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The Highlands and buy lands as crafty islanders set up shop on world wide web

Jenny Robertson embraces Eigg’s peace and quiet with spinning wheel and pet dog
Jenny Robertson embraces Eigg’s peace and quiet with spinning wheel and pet dog

Keep calm, code and carry on quickly became an unplanned mantra for island entrepreneur Rhoda Meek, whose fledgling business, Tiree Tea, is facing a rocky first season.

Six weeks ago, Rhoda was sitting in her remote croft on the Hebridean island, surrounded by mountains of boxed tea bags, processing the news that her island would be shut off to tourists indefinitely.

But she realised she could put her skills as a former freelance digital product manager to good use. In a whirlwind of creativity, the tech-savvy trader came up with – a digital lifeline to island businesses dependent on tourism.

The online directory showcases 350 small businesses across 26 Scottish islands, from artisan dog biscuits on Arran to craft vinegar brewed on Orkney.

“I realised tourism was going to take a real hit and I would need to up my online game to get through summer,” said Rhoda, 37. “Luckily I have the skills to do this but knew others in my situation wouldn’t. Over a weekend, I threw together a site where small businesses can advertise themselves. It’s basically like Not On The High Street for the Scottish islands.

“This is a way to continue to ­support the people on those islands by shopping locally.”

Isle20 is free for island traders to join, thanks to Scottish Islands Federation start-up funding. Since going live on March 17, it has accrued 28,000 hits and has redirected more than 25,000 shoppers to its members’ websites.

“It’s nice to know we are all struggling through this together,” said Rhoda, who added that the island’s postal service had been a lifeline for businesses and islanders.

“Our post office and postal ­workers have been incredible. I’m not an Amazon warehouse shipping vast quantities. I send out small-batch orders once a week.”

An early travel ban has ensured no Covid-19 deaths in the Western Isles, while there have been six deaths recorded on Shetland and two on Orkney. But remote, independent craft and design businesses across the islands are among the hardest hit as the restrictions on travel and tourism continue into summer.

Rhoda added: “The majority of businesses here rely on tourism and mainly operate through summer. For many, that summer income gets them through the winter, so missing a peak tourist season will affect people the entire year.”

© Ian Rutherford/Shutterstock
Blue skies above Soroby Bay in Tiree

Despite the tourism drought, islanders agree protecting their ageing populations is vital. There are no Intensive Care Unit beds with ventilators on the islands and medical evacuation to the mainland would be weather-dependent.

“With a three-to-one ratio of elderly in the population (on Tiree), and the distance from hospitals, we have a very vulnerable community,” added Rhoda. “Everyone wants to keep the island safe and are putting their community first.”

When her contract working remotely for a tech start-up in San Francisco ended recently, Rhoda began focusing on Tiree Tea.

“I’d had this idea ­percolating for a while and finally put it into motion with a trial run last November.

“I’ve created tea blends inspired by Tiree with an external company but I do all the packaging, marketing and shipping from the island.

“I had a great response over the winter so was looking forward to properly launching this year. And then we had a global pandemic. But if I can crack online sales and break even through this, I’m laughing.”

Rhoda has also found time to care for 39 new lambs on her land while running Tiree Tea and But she admits island life is eerily quiet.

“It feels strange on the island right now. It’s spring but it feels like winter because the island is so quiet without tourists.””

Rhoda hopes her website will continue to promote island crafters and traders after lockdown ends.

“When all this is over, I hope Isle20 can promote island business through the quieter winter months,” she added.

‘I love working alone so, for me, social distancing is a way of life’

Living in isolation is second nature to Jenny Robertson, a spinner and knitter who has lived alone on Eigg for over a decade, with only her pet dog Sorley for company.

Jenny signed her business, AnNead Hand Knitwear, up to Isle20 last week.

“I’m fairly anti-social and enjoy working alone so this doesn’t bother me but my orders have slowed down a lot,” said Jenny, 65. “People are worried about their finances. It’s difficult because I’m a small business making high-end products, so my orders don’t flood in anyway.

“I sell a lot at the Royal Highland Show, which is cancelled this year. The majority of my sales are online so joining Isle20 will really help to raise the profile of my business. It’s wonderful to see small creative businesses banding together.”

Originally from South Africa, Jenny settled permanently on Eigg in 2009 after falling in love with island life. Self-taught, she laboriously spins naturally-dyed wool into delicate, cobweb yarns using a spinning wheel. These are crafted into intricate shawls, scarves and gloves. Her most complex bridal shawls take two months to complete. “When I’m making a special order, I’m spinning good wishes in for them and there’s something special about that.”

Jenny is enjoying Eigg being quieter. “It’s normally busier, it’s nice to have the island to ourselves now.”

‘Creative people are not cut-throat. We’re all in it together’

Melanie Mouat

Based on the northern coast of Unst, a tiny island on the very tip of Shetland, Melanie Mouat is used to living on the edge. But the uncertain future of her handmade soap business has filled her with dread over the past few weeks.

“Because we rely so much on tourism in the summer, including cruise ships, and the fact that the Up Helly Aa fire festivals and Shetland Wool Week have been cancelled this year, it will have a huge impact,” said Melanie, 43.

“The situation is depressing because I mainly supply small shops on the island and across the mainland, and I did panic when the independent shops I work with started cancelling orders. I do have a website but online sales were never a priority, so I’ve had to change how I do business.”

Melanie started Mella Handmade Soap three years ago. She operates from a small workshop attached to her parents’ house, where she was living before essential social-isolating rules came into play. She heard about Isle20 from Sandra MacLeod on Lewis. “The creative, island industry has always been collaborative, not cut-throat, and because all our islands all rely on tourism to boost the local economy, it’s a great idea that we all work together.”

Despite closing to tourists early and adhering to strict social distancing rules, there have been six Covid-19 deaths on Shetland and 54 confirmed cases.

Melanie says islanders are taking every precaution.

“We’ve seen an extra level of community spirit and people are being really vigilant.”

‘We have to change to survive’

A model wears handcrafted Modren bag

Sandra MacLeod, an accessories designer, says the “make do and mend” attitude of reflects a resourcefulness and community spirit shared by islanders.

“I’ve thought from the start it will be collaboration and community that gets us through this,” said Sandra, 51.

“You need to quickly rethink what you’re doing to survive and I think Isle20 has been a good, quick and simple response. A lot of people feel an affinity with the islands. They want to support businesses here and this makes it easy to find us.”

From her workshop in Lewis, Sandra creates bespoke Harris Tweed bags, hats and accessories under her label, Modren.

With her key customer base reliant on temporarily-banned summer events such as weddings and garden parties, Sandra is now having to streamline and sell exclusively online.

“We’ve got to change to survive this so I’m now making smaller items, like purses, which I’m more likely to sell right now,” she said. “I’m glad to still be working as it keeps me in a routine.”

Despite the hardship, Sandra said residents of the Western Isles were unified in their response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s a bit surreal that, because we are down to lifeline services, nobody can get here but equally we can’t get off the island!” said Sandra.

“But it’s definitely a good place to be while this is going on because you can go for a long walk on the beach with the dog and that gives you a sense of freedom.

“At times, you can go into a wee bubble where it feels like nothing’s changed. Not everyone is so lucky.”