Brexit Food Shortages Could Have Serious Repercussions for Scotland's Island Communities

We spoke to residents of Orkney and the Outer Hebrides to learn how they're prepping for a potential hard Brexit.

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08 October 2018, 1:56pm

Photo courtesy Salar Smokehouse.

If you live in a UK city that takes brunch extremely seriously, you would probably agree that Britain can legitimately be described as a “small island.” From writers like Bill Bryson to Russian government spokesmen, there are many who like to talk down the size of this damp corner of the North Atlantic. After all, whether you’re in Cardiff, Glasgow, or the Yorkshire Moors, you're never more than a few hours away from London.

But the size of the British Isles looks very different if you're part of the UK's many remote communities—particularly one of the roughly 90 populated islands off the coast of Scotland. In places like the Shetland Islands (population 22,210), Orkney (population 20,100), and Barra (less than 1,100 residents), you suddenly realise just how isolated many parts of the UK are. Have you ever tried getting from the Isle of Eigg to Edinburgh using only public transport? Strap yourself in for a potential 12-hour journey—weather-dependent, of course.

Salar Smokehouse, a smoked salmon producer in the Scottish Outer Hebrides. Photo courtesy Salar Smokehouse.

Ferry crossings from mainland Scotland to its tiny outer islands are referred to as “life lines” for good reason. A sizable proportion of the food and drink consumed on island communities—everywhere from Bute in the south to the Fair Isle in the north—is brought in via boat. Commercial flights link some of the more populous settlements with cities, but ferries remain a daily reality for many.

So, when food supplies are suddenly threatened by some massive geopolitical earthquake—namely, the UK leaving the European Union with no deal on future trade agreements—island communities are less likely to laugh it off as another example of doom-mongering. A hard Brexit could have very real implications for the food supply of residents on Scotland’s remote islands.

Ian Wright, head of the UK's Food & Drink Federation, which represents one of the country's largest manufacturing sectors, summed these worries up in a statement to press last month: “We face chaos at the ports, serious disruption to food supplies, increasing business costs, rising consumer prices, and ever more administrative burdens on the food and drink industry.”

"We haven't a clue as to how Brexit will affect us as we don't have enough information. The only things we know are what we read in the press or on websites. We've not heard from any government agencies."

Howard Hardiman, an artist living on Sanday, one of the 70 islands that make up the Orkney archipelago, takes such warnings seriously. He spelled what Brexit could mean for islanders in a Twitter thread that soon went viral. “We are at the very end of most supply chains," he wrote. “We will lack fuel and materials and manufactured goods which will all have sold before they reach us. We can, however, feed ourselves if we revert two or three generations of behaviour, but this depends on us staying healthy and warm enough to manage it. This island has young people. Many do not. We are planning on turning gardens into plots. Polytunnels and planticrues are being used. Farmers deciding which animals to kill and which to keep because there is no way to plan a year ahead.”

In light of Hardiman’s worrying Twitter thread, I ask Orkney Islands Council if it has begun planning for the potential impact of Brexit on local food supplies. “Our view is that whatever the outcome of Brexit negotiations, Britain’s exit from the EU in March 2019 is likely to have a considerable impact on Orkney, our community and the council itself," a spokesman tells me. “Detailed contingency planning is difficult, with much uncertainty still surrounding the Brexit process and eventual outcome.”

They continue: “Nevertheless, the council is actively engaging with governments and partners to consider the potential effects of Brexit on key sectors of the local economy, including farming and fisheries. This will inform the steps that may be required to mitigate any adverse impacts on these sectors.”

Scotland's islands are not just consumers of food. They are major producers of it. The Outer Hebrides has one of the most incredible natural larders you could hope to sample. From Stornoway black pudding to smoked salmon, scallops to Hebridean mutton, a variety of high quality produce hails from this chain of isles off the north-west coast and is exported around the world.

Salar Smokehouse stands in a quite incredible location on South Uist, at the tail end of the Outer Hebrides. First opened in 1997, it produces award-winning flaky smoked salmon as well as operating a high-end bistro. Iain MacRury led a management buy-out of the business in 2015 and has been patiently rebuilding the well-known brand. But any further plans for expansion are on hold because of Brexit.

Photo courtesy Salar Smokehouse.

"We haven't a clue as to how Brexit will affect us as we don't have enough information," he tells me. "The only things we know are what we read in the press or on websites. We've not heard from any government agencies or anyone else offering information to Hebridean businesses. Nothing, zilch. We provide employment and pay our taxes but the government isn't telling us what's going on.”

MacRury is also worried about how he will be able to trade Salar Smokehouse products internationally in the coming years.

"At the moment, 99-percent of our business is UK. We haven't targeted international trade yet as we don't know where we stand,” he explains. “There's no point in making plans and signing contracts, if, in a year's time, we can't deal with those countries or if it's going to cost us ten times as much. At the moment we have to apply for certificates to send our product out with the European Economic Community—but in a year's time will we have to do that for the likes of France, Germany, and Spain?”

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the local authority covering the Western Isles, voted decisively against Brexit in 2016. So too did Orkney and Shetland. But, like other pro-Remain parts of the UK, there are signs of a resigned acceptance of having to get on with things. James Mackenzie is the head chef and owner of the Digby Chick restaurant in Stornoway. With reviews in the likes of the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph, this is probably the island town's best known eatery.

“Most of our produce is locally sourced,” Mackenzie tells me. “There are a few things that come in from the mainland, like fruit and veg, but most of the rest is from around here. I'm not looking forward to the prospect of Brexit, but I have enough on my plate without starting to worry about things like that.”