 11am till 4pm, apart from Saturdays, their day off.
I had one of the specialties, a plate of langoustines (£14), because I love them, fresh as you like, served with bread and butter and a pot of what looked like the green sauce you get with a samosa in Indian restaurants. The langoustine was sweet and juicy, the sauce both tart and rich and with a wonderfully greasy finish that I could not quite place. Cherville? It was sorrel, Sophie told me, one of 14 or so herbs they grow, mixed in a kind of enriched yoghurt, a lovely light turf to the langoustine’s surf.
I followed with the seafood platter for one (£16), a tasting menu on a plate, with a single langoustine, a single oyster, a dollop of white crab meat and dollop of brown, and salmon cured three ways – hot-smoked, cold-smoked and gravadlax. A little pot of steaming mussels in a not-too-rich creamy broth with – literally and figuratively – hidden depths, arrived with more bread and butter and pots of mayonnaise and dill sauce for the gravadlax. All were excellent, but the gravadlax deserves a special mention. It is a difficult thing to balance, easily too sweet to my taste, and aniseed is not the most sociable of flavors, but this was excellent, not only well balanced but with crunchy hot little seeds – pepper, coriander? – to cut through the clagginess.
My friends had a crab-filled roll (£6), generously provided for, and mussels as a main course, fat and yellow-fleshed (£12). I drank a half-bottle of Sancerre (£17), my friends had a glass of rosé (£5.50), a bottle of Arran blonde beer (£4.50), and a Diet Coke (£1.50).
For pudding we had Sophie’s excellent chocolate cake (£2.50 per slice) with a mini tub of Mackie’s vanilla ice-cream (£2).
The food is great and good value – lunch for five with wine and pudding came to £126.50 – but what makes it so special, and so popular, is the setting. Many are worried that efforts to revive the ailing economy of the peninsula, through forestry and sustainables, will affect the loveliness of this unique place. A local farmer told me you don’t see as much bird life as you used to thanks to loss of habitat, and who knows what the impact will be of giant wind turbines on the hills above? The community is itself divided, trying to balance economic need with protection for a fragile environment. Tourism provides another answer, or a supplementary answer.
The Skipness Seafood Cabin has got it exactly right, more popular every year, and consistent with it. My only anxiety is maybe you can get it too right, and draw more and more people, and lose what Kintyre’s fans love it for: its remoteness, the peeping of the oyster catchers, the cloud-capped peaks of Arran, the mist rolling in from the sea? If it kept Beatlemania at bay, it should be able to manage the curiosity of the rest of us.
The Madness of Grief by Richard Coles is published by Orion at £16.99. Buy it from theguardianbookshop for £14.78