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‘The way forward’: How online communities bring the Outer Hebrides together

A woman takes a selfie on a beach.
Eilidh Carr, who lives in Berneray, shares snapshots of island life on social media to 'make connections with others'. Image: Eilidh Carr

MSP Alasdair Allan is fighting for fibre broadband across the Outer Hebrides. Why is the internet so important to one of Britain’s most rural areas?

Na h-Eileanan an Iar MSP Alasdair Allan is aiming to make 2023 the year of fibre broadband in the Outer Hebrides.

Last month, he met a representative from the Scottish Government’s R100 team. R100 is the project to roll out superfast broadband access for every home and business in Scotland.

‘Very reasonable concerns’

He says there are “very reasonable concerns at the length of time it is taking for fibre broadband to be installed in some communities”.

Many in the Outer Hebrides still rely on mobile networks for their internet.

He appreciates the “complex factors” that are slowing the fibre rollout. But, he says, “it is not, in my view, acceptable that the areas with the worst connectivity at present are being expected to wait the longest.”

MSP Alasdair Allan says ‘areas with the worst connectivity at present are being expected to wait the longest’ for fibe internet.

Mr Allan’s focus on the topic highlights the challenges of making sure the Outer Hebrides has reliable internet.

But what some people might not realise is just how important access to online spaces is for islanders.

With the Hebrides most known for its small rural communities and natural wonders, the internet will be the last thing on most people’s minds when they visit.

But it’s that unique geography that makes getting online so vital for those who live there.

‘Connections and conversations’ across the islands

For Lindsay Robertson, one of the founders of the group Western Isles Women in Business, starting a Facebook page was how she got the idea off the ground.

The group connects women working in business from Uist and Barra to Lewis and Harris.

Using Facebook “has allowed women across the islands that potentially wouldn’t have connected up to start making connections and conversations,” Ms Robertson says.

a group of women stand smiling together.
The first Western Isles Women in Business meeting. Photo: Lindsay Robertson

While the group has since met up in person, they aren’t necessarily going to be able to fulfill meetings across all the islands every month.

Online meetings are the “way forward”, she says.

“Gone are the days of a poster in the shop,” Ms Robertson says.

The option for people to invite others “opened it up to a much wider audience than just people we knew personally”.

Because they’re so easy to discover and join, Ms Robertson says online groups are the best way of inviting in new members of the community.

“We’re really conscious there might somebody that’s moved to the islands quite recently that doesn’t have that network.”

‘Brings people together’

While the internet can help with some of the challenges of island living, online spaces are also a way to share the Hebrides’ beauty.

Artist Eilidh Carr, who lives on Berneray, often shares pictures from her travels around the islands on Twitter.

She says that social media brings people who have similar likes and interests together, whilst also allowing you to make new connections with others.

A gift shop in a small wooden building.
Eilidh Carr says the internet has had ‘a very positive impact’ on her small business, the Coralbox giftshop. Image: Eilidh Carr

‘A chance to see these places’

“Sharing content on social media, in particular of the beaches, wildlife and islands, allows people who may never get to visit the islands, a chance to see these places,” says Ms Carr.

So many people were interested in her life in the Hebrides that she has set up a live webcam of Berneray wildlife. People “from around the world” watch the webcams, she says.

Like the women of Western Isles Women in Business, Ms Carr is using her online community to help her small business grow.

Her independent gift shop Coralbox was “unknown” even on the islands when it opened, she says.

But word started to spread when she used social media to share everything from photographs of the construction to new stock and events.

‘I shipped worldwide’

“The internet has had a very positive impact on my business,” she says. Outside of social media, e-commerce kept Coralbox afloat during Covid.

“I shipped worldwide, as far as America and New Zealand.”

The practical side of the internet is just as important as the community it brings to the Hebrides.

Ms Robertson, who works as a photographer, is keenly aware of the need for consistent internet access across the islands.

A woman with long brown hair smiles while holding a camera.
Lindsay Robertson works as a photographer, as well as running the small business Long Island Retreats. Image: Lindsay Robertson

Like many on the islands, she relies on mobile data for the internet connection to upload her work.

“If our power drops out, our internet and mobile phones drop out as well,” she says.

“What I can upload with fibre on the mainland might take me a day to do here.”

“Being able to connect up to [the internet], from a business perspective, is really key.”

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