WHERE did you go shopping yesterday? Maybe Arran, Berneray, Uist – or perhaps all three?

Until recently that would have been impossible, but thanks to one woman’s pandemic brainwave, you can now browse stores on each island from one single website.

With more than 170 vendors selling everything from earrings made from antlers to map-covered kitchenware and puffin jigsaws to Prosecco chocolates, Isle20.com is an Etsy of the islands, giving craftspeople and microbusinesses a dedicated platform to take their wares to the world. It’s hoped that the unique venture will help strengthen the economies of each of these communities.

Eighteen months in, its founder Rhoda Meek is planning to use the model to take on holiday lets giant Airbnb and others in a major expansion of the project that would see 100% of profits invested back into local areas.

If enough accommodation owners come on board, that could be live in time for the 2022 season. “We want to put faces to places and start to change the narrative from destination-first to community-first,” she says.

Meek, from Tiree, began by trying to find an answer to a problem – how could small island enterprises survive and thrive during the 2020 lockdown that shut Scotland, cutting them off from the tourist traffic that drives so much of their trade. As restrictions eased, CalMac journeys remained restricted to only essential travel over fears about the damage an outbreak of coronavirus would do in areas with fewer health facilities and without easy transport to larger centres.

Meek felt the impact herself as the founder of Tiree Tea, which produces a range of blends, and wanted to find a way to help others. A software developer by trade, she began compiling an online directory as a way of getting sellers’ names out there before hitting on the idea for a fully fledged marketplace. The directory is still available on isle20 and now includes links to in excess of 600 individual vendors.

The National: Scarinish Harbour, Isle of Tiree, Hebrides, Scotland, United Kingdom. (Photo by: UIG via Getty Images).

It’s a service she provides free of charge, with a fee taken only from those selling directly from her site. Backed by the Scottish Islands Federation, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and the Social Entrepreneurs Fund delivered by Firstport, the growing marketplace boasts more than 4000 products, mostly made by women. In Mull, Liz Peel sells packets of herb and flower seeds through her venture Planetree Flowers, while Karen Brady Photography produces calendars from Cumbrae.

This Christmas, Meek hopes it’ll prove to be a consumer favourite, an ethical alternative to Amazon that helps drive more money back into remote and rural communities all year round, regardless of tourist demand.

She’s talking to providers of holiday accommodation about creating isleHoliday.com, a “community-focussed” holiday lettings site that aims to keep a greater share of tourism revenues in the host areas.

There’s concern across the Highlands and islands about the proportion of property used as second homes or holiday lets, pushing up prices for locals while much of the revenue generated by such stays leave as the visitors do. “How can young people stay if they can’t get a job and a home?” Meek asks.

“The housing problems caused by the short-term letting market in the islands are well documented,” Meek says. “It will take time to change that situation and involve action at a local and national government level but, in the meantime, the letting market exists.

“Our goal is to use it to generate revenue which can be used to the benefit of our communities – particularly in relation to affordable housing and long term rental options for residents.”

Meek also baulks at some of the marketing used by externally based providers. “Our islands are not ­empty wildernesses waiting to be ­discovered,” she says. “They are full of heritage and history, present and, we hope, future.”

The National: Beach treasure keyrings from Shetland by Sarah Kay.

But life in the region is not without its challenges. Earlier this year HIE research revealed Covid recovery is taking longer in the islands than elsewhere in its region, with firms there less confident about their futures.

While businesses in Lochaber, Skye and Wester Ross had the highest level of confidence at 75%, this was at just 45% in the Outer Hebrides. Meek says that’s not for want of talent:

“Every island is unique and all of them have great communities. In ­Tiree, we’ve had a really busy ­season despite reduced capacity on the boats. But we are all much more aware now of how fragile things can be and just how reliant on tourism we are.

“It’s definitely a Covid solution,” she says of her site, “but it is also about building resilience.


“I didn’t know if this would last past the initial panic of Covid, when people were bored in lockdown and this was a way to ‘visit’ those places they couldn’t go. The challenge now is keeping ourselves top of the mind. We are asking ourselves how we do that when there’s Etsy and there’s Amazon.”

Some employment has already been generated – isle20.com is part of the IsleDevelop community interest company and Meek’s social media manager is on Unst, the project development worker on Tiree and board members across that island and ­Harris. Like most of her vendors, all are women.

“I love that it’s so strongly focused on women,” Meek says.“It’s very easy to overlook business that are run after the kids have gone to sleep or alongside something else, but these are great businesses.

"They are the businesses that mean the difference between an okay Christmas and a great Christmas. They are so vitally important and they are not taken as seriously as they should be.”