The concentration of retailing to supermarket chains is in contrast to the promotion of localism, foundational economies and community wealth building. The challenges to assert alternatives to this concentration have been accelerated during these times of Covid lockdowns, climate emergencies and Brexit consequences. Appreciating the diversity of challenges and potential responses across the country, Mike Danson offers a comment most especially in regard of island and rural enterprise opportunities and ambitions.

Enterprising islanders?

by Mike Danson

On a particularly wet and windy day in the Hebrides, someone brought homemade scones in for the meeting, a welcome accompaniment to the coffee. However, there were no sandwiches for lunch as ferries were stormbound and so no deliveries possible for a couple of days. Why could colleagues who baked their own scones not make bread and fill with their own ingredients? Deconstructing this brief tale exposes the vulnerabilities of being at the wrong end of extensive supply chains, dependent on distant providers, and yet unable to produce locally sustainably.

After all, crofters and farmers, as with the rest of the community on islands, must be enterprising, innovative and capable of multitasking with self-sufficiency and incomes from several sources the norm. What is limiting the establishment of new businesses to fill the gaps in supplies, substituting local production for imports from the mainland, is one of the main themes in our chapter Margins of Resilience, Sustainability and Success: Island Enterprise and Entrepreneurship[i] and there we have aimed to explain this conundrum. Underpinning the lack of bakers, dairies, butchers, and all the other traditional high street shops in remote villages and townships are the same economic forces which have emptied neighbourhood shopping centres in towns and cities across Scotland: the buying and selling powers of the oligopoly supermarkets. The privileges gained by these mega companies are based on monopoly powers in supply chains, logistics and in retailing with consequences of lower prices for consumers but narrower choices, and fearsome barriers for entry or sustainability for small and medium shops and other local suppliers. Simply, island shops and suppliers cannot compete with these multinational goliaths. Even here in the hills above Inverness, with a mixed community of fairly affluent commuters and families resident long term, the local shop is not the natural place for their daily newspapers, milk and bread: 5 miles away are Tesco, Asda, Lidl, Aldi, Coop all driving down margins and destroying livelihoods.

All this concentration of retailing into these supermarket chains is in contrast to the promotion of localism, foundational economies and community wealth building, which have been accelerated during these times of Covid lockdowns, climate emergencies and Brexit consequences. Appreciating the diversity of challenges and potential responses across the country, our final report A National Mission for a Fairer, Greener Scotland[ii] of the Just Transition Commission in April 2021 made a number of recommendations specific to these remote geographies. Supporting local economies and 20-minute neighbourhoods means encouraging quite different development paths and opportunities in urban and in island locations. Understanding these differences and similarities, and recognising and assessing the (unintended) consequences of how theories, strategies and policies apply in each was the focus of the book Peter de Souza and I edited in 2014: Regional Development in Northern Europe Peripherality, Marginality and Border Issues[iii] and specifically about Scottish islands more recently[iv]. Drawing from evidence and experiences from many locations on the northern margins of Europe, we argued that communities could learn from each other across this periphery rather than from the core[v]. Ownership, use and management of local resources, and of land especially, comes out of that research quite naturally and provides a contrast and direction of travel for addressing the long-standing development of the underdevelopment[vi] of Scotland’s Highlands and Islands

The monopoly powers of landowners almost always tend to work against the interests of tenants, crofters, entrepreneurs and small populations occupying large estates as we analysed in a paper for Community Land Scotland Scoping the Classic Effects of Monopolies within Patterns of Rural Land Ownership[vii]. There and elsewhere we argued for land reform on economic grounds, releasing the enterprise and energy of the community to address market failures and to benefit locals and the nation as a whole (see our complementary study on the advantages of revealing the promises of the commons[viii]). However, simplistic cries for more community ownership and asset transfers are grossly insufficient in themselves to address lack of resilience and incapacity to confront the ongoing and increasing threats to island and remote rural lives. Just a change in ownership cannot help overcome the powerful forces of supermarkets, externally owned and managed tourism and service companies. Communities coming out from the long shadows of monopoly ownership of their land will also, and like any community but more so, suffer from internal conflicts and stresses and our analysis of the real issues around such challenges in Sutherland for example are examined here[ix]. Rather, and as we set out in a paper to Highlands and Islands Enterprise, communities which have seen their local cultures, societies and economies degraded and truncated for the last two centuries need helped, supported and encouraged to regenerate and revitalise[x].   

Where distance from distribution depots and low concentrations of demand offer insufficient margins to supermarkets even with their economies of scale and scope, then local shops and suppliers are faced with appreciably higher costs to be passed onto their customers. Over the last 50 years, greater expectations and increased opportunities on the mainland have led to changing habits amongst populations everywhere. This has had repercussions in young people’s career choices, their hopes and aspirations in terms of education, jobs, culture, health, entertainment, consumption and so on. Of the 32 local authority areas in Scotland, all but 6 lose their younger people (18-30) to the big cities especially through leaving for university, with only the commuter zones around these cities eventually recovering through older age groups (30 plus) moving out from the centres. Without ‘graduate jobs’ to return to their home communities suffer ageing, loss vitality and a downward spiral. Many decades of clearances, monopoly ownership, truncated job ladders, environmental and ecological degradation are exacerbated by these changing external forces which then impact directly on the home island. In turn this increases dependency on these same outside resources and drivers from the distant core of the economy. Concomitantly, the ever more integrated national economy diminishes local capacities to intervene or to stem these global tides leading to further decline and in turn compromising capacities to resist or mark out a better future.

Simplistic and distant calls for more community ownership and for asset transfers without addressing not only the power imbalances but also critically the need to support and rebuild resilience of remote rural and island communities actually threatens to continue and indeed exacerbate long term trends of their peripheralization and marginalisation.

Against this depressing tableau of heartache and degeneration, undoubtedly some islands and islanders have undoubtedly carved out a more prosperous situation, establishing successful businesses, networks and new niches while retaining their own identities. Islands such as Arran and the Orkney archipelago and the Sleat peninsula present interesting case studies while a number of entrepreneurs and enterprising communities have created viable and sustainable export-oriented ventures The unique selling points core to the latter companies are critically based around their ability to sell premium products into luxury markets: food and drink, experiential tourism, expensive health and cosmetic product and services. Notably, none of the examples we cite in recent publications[xi] is aiming to sell to local islanders but rather to confirm their involvement and integration into the world of high value customers wherever they may be.

In the accompanying video talk on the impacts of Brexit, the external forces acting on the islands are exaggerating all the negativities apparent in the dysfunctional and incomplete economies and communities of Scotland’s islands. It cannot be underestimated how disruption to accessing the essential markets of the agriculture, shellfish and seafish producers of the northern and western isles threatens the very existence of many businesses, crofts, farms, families and communities, and therefore the cultures and societies of our most peripheral and marginal places and peoples. Yet, returning to those comparisons with our Nordic neighbours, often confronting even more extremes of climate, topography, soils and access, there are glimpses of what could be achieved and how the visions of better, greener and fairer futures might be delivered by and with these island communities (see footnote 3).


[i] Mike Danson and Kathryn A. Burnett (2021) Chapter 9 ‘Margins of resilience, sustainability and success: island enterprise and entrepreneurship’in Scotland and Islandness. Explorations in Community, Economy and Culture, eds. Kathryn A Burnett, Ray Burnett and Michael Danson, Oxford, New York: Peter Lang.

[ii] Just Transition Commission: A National Mission for a Fairer, Greener Scotland, Scottish Government, https://www.gov.scot/publications/transition-commission-national-mission-fairer-greener-scotland/.

[iii] Mike Danson and Peter de Souza (eds.) (2014) Regional Development in Northern Europe Peripherality, Marginality and Border Issues, London: Routledge.

[iv] Mike Danson (2021) Chapter 6 Regional and Island Economies of Peripheries and Margins: ‘Nordic and Celtic’ Comparisons, in Scotland and Islandness. Explorations in Community, Economy and Culture, eds. Kathryn A Burnett, Ray Burnett and Michael Danson, Oxford, New York: Peter Lang.

[v] See Chapter 1: Introduction ‘Periphery and marginality: definitions, theories, methods and practice’ and Chapter 16: Conclusion ‘Concluding and looking at the border’ of Mike Danson and Peter de Souza (eds.) (2014) Regional Development in Northern Europe Peripherality, Marginality and Border Issues.

[vi] Mike Danson (1991) The Scottish economy: the development of underdevelopment?, Planning Outlook, 34:2, 89-95, DOI: 10.1080/00320719108711898.

[vii] Mike Danson (2020) Scoping the Classic Effects of Monopolies within Patterns of Rural Land Ownership – A Discussion Paper https://www.communitylandscotland.org.uk/scoping-the-classic-effects-of-monopolies-within-patterns-of-rural-land-ownership-a-discussion-paper-2/

[viii] Mike Danson and Kathryn A. Burnett (2021) ‘Current Scottish land reform and reclaiming the commons: building community resilience’, Progress in Development Studies, 21:3, forthcoming.

[ix] Mike Danson, Janette Wyper and Geoff Whittam (2019) ‘Satellites to Sutherland-not quite coals to Newcastle!’, 17th Rural Entrepreneurship Conference – Inverness, https://inverness.impacthub.net/conference-programme.html.

[x] Mike Danson (2015) Empowered Community-Led Inclusion – Community Resilience, Report to

Strengthening Communities Directorate, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Inverness.

[xi] Kathryn A Burnett and Mike Danson (2016) ‘Sustainability and small enterprises in Scotland’s remote rural ‘margins’.’ Local Economy 31:5, 539-553. doi:10.1177/0269094216655518; Mike Danson ‘Gàidhlig, Gaeilge, Cymraeg and føroyskt mál: minority languages as economic assets?’ in Language Revitalisation and Social Transformation, eds. Huw Lewis, Wilson McLeod and Elin Royles, London: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming.