Tucked away in the corner of one of the bigger barns at Edinburgh’s Royal Highland Show was a three-metre cube with three simple words on it: “Scottish Salmon Experience.”
It could have been described as a small cinema but, really, it was much, much more than that. Inside, visitors were transported to a salmon farm with a three-minute film show that surrounded them, on all sides. They could turn and watch the pictures behind them, on the sides or in front thanks to an innovative 360-degree camera process that has revolutionised the way we experience film.
First, the cinema goers flew over Scottish mountains and glens, listening to a voiceover explain what salmon farming was all about before the film deposited them on a boat which motored out to a farm. They could look ahead, off to the side or turn around and gaze at the boat’s wake, receding into the distance.
Listening outside the cube, I found it difficult to suppress a smile every time there were children in it because, at exactly two minutes, there was a discernible “whump” from the soundtrack. And, almost every time that moment came, there were squeals of joy and wonder from inside. This was the moment the camera sank below the waves, transporting the children right into a marine pen stocked with salmon, which they could see all around them. While the whole film is great, it was the underwater part – or rather the moment that the camera dipped underwater for the first time – that the children remembered.
It is not easy to say how many people went through the Scottish Salmon Experience at the Royal Highland Show but it was at least 1,000, and probably more than 2,000.
The installation was hosted by the Royal Highland Educational Trust and that is exactly where we wanted to be. The Scottish Salmon Experience is about education; that is to say, it is about informing and lightly educating people (mostly children) about fish farming. Really, it is about telling people that we exist, what we do and what fish farming looks like. And if we can do so with a bit of a “wow” factor, then so much the better.
We trialled the cinema cube at Lochgilphead High School earlier in the month as part of a careers day and it was the combination of the Salmon Scotland cube and the stands put on by our producing companies that made it work so fantastically well. The high school children went from stand to stand, learning about everything from fish vaccinations to career prospects. They were able to pick up and hold a salmon (to guess the weight), they could see live par in a tank and watch a smolt being dissected.
One of our companies also brought a high-powered workboat for the children to clamber around on, which was also really popular. Then they got to go into the cube and see the film, so they had a fully rounded sense of what our farmers do – and what they could do too, when they leave school. It was a similar story at the Royal Highland Show, where the cube was part of a joint exhibit, the other half being a talk and tasting session.
‘We will bring the farm to you’
Partly this is about us being as open and transparent as possible. In its most basic sense, the cube represents a clear attempt to say: “If you can’t come to the farm, we will bring the farm to you.”
But it is also part of a more important outreach programme to try to stop the rural Highlands and Islands losing their young people to the cities and central belt. Depopulation in the region is an increasing problem – and one exacerbated by the dearth of affordable local housing – so anything we can do to reverse that trend is surely a good thing. We want to keep youngsters in their communities, giving them good, well-paid jobs and helping to keep those communities thriving.
And yes, partly it is about countering the depressing negativity which is fostered by some in those same coastal communities who rail against salmon farming. We need to address that balance and, if the cube and the associated educational initiatives that we are running alongside it help to do that, then so much the better.
Professor Russel Griggs, who conducted this year’s review into salmon farming regulation, appeared before the Scottish Parliament’s rural affairs committee recently. He was questioned by a Green MSP who claimed that local communities were opposed to salmon farming. While we know from our local polling results that this is nonsense, Prof Griggs took a slightly more measured approach.
In what was a polite but nevertheless forceful put-down of the Green MSP, Prof Griggs said it was very difficult to define exactly what a community wanted and it wasn’t always advisable to take the views of those who shouted the loudest. He told MSPs: “In the future, there will be a lot of community engagement and consultation at the outset to find out what the correct voice is …. I do not think that it will be about whoever turns up and makes the loudest noise, it will be about the benefits for and the impact on the community.”
The cube and the careers days are informative and educational but, quietly, they are also about countering the effects of the small band of critics who shout the loudest and think they represent their communities, when they don’t.
It is a small step but an important one, one that might, in the future, lead to the creation of a permanent Scottish salmon visitor centre with a 360-degree film show right at its heart. And, given the time and effort it takes to build and dismantle our cube every time we want to use it, that would certainly win approval from our team!
For too many years, the Scottish salmon sector didn’t do enough to inform, to educate and to entertain. The Scottish Salmon Experience shows that those days are over. We may not quite be in a position to say that our Scottish Salmon Experience will be “coming to a cinema near you” just yet, but we have a made a start; and a very positive one at that.
Hamish Macdonell is Director, Strategic Engagement with Salmon Scotland.