The year before last we went out to the Shetland Isles. My dream was to see the Orcas that patrol the summer seas off the Northern Isles, but they eluded me. We saw many and beautiful things along the way: puffins, snipe drumming in the dusk, larks singing from every cloud and the terrible bonxies; but the thing that made me think most was the state the local businesses were in. Booming. Successful, vibrant, tiny.
For the first time I understood that every single thing for sale on an island has to either be produced there or imported. In many of the small island communities of Scotland the cost of shipping goods from the mainland creates an unofficial 'import tax', enabling small local producers to compete on price.
We ate at a wonderful restaurant on Barra, which served locally reared chickens, beef, lamb and scallops caught in the bay. It would, I'm sure, have been possible for them to buy in frozen chicken breasts from Thailand like most other restaurants do, but there seems to be something different about the way islands do things. It is expensive for the local farmers to export their produce to mainland markets, and expensive for restaurants to buy in produce from them. So they don't. They sell to each other, and cut out those middle men.
The Harris tweed manufacturers are still going strong on Harris. Each bolt of cloth by law has to be produced in a crofters own house, woven by hand. The tweed is protected by an act of parliament: the Harris Tweed Act of 1993, which states the wool must be dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides. This enables a local dyehouse to survive and protects the tradition of hand weaving. The fabric certainly isn't cheap, but I bought a few metres off the bolt: when else would I have the chance to buy an entirely hand-made cloth in Britain? It's beautiful stuff, sturdy and thick. Herringbone tweed, the colours of heather and seafoam, clouds and peat.
People often complain that Norfolk is hard to get to. It's like an island, they say. What if it was, I wonder? If we could impose an import tax on all food and goods brought across the border. Small local companies might be able to compete again. All our good Norfolk wool that is thrown away at the moment might be spun again. The supermarkets wouldn't be able to sell meat for less than our Norfolk farmers can rear it for.
It's a romantic and probably unworkable dream, but I'd love to see it.
Pictures: all mine. Bottlenose dolphin in the Moray Firth, Local lamb on Mull.