Sunday, 8 July 2007

Berneray: a Community of Online Shoppers

Taken from the July 2007 edition of Am Paipear
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Of the 127 permanent residents of Berneray, 51 now have broadband internet access from their homes. Of the remaining 76 residents, many have dial-up internet access. Some of these, and some of the decreasing minority of residents who are not online from home, have expressed a desire to move onto broadband soon. Even several of the “pop-ups” (non-residents who own a house on Berneray and occasionally “pop up” for a holiday) have had broadband installed so they can carry out online activities during their visits to Berneray.

This puts Berneray ahead of most of the world in terms of both subscribed households and the proportion of residents with home-based broadband access. If Berneray were an independent country it would be globally ranked 9th in terms of broadband access, ahead of Canada and the UK and behind the progressive nations of Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden.


Broadband makes online shopping much quicker than dial-up, broadband being roughly 15 times faster. When browsing some of the countless thousands of online shops, most of which have detailed pictures or video clips of the items for sale and delivery, this turns minutes of downloading time into seconds.

As well as shopping, access to the internet – especially broadband access – has enabled residents to do many other things online. Several residents work online, earning incomes from distant clients. Some residents video conference with very distant relatives, e.g. in the South Pacific, while others upload and download pictures of family members and relatives from many different countries.

Throughout the Uists, some aspiring businesses have woken up to the fact that broadband and the net means anyone in the world can buy their goods and services, rather than just a tiny number of local residents and the occasional passing tourist. In terms of trade, it works both ways – a community or region which takes full advantage of broadband technology can bring money into the local economy from other regions and countries.

Returning to Berneray, it is in online shopping where the island has an especially thriving community. Recently, residents have bought items and services online including groceries, chilled meats, fridges, a fishing boat, televisions, PCs, video game consoles, a shed, seedlings, wireless broadband routers, spare tractor parts, cat litter, radiators, New Age living guides, genetic ancestry testing, a generator, a lawnmower, obscure Icelandic music, rugs from Peru, French cheeses, fine chocolate, DVDs, lighting, hens, cavity wall insulation, fashion accessories from Japan, laminate flooring, kumquats, books from New Zealand, airline tickets and hotel bookings. Very nearly all of these goods are not available locally, or in the islands.

And that’s just a small snapshot. Some types of goods are particularly popular; for example, several households purchase wine from a variety of online stores, due to the huge range available. A five minute online search turns up over 200 online suppliers, providing a total range of tens of thousands of different labels and years.


There is no one demographic of resident doing online shopping. Pensioners, young people, incomers, people born here, women, men – there are examples of all of these, shopping online on a regular basis, from Berneray. Residents swap tips on, for example, the best online shops for cat food, or which delivery companies are quickest and most reliable. The myth that it is just “younger people” who go online is just that – a myth – with older residents often highly skilled in cost effective online shopping. 

Online shopping is domestically economical – or, as the new Prime Minister would say, “prudent” – making it easier and more financially viable to live in places like Berneray. No self-respecting holder of a household budget wastes money. Online shopping is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The shopper alone decides when they shop (and when they don’t shop). No-one can dictate to them, or force them, to shop at inconvenient or restrictive times.

Importantly, when people find out that they do not have to “go without” just because they move here, then islands such as Berneray become more attractive places for people to settle, keeping the population high and therefore sustaining local services. Mainlanders are often incredulous to discover residents happily doing substantial online shopping and having it delivered to their door. It makes them think, and hopefully realise, that some of the “barriers” against moving to these islands are just imaginary and in their own minds.

From an environmental point of view, online shopping and delivery has a far lower carbon footprint than individual car trips to mainland cities for shopping. Shop online and you are helping the fight against global warming. It’s cheaper too; which takes more time and money – a car and ferry trip to Inverness, or a 5 minute shop online with the goods delivered to your door?


Online shopping also helps to negate misinformed mainland views of the Outer Hebrides as somehow “backwards”, “behind the times” or “uncivilised”. These islands are, after all, not a historical artefact preserved in jade, or a 150 mile long theme park or museum, but a place where people live and work. The use of online technology helps these islands stay the latter, rather than decay and regress into the former. Online shopping also provides more security and business for local delivery firms, and helps keep the Royal Mail delivery service viable in the Outer Hebrides. And the reverse – online selling through services such as Ebay – helps keep local post offices viable and open.

In summary: Cheaper goods, and better value for the household budget. An incredible array of choice. Far more information and reviews of products, goods and services. Shopping when you want to do it, not when others decide. Quick shopping. No shopping trips. It isn’t a question anymore of “Why use broadband to shop”, but “Why on earth not”.


  1. Good article by an excellent writer in a superb local community newspaper! :-)

  2. Another very compelling reason to the halt the closure of Post Offices!I absolutely loathe shopping in "real" shops, even though they're on my doorstep here in Edinburgh, so internet shopping for me is one of the best inventions ever. I used to absolutely dread Christmas, but now a few hours trawling the net and I'm done. Long live the internet!

  3. Strange people... although I live in a virtually shopfree zone too, I hate internet shopping, only use it of necessity (for books and music mostly) and effectively just buy less. Which I guess is a good thing.Though actually, non-shop shopping is an old highland tradition, whether on a visiting boat-shop at Miavaig, the butcher's-van-cum-offie, getting the postie to carry the new sewing machine over the moor to Kinresort or ordering dry goods and garden seed from Edinburgh to arrive by train in Sutherland circa 1890 (so presumably ordered in 1889) .... nothing new under the sun. I still hate it though.