Friday, 28 January 2011

An island economy

I've fallen in love with the Islands of Scotland. For about the last 3 years, every big holiday has been a long slow haul up the East Coast Mainline, or in a National Express coach overnight until we awake, stiff (and really needing to use a toilet that stays still underneath you) but thrilled to be on holiday. We take local buses and trains that get us bit by bit to the ferry ports, drop our bags and rush to the ferry rail to watch the sea rolling, the land tilting and shifting and diminishing. Alan holes up in the lounge with a book, I stay up on deck for as long as I can bear the cold, watching and watching for the glimpse of a fin.

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.


  1. Did you know that there is only one road into Norfolk that does not cross over a bridge? So Norfolk is like an island and someone once canoed all the way round - starting one side of the B1113 just north of Redgrave he followed the Waveney along the border to Lowestoft - then out to sea and back into the Ouse at Kings Lynn. He ended up just 5m away from where he started on the other side of the road.

    So we just need toll gates on the bridges.

  2. Sounds like a grand plan to me. Then we can use the profit from the toll gates to keep the libraries open! Sorted!