Stories from our island correspondent and GetOutside Champion Lisa Drewe: how lockdown is affecting our islands.
I'm Lisa, and I love islandeering. Is anyone else out there dreaming of being on a deserted island beach, surrounded by the cacophony of seabirds, and leaving this current crisis and all of their responsibilities behind? I know I am and that I’d love to return to my annual summer schedule of exploring the islands of the British Isles, but of course I can’t travel to any of them right now.
As I conjure these beautiful places up in my mind I am curious about how life on islands has changed as a result of COVID-19. There are 6,000 or so islands in the UK, including the Crown Dependencies of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. Each and every one of them is an incredibly special place brimming with resilience, stunning outdoors, innovation and difference.
I called many of my islander friends across the UK and simply asked them how they were, what they are up to and what they are missing. Their answers transported me to the places I, and so many of us, love. They inspired me, made me laugh and cry and made me proud to be part of this wonderful island nation.
Let me share their thoughts and hopefully sprinkle the magic of our islands a little further.
Cuillin views from Oronsay, Skye
An endless winter
Ten islands from around the UK participated in my Q&A session, so when I asked about life on the islands right now, here are a few of their responses.
Sark Tourism: We’ve just come out of a wet winter, when we are around each other’s houses and doing our hobbies, crafts and clubs and we were so looking forward to summer. With the lanes, beaches and paths deserted it all feels very strange for this time of year. We are missing our visitors, but we have to look after our community, otherwise the island won’t be the same when they return. The island would be bustling with tourists now, with carriage drivers, bicycles, pedestrians and the odd tractor sharing the roads and shop doors flung wide open to welcome people in. Tourism is Sark’s main economic driver and without a social security system, the lockdown has been particularly difficult for some. As a small community, where we know all our neighbours and it’s impossible to walk down the street without stopping to chat, the initial stages of the lockdown and the isolation it brought hit hard’. Fortunately, the island has a good broadband connection and the islanders are now allowed to 'bubble', so loneliness is not the big issue it was in the beginning.
Katie, Taigh Ailean Hotel, Isle of Skye: Life is quiet and dark in the Skye winter with lots of hanging out at people’s houses, afternoon wine and wondering if it’ll ever be warm and dry enough to do the painting before the season starts again. Pub quizzes, dancing, dining nights, fabulous Hogmanay... dog walks to muddy places. That’s the winter norm. Now we should be welcoming people from all over the world, hanging out together, swapping slightly exaggerated travel tales and meeting people for one night and still being mates with them 5 years later – we are missing it all.
The coastline around Bryher
Tim, National Trust, Brownsea Island: I’m the ranger living on the island along with two other families and 250 red squirrels. At the moment the families cannot meet, which is alien for the kids who have been growing up with each other on the island. I’d normally be working amongst thousands of visitors with the big conservation projects underway. Instead I’m keeping the island safe, managing fire risks and checking the property’s electric and plumbing, checking the safety of cliffs and maintaining the tracks. To be honest I am missing the 400 volunteers who give their time to keep this oasis for nature in the best condition.
Shona, Isle of Harris Distillery: Living in Harris can often be described as having two seasons. The winter months are quiet, the days are short and dark but then the summer comes and suddenly there’s new life and a certain buzz around the island. It’s the season everyone waits in anticipation for during the winter and every day in the run up is spent preparing to welcome the thousands of guests that will walk through our doors during the 7 busy months of ‘the season’. This year has obviously turned out very different. Our doors closed just a couple of weeks before the season would normally kick off. This time has given everyone a chance to stop and appreciate what we have here in Harris. Having moorland, crofts, hills and beaches on our doorsteps has been a blessing. The struggles have come in not being able to interact in person with colleagues, family and friends. But thankfully, technology allows us to retain that sense of connection in a small way.
Sark summed it up for all islands in saying ‘We all appreciate how lucky we are to live on these small, beautiful islands: they are keeping us safe, sane and balanced in these strange times’.
Every islander has a name
For islands, their splendid isolation and differentness is the draw for visitors and their remoteness has been seen as a kind of strength that could protect them from the full extent of COVID-19 but that remoteness also means that islands are particularly vulnerable to this virus.
There are very few Intensive Care Unit beds with ventilators on the islands, and long and often complicated journeys are required to get to the nearest hospital and even then that’s only possible when the weather plays ball - or when the tide is out in the case of Barra that uses a beach as the airport runway. Without hospitals, some islands have converted school and the village halls to makeshift COVID hospitals and boats have been converted to ‘sea-ambulances’.
Larger outbreaks of COVID have occurred on Guernsey, Skye, Shetland and the Isle of Wight to name a few whilst other islands like Alderney, Sark, and Scilly have remained virus-free. I wondered whether the lack of infection on some islands meant that those islanders were able to drop their guard a bit. I wish I hadn’t asked the question. Their answer was a resounding ‘no’. The Isle of Sark said, ‘Each and every islander has a face and a name. When you know your neighbour, really know them, it makes you closer’ and Scilly added ‘the islanders are our families, friends and neighbours and we have to do everything we can to protect them’.
Compost is the new currency
There are so many stories of how island communities are pulling together. From Yell making facemasks for all islanders out of duvets and unused clothing to Alderney who have set up a group called ‘Alderney Spirit’ whose volunteers makes sure everyone on the island gets food, their prescriptions and company. The schoolchildren are writing, painting pictures and telephoning fellow islanders that are shielding or alone, and giving them a huge island ‘hug’. The North Harris Health Hub have volunteers out delivering prescriptions and food supplies alongside the postmen and courier drivers; and unsung heroes are working exceptionally hard to keep shelves well stocked at Brownie’s, AD Munro’s, Ardhasaig Stores and An Clachan in Leverburgh.
On Yell, fourteen-year-old Brynn who suffers from ADHD, autism, brittle asthma and both of his ankles are frozen at a 40º angle, is wheeling his wheelchair virtually around the whole coast of Shetland for 1,679 miles to raise money for Ability Shetland, whilst he and his mum Kim and sister Faith make the dream support team (I was very envious of the lemon drizzle cake and chocolate cupcakes that were pulled from the oven during our chat).
Island shops are rapidly becoming the heroes too and necessity is becoming the mother of invention. On Coll, pictures of items on the shop's shelf are posted on Facebook, residents email their shopping lists to shopkeepers, Dougie and Paula, who make up the orders for island postie, John, to deliver to the door. No one has to leave their home and everyone gets what they need.
On many islands home-grown produce is becoming king with many islanders saying they are shopping more locally and where possible using local butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers. Sark says that ‘Without being able to sell produce off island, lobster is cheaper than ever and many have turned their once flower gardens and lawn into vegetable patches. The islands are nothing if not resourceful’.
Many of the islands have developed green fingers with community Facebook sites becoming a veritable plant exchange. Courgette plants fly north and cross paths with tomato plants going to new homes in the south. On the Isle of Skye, a thriving market for compost has grown, with locals buying in bulk from the mainland or making their own and redistributing this black gold throughout the multiple peninsulas. The exchange rate is high – it could be home-made lemon curd or even wood oven-baked bread.
From superheroes to accordion and bagpipes players, rainbow paintings and armies of delivery people our island communities are showing love and compassion for each other and a great deal of innovation and humour. They’d say that being community-minded is just a way of life on the islands; it’s what they were already doing.
Gulls on Flat Holm Island
Island plant life
The Scilly Velodrome
Across the country there has been a huge increase in the number of cyclists out on the roads and the islands are seeing the same surge. Adrian, of All Things Cuillin, has said he has ‘never seen so many cyclists on Skye enjoying the eeriliy quiet roads’. Pauline Stirling has been enjoying plenty of time out on her bike, making the most of the quiet roads of the Isle of Wight whilst all of the Duke of Edinburgh expeditions she leads on the island have been cancelled. Maybe the sign on the island ferries that says ‘expect the unexpected, island roads are different’ means something new during COVID-19 in that they are now a cycling nirvana.
The best though comes from St Mary’s, Scilly, where Nick from Mincarlo Guesthouse and Adventure Scilly, tells us that with the newly surfaced roads around the island and the lack of visitors driving around in golf buggies means that island cyclists can enjoy the freedom and thrill of the islands narrow lanes and the round-island route has been re-named the ‘Scilly Velodrome’.
Similarly, other islands report an increase in islanders out enjoying the paths and coasts and spending family time on the beach. They say that they are ‘making a daily date’ with nature and exercise.
It has become a planned activity, rather than squeezing in a dog walk at the end of the day or carrying on the daily routine and not so much noticing what’s going on around them. They are not taking their island for granted and there seems a greater sense of pride in their island and they feel luckier to live there.
Alderney Coastal walk
Wish you were here
For many islands most of the islanders are linked to a tourism-related business or benefit from the infrastructure that tourism brings. Without visitors the islands are seeing families hit by the lack of income and many have invested over the winter to have their properties and businesses ready to open for us - but COVID-19 struck before this could happen.
A Facebook post from Hillside Farm, Bryher gives a raw account about the impact of this. ‘’The farm can only survive with renting out holiday lets…we’ve had a simple choice to feed ourselves or our animals…we’ve had to cull 150 chickens and 5 pigs as we can’t afford the feed them’. This is a hard working family who has welcomed visitors to their farm on this wonderfully rural island. I’m so proud of the response they got to this post from the incredible people of Britain who hold their holiday experiences in Scilly dear and are rallying around with a GoFundMe page to hopefully make this situation right throughout the whole of the Isles of Scilly.
It’s not just about the need for income though that the islanders want us back. We are very much part of their summer scene – music and food festivals, holidaying, families that islanders have got to know, cyclists, walkers, birdwatchers, sailors and beach goers alike. Every island that took part in this blog answered ‘visitors’ when I asked them what they were missing the most – they also cited pizza, a pint with their friends, a hug with their mum, icing sugar and yeast, and visiting their family and friends who don’t live on the island.
I once said to a local propping up the bar of the brilliant Westford Inn, Outer Hebrides ‘I love South Uist’, and he replied ‘And South Uist loves you back’. It’s a feeling that I have had on all of the 170 islands I have circumnavigated and I can’t wait to get back out there – but only when I know that I can do so without undoing all of the amazing work that islanders have done to protect their families, friends and neighbours.
Views from the Golden Road Harris Bike Ride
We can lend a helping hand
There are a few ways we can make a difference in planning future trips to islands, here are some thoughts:
Support Island Conservation - through making a donation, joining or renewing your membership. Here are the conservation groups protecting nature and making a difference on islands:
National Trust – who own or have conservation projects on Brownsea, Lindisfarne, Farne, St Michael’s Mount, Asparagus, Mullion, Lundy, Isle of Wight, Northey, Orfordness, Scolt Head, Anglesey, Worm’s Head, Carrick-a-Rede, Gateholm
National Trust for Scotland - Burg, Isle of Mull, Canna & Sanday, Iona, Mingulay, Berneray & Pabbay, St Kilda World Heritage Site, Staffa National Nature Reserve, Fair Isle, parts of Unst and Yell, and Goatfell, Arran
Buy island products - ranging from accommodation, books, candles, jewellery, clothing, cards and more. The Scottish Islands have set up a dedicated shopping page, Isle 20, or search more of the UK island for ideas.
Don’t cancel, defer your holiday booking – that way, if you can afford it, the deposit money and future income stays with the islander who needs it.
Slow travel – don’t visit an island just for a day, go for a week and see it properly. Skye, where I live in the winter, is full of visitors trying to tick off the highlights in a day; the Outer Hebrides can also feel like the whacky races as visitors try to ‘do’ all the islands in the chain. So if you are planning an island trip maybe stay a few days longer and discover more of the hidden gems each has to offer the slow-traveller. Also, we all love wild camping but maybe there any opportunities to put something back into the island economy to support the local campsites, cafes, restaurants and shops. The islanders would hugely appreciated if you can.
So, the big thing that I learnt is that the islands are missing us, they want us back - but it is essential that we only go back when it is safe to do so.