It has not been all gloom and doom in the dairy industry for ‘Wee Isle Dairy’, as their whole milk sales have grown and grown during lockdown.

Based on the small isle of Gigha (population 160) on the West Coast, just off the Kintyre Peninsula, Emma and Don Dennis have witnessed sales hit the roof throughout lockdown of the past 11 months.

Sales have surged more than 30% for the husband and wife duo, and they have been busier than ever on their dairy farm, milking 68 cows, predominantly traditional type Friesians as well as pasteurising their own milk and making ice cream. Emma is the farmer, while Don handles marketing and sales ... and makes their ice cream.

“Although our business has been growing for the last four years, we never thought this was the time it would thrive,” said Don, who is now delivering 12,000 litres of milk a month in returnable glass bottles to local customers.

“When bulk milk crashed six years ago, we knew we had to add value to the farm for it to be viable, so we decided to make our own ice cream. We thought this was going to be a big hit locally.

“However, the much bigger impact was caused by our milk. People have loved our ‘good old fashioned’ milk, which is not homogenised and much richer in taste,” said Don, who added that there were people in some parts of Scotland paying up to £2.40 for a litre bottle of the Wee Isle Dairy’s creamy milk.

The various glass milk bottle sizes that the pasteurised milk is available in

The various glass milk bottle sizes that the pasteurised milk is available in

But delivering it all requires a lot of work and planning ahead, with most deliveries requiring a ferry from the island – which makes it ‘subject to the weather’. The team run two small vans, from which they do deliveries to shops locally, but it is time limited by having to get the last ferry back home to the island.

Wee Isle Dairy has roughly a 200-mile delivery round on their ‘local’ circuit. To get further afield, it works with Waltons of Oban, and DR McLeod, both are chilled B2B companies that take their milk as far north as Stornoway and as far east as Edinburgh and Penicuik.

But, the glass bottles and chilled delivery come at a cost – so, too, does the old-fashioned pasteurising method they use, which is why the price is so high. There were also considerable start-up costs involved, as the farm had none of the required equipment and facilities six years ago.

Emma’s parents took on the lease of Tarbert Farm in 1968 and the farm had always sold its milk to bulk buyers, like the SMMB and then First Milk.

The Dennis familys three children, Sean, Mark and Bryce, who all lend a hand where they can

The Dennis family's three children, Sean, Mark and Bryce, who all lend a hand where they can

Prior to 1980, nearly all milk in the UK was pasteurised using the protocol chosen by Wee Isle Dairy – heating it up to just 63˚C and holding it at that temperature for 30 minutes. This preserves the rich taste of the raw milk, yet kills off the pathogens.

But 40 years ago, the dairy industry moved over to far faster pasteurising, typically 73˚C for 15 seconds. That has cost benefits compared to the older approach, but the impact on the flavour of the milk is considerable.

In its first year of operation, Wee Isle Dairy’s milk won a prestigious Quality Food Award (QFA) in 2017, which required samples taken to London, where they were up against chilled dairy divisions of huge companies. However, it was their simple bottle of milk that caught the judges attention!

Don said: “The most common compliment we receive is from people over 50 years old, who tell us our milk is just like they had as a child.”

This unique milk is one of a kind as they don’t standardise their milk, which means that the amount of butterfat, cream and protein all vary, depending on the time of year. They only offer it as whole milk, as they say there is overwhelming evidence from multiple studies that low-fat milk is a major factor contributing to childhood obesity, while whole milk leads to healthier body weight.

The little farm on the isle of Gigha is home to the Wee Isle Dairy

The little farm on the isle of Gigha is home to the Wee Isle Dairy

Currently in operation are two pasteurising tanks – a 400-litre and 140-litre machines – to help with the volume of milk produced year on year. The milk is packaged in simple glass bottles, which took the couple many months to locate and these are imported from France by the lorry load twice a year.

As more people have tried their milk during the various lockdowns – the Wee Isle Dairy supply has been mainly to small shops, and none of the big multiples. Clearly, there is a niche in the market for a premium brand of good old-fashioned drinking milk!