THE AGRICULTURAL industry of Orkney is considered by many to be its powerhouse. At a time where food and drink exports are driving forward Scotland’s economy, Orkney is a shining example of what a closely connected island community can achieve through its commitment to quality and its resilience in the face of adversity.

Local MSP Liam McArthur recognises farming as a key part of what sustains the community in Orkney and uses his position to make sure its unique profile is represented in parliament. He made it clear that a one-size fits all approach to national policy will never work with the island communities and it has been and will continue to be his ambition in office to ensure Orkney has a louder voice at the decision-making table.

From the uncertainty facing the island with impending Brexit and grave concerns over LFASS funding, to the recent closure of its only abattoir, Liam explained how the island is measuring up to the challenges ahead. Meeting with The Scottish farmer in his constituency office in Kirkwall, he recalled his own personal link with the industry and how he continues to grow his agricultural knowledge on a daily basis.

“I was brought up in Sanday from the age of nine and like many of the islands in Orkney, it was and still is heavily dependent on agriculture – it was a central part of my upbringing,” he explained. “I worked during certain seasons, helping local farmers with baling, stacking and gathering tatties – although I don’t believe I was ever seen as the most productive of agricultural labourers. I once drove over one of the farmers’ fences with a trailer taking a bunch of bales back to the farm,” he laughed.

“I make a point of making sure I am in regular contact with the farming industry. I meet with the NFU and Orkney Auction Mart representatives often and I’m also involved with the agricultural debating society which isn’t a bad way of picking up the mood amongst the rural community,” Liam said.

“One of the best things about my role is that I am learning new things daily and one of the greatest strengths of Orkney is that the lines of communications are very short – so those who won’t come see me on a formal basis will shoot questions at me at a local show. Being out and about in the rural community you pick up invaluable intelligence about the sector.”

Food and Drink

Orkney is renowned for its trademark brand of quality – ‘A taste of Orkney’. What is it that sets Orkney apart and delivers this reputation?

“It is firmly based on quality,” he replied. “We have learnt to tell a story about the provenance of our food and drink. Yes, this isn’t unique to Orkney but as a group of islands there is an interesting story which perhaps piques people’s curiosity more than it would from the mainland,” he suggested.

“We have also seen a huge expansion of the food and drink offering in recent times and this is down to producers seeing the value in working collaboratively so our customers have a greater sense of the full range of what Orkney has to offer. As well as our high-quality beef, lamb and our whisky distilleries Highland Park and Scapa, we also have numerous newer successful breweries and distilleries which have found a way of adding value and rooting that value in Orkney. This is of key importance to the island as it would be too easy to take the base product and send it away for processing or value adding and it has been important to retain that.”

Abattoir closure

Unfortunately, this has not been the case for the meat industry of Orkney, which earlier in the year saw the closure of its only abattoir, meaning that all livestock are now sold off the island for slaughter as well as fattening. Although this came as out of the blue for the rural community, Mr McArthur explained that it was always on the cards and now the important thing is making sure a swift solution is delivered.

“There was always an understanding that the support the local council put in to the running of the abattoir was time limited, but the closure in January came as a surprise to pretty much everybody. The abrupt fashion didn’t give farmers the time to respond or adapt accordingly,” he explained.

“Immediately after the decision was taken I was involved in discussions with the council, the mart and the cooperation of butchers who were running the facility, as well as wider stakeholders locally about how we could get to a situation where we could see the abattoir reopened,” he continued. “I think the facility wasn’t fit for purpose; it was built for a much larger throughput of livestock and I think on a longer-term process that wouldn’t have been sustainable.

“With the involvement of Fergus Ewing and his officials we are trying to identify a means of putting in place a more bespoke facility that addresses a lot of the issues around the costs involved, to bring them down to a manageable level and provide the Orkney livestock sector with a facility which will meet its current and future needs,” explained Liam.

“I am of the view that for a community as heavily dependent on agriculture as Orkney, to not have an abattoir is almost inconceivable. There are issues around maintaining the Orkney beef and lamb brand but there are also concerns around animal welfare considerations, making it difficult to develop other strands of Orkney’s food and drink offering.”

Mobile abattoirs serving local island communities has been suggested as a solution to the abattoir closure, however, Liam explained that it still leaves them with the same problems but with less of the advantages.

“There are discussions of mobile abattoirs and other possible options,” he replied. “There are positive upsides to that but as I understand mobile abattoirs carry with them many of the same costs without necessary all of the advantages of having a more permanent facility,” he continued. “But if that is what can be made to work then we need to look into that. All the training and accreditations are required as you would with a permanent facility but there are still waste costs etc to be considered.”


Orcadian farmers are a resilient community who have adapted their practices to cope with the adverse weather conditions which can make life difficult on the island. However, the Brexit storm presents a new kind of challenge to the islanders.

“Uncertainty around Brexit is wholly unhelpful not just to the farming community but to all sectors in Orkney,” explained Liam. “The farming community in Orkney is desperate for answers to what the future holds in terms of future support structures, in terms of regulation around production, environmental standards, animal welfare and access to markets,” he continued.

“Our farmers as you can expect are getting on with running their businesses as best they can but are desperate for answers. I strongly suspect a large number of them would rather wish any sort of Brexit was not on the horizon. Producing in an island community is not without its challenges anyway, so this level of Brexit uncertainty is impacting everyone,” he stated.

Liam went on to explain that LFASS provides essential support to the islands: “There are precious few farmers who are not reliant on LFASS in order to remain viable. We are real concerned especially for some of the smaller isles as it is hard to know how they might cope without this subsidy.”

How will you as the local MSP for Orkney ensure that Orkney’s individual needs are catered for in the Brexit negotiations and in all future policy making decisions?

“There were going to be shifts in the payments irrespective of Brexit but my role as their MSP is making it clear to decision-makers they absolutely need to be alert to the unique circumstances in places like Orkney and that a one size fits all is wholly inappropriate,” he replied. “We have demonstrated we are very innovative, creative and industrious community which makes the best of the resources and opportunities that we have, but it still requires policy makers to take them in to account,” he continued. “Orkney has proved itself to be an exemplar in delivering on the objectives around the Scottish Government’s food and drink strategy and I hope that will be recognised in future policy decisions and we will be able to continue moving this forward.”

Policy making

Recent progress has been made in the form of an Islands bill which will seek to make sure Orkney and other islands communities are recognised for their unique profile in future policy decisions.

“I have long made the case that Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles very rarely fit into a neat category that can be dealt with by policy makers at a national level,” explained Liam. “Therefore, the more we can give island communities an opportunity to take decisions that better reflect their needs and for decision makers to be made to take account of the island decision when formulating policy or legislation, the better,” he stated.

“If you look at policy implementation, there is a desperate need to see a difference in the approach to rollout of broadband. Currently priority is given from the inside out, coverage here is lower than the national average for Scotland,” he explained. “Until we get a mindset which says the islands aren’t left at the back of the queue for this sort of infrastructure and development, then the needs of the islands aren’t being taken in to consideration.

Orkney and Shetland remain strongholds for the Liberal Democrats and Liam explained that this is as much due to his personal connection with the island as their manifesto.

“I believe the way I represent Orkney reflects the significance of farming to this community. I want to make sure that the specific needs of agriculture in the islands are understood within the legislative and policy making process and this has been a central tenet of liberal philosophy through the ages. We recognise that communities need to have the means to take responsibility to take the decisions which impact them close to home, but at the same time recognise it is not in our interests to cut ourselves off from the rest of Scotland or the UK,” he stated.

“However, in a community like this, the personal connection you make with people matters more as they know something about you beyond your political allegiance,” he explained. “I think growing up in this community you learn that very quickly, it is a flat structure, everyone knows each other, and I like to believe I can understand more closely the concerns of my constituents and better represent them in parliament,” concluded Liam McArthur.