It’s said that everyone will face an existential crisis at least once in their lifetime. For Stewart Collingswood, who was running a software company, it just so happened to come as he was walking in the Pentlands hills outside Edinburgh. At a crossroads in his career, he caught a breath of air, sat down with a pencil and began scribbling some ideas onto a piece of paper. The words that hit the page, in no particular order, consisted of: Scotland, the outdoors, fishing, photography, good food, meeting people, e-procurement and tourism.
Not exactly an obvious combination, one might think, but that slightly disconnected mental process back in 2004 led to the formation of a company delivering one of Scotland’s most sought after outdoor pursuits – and one that embraces virtually all of the concepts sketched out more than 10 years ago.
“I’d gone as far as I felt I could go with the software company, which I’d done for four years. “ I decided I wanted to put my heart and soul into something I really enjoyed. So I was sat at the top, looking down at the city, thinking, ‘what the heck can I do?’ And so I just wrote down on this sheet of paper everything I liked.”
Fast forward to 2016 and Alba Fishing, which started initially as a part-time venture, now stands on the cusp of a big push for 2017; emboldened by the recent birth of a baby, Collingswood is about to considerably “ramp up” a business that has until now reacted to whatever enquiry it has had for outdoor fishing in Scotland, whether that be pike fishing on a private loch near Edinburgh, a secluded estate on the River Tweed or salmon fishing in the Highlands.
The company, which employs guides, including Collingswood himself, regularly takes individuals and groups of sporting enthusiasts out to some of the best fishing locations in the world. The decision to go full-time, backed with private investment, for next year is purely an economic one. Collingswood knows the market well, and it is growing.
“More and more agents and destination management companies are seeking new and unusual experiences,” he adds. They want activities that clients can do and go back and tell their friends, ‘wow, guess what we did?’ We hiked out to this point, we camped overnight, we caught these fish, and the guide took professional photography of the whole trip. The venues we have chosen all deliver those really memorable experiences.”
Some of the fishing venues themselves are located just a short drive from the capital and are perfect for corporate groups, who may be attending a conference. Alba Fishing has taken incentive groups of up to 40 people on fishing trips, combining it with instruction, gourmet food, whisky drams and gingham tablecloths in a snug, wood-burning stove heated lodge. It all sounds idyllic, and pretty much is.
“We travel all over, depending on what the client wants,” adds Collingswood. “But for proximity to Edinburgh we’ve used a private place just south of the city; it’s like heaven on earth, it takes 35 minutes to get there, you go up a dirt track road, and arrive at a fishing lodge with stags’ heads on the walls. You think you’re in the Highlands, and I would say the fishing there is world class. During the last two seasons we’ve been catching between 10 and 40 fish a day. They’re big fish as well – the pike, it’s Scotland’s predator.”
For salmon, Alba takes clients regularly to the River Tay, but also as far north as Kinlochbervie in Sutherland, or across to the west coast.
Although the fish are routinely caught and thrown back, there is no scrimping on the food fare. Alba sources quality organic produce from local butchers and suppliers. The courses – which might consistent of venison, port and cranberry – are often washed down with a glass of cab sav, with whisky never far from the palate.
“We just try to make it as memorable as possible for our guests,” adds Collingswood. “People might have a preconceived idea of Scotland – the tweed, whisky and salmon. Our job of course is to deliver that but there’s also the pike, the sea fishing; we just want to deliver the best experience to our clients. Seventy per cent of what we do is probably salmon fishing and teaching people the double Spey casting, drams of whisky, the lodge for lunch, and all the folklore.”
The appeal of such an experience has struck a chord with corporate incentive groups, as well, who Collingswood believes are constantly looking for new team-building experiences. They are getting enquiries to that end from an increasing number of destination management companies.
“I think there’s lots of potential to go to corporates and say you’re all getting a bit bored of team-building,” he says. “We say ‘here’s a day for real bonding with your team’, for beginners or experienced women and men. We recently had 25 complete novices from Shell, and gave them guides. They were all catching trout by the end of the day and having a great lunch together. So that’s our focus for 2017, it’ll be a big push with event bookers, agents and DMCs. We might even spice it up with some food foraging and falconry, and a guy playing the bagpipes – whatever works for them.”