Fears for future of Scottish island life amid online deliveries boom

On the island of Coll, off the west coast of Scotland, Paula Jamieson is hard at work on her busiest day of the week – the day when the majority of the island’s weekly food deliveries arrive.

When the lockdown was announced, Ms Jamieson and her partner Dougie Brown discussed the situation with their local GP and decided to close Coll’s only shop – in the village of Arinagour – in an unprecedented move to protect the residents’ food supply.

Scotland’s island communities have been even more cut off than usual, with ferries told to cancel all but essential travel to the mainland, where many residents of Coll, which has a population of around 200, often do the bulk of their shopping.

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Worried that if she became infected and unable to run the store – or if the couple were forced to self isolate – no-one would be able to get food, they quickly shut their doors and converted their business into a delivery and collection service overnight.

A scene from the Isle of Lewis, which has experienced a surge in online shopping deliveries

With no previous online presence, they rapidly built a website and recruited volunteers to drive the deliveries around the island, part-funded by the Scottish Government’s Supporting Communities Fund.

The decision to close at the beginning of lockdown was a no-brainer for the couple.

Ms Jamieson says: “We radically had to change. We are the only shop in Coll. There’s nowhere else they can go to shop. So if anything went wrong, the supply chain on the island would be lost. We literally overnight decided that this would be best for the island and set up a delivery and collection service.”

Ms Jamieson sources the food from her usual suppliers, including Wynne’s Butchers in Oban and Argyll Free Range Eggs from Balvicar. Boats come in three times a week.

She says: “Thursday is the big day. Most of the produce comes in and we package it up into the delivery orders and send it off around the island. Some people just need their bread and milk for the week, others are getting a much bigger shop.”

The pair photograph every in-stock item themselves and list it on their website, where customers can either add it to an online delivery order, or make their order by phone.

Known locally as Tescoll (The Ethical Store, Coll), the shop now delivers to around 50 households every week, which Ms Jamieson estimates is around 80 per cent of the island’s population.

They now plan to keep deliveries going even once lockdown is eased.

She says: “I think we will always do deliveries for people who want it. But we’re looking forward to the day when we can have our doors open and just do something normal.”

Paul Chamberlain works for an uncannily similarly named store on the isle of Lewis. The lead manager at Tesco in Stornoway, after lockdown, Chamberlain’s store began to operate as a normal supermarket by day and a bustling dot.com hub by night, processing more than 800 orders every week – around 200 more than usual.

The supermarket giant has increased its number of deliveries on Lewis by a quarter. However, the store needed to restructure its business to be able to cope with demand, doubling its number of delivery vans from three to six.

Mr Chamberlain says: “We brought social distancing into stores pretty sharp and we had to make changes overnight. Around 25 of our 350 staff were in the shielding category, so we had to recruit to replace them.

“We have never had such a response to a job advert. We had a B&B owner, offshore workers and people with high-level qualifications. We could have filled the jobs three times over and we don’t usually get that for supermarket work. Everyone on the island wanted to do their bit.”

Usual delivery packing shifts would continue after the supermarket opened in the morning, but social distancing meant the delivery trollies could not be in the aisles at the same time as customers.

“We had to finish before the store opened,” Mr Chamberlain explains. “Everyone pulled together so we could do it.”

Bus services on Lewis were cut back to just a handful a day and restricted to key worker use, leaving some customers in places without local stores, stranded. In some small communities, including Mr Chamberlain’s own home village, locals started pop-up shops, stocked by volunteers out of the Stornoway Tesco and run from village and church halls.

“We’ve been supportive of the pop-up shops,” says Mr Chamberlain. “The feeling was all about ‘what can we do to help?’ We managed to get the community groups added to the list of people able to come early to the store such as the vulnerable group.”

However, despite the strong community spirit, some island retailers are concerned that a new reliance on online deliveries may continue long after lockdown has ended.

Last week, data from the Royal Mail found Lerwick, on Shetland, had ordered the highest number of parcel deliveries per head of anywhere in the UK.

Malcolm Bell, Lerwick councillor and convener of Shetland Isles Council, fears for the future of his local town centre.

He says: “The high streets were struggling before Covid and I really fear for it now, post-Covid, because people have fallen out of the habit of going to the shops. There is no limit to what you can order online, so the local retailers are going to struggle to to some extent, particularly competing with prices and I suspect that is only going to get worse. We’re in a microcosm of what is happening everywhere else.”

He also worries the previously tight-knit communities for which the islands are famous will struggle to recover from the social effects of the virus.

Mr Bell says: “In some ways, it was easier to get people to lock down and stay inside than it is going to be to get them to get back out. The government has done a good job in scaring people.

“It is very noticeable here when you go out for a walk in the evening, that people cross the street to avoid you – and we haven’t had a confirmed case in more than five weeks.”

He adds: “I think it is going to take us a wee while to get over this. The scars are going to be here for some time.”

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