The recent announcement that £4m of funding will be allocated to improve infrastructure on the Scottish islands, is a reminder of the unique challenges faced by these remote communities.

Livestock auction marts are often the beating heart of rural communities across Scotland, acting as both hubs for doing business and socialising – but on the islands they are perhaps even more critical, as many auctioneers, farmers and crofters will tell you.

In total there are eight marts across the islands, serving up to 10,000 crofters and farmers, according to Scottish government figures.

Such markets have played a critical role in the islands for hundreds of years: Back in the day, they gathered livestock on the shores before transporting them across to the mainland in rowing and sailing boats, before drovers and their sheepdogs herded them to cattle markets across Scotland or down to England.

This relationship between marts on the islands and the mainland still exists today, with IAAS members such as United Auctions in Stirling, and Dingwall and Highland marts, having their own marts on a number of islands, as well as working closely with marts on other islands, such as Orkney mart.

The importance of livestock marts on the islands is widely recognised. Hugh Fraser, chair of the NFUS Livestock Committee, summed it up well when he told me;

“Livestock marts are integral to life in rural communities. They are not only a place where farmers and crofters can come together to buy and sell stock efficiently and securely, but they offer somewhere for those in the industry to get together, socialise, and transfer knowledge – something which is particularly vital in more remote locations. Marts also act as a hub for other activities and events, making them an essential part of island infrastructure.”

Keith Halstead, Executive Director of The Prince’s Countryside Fund (PCF) said: “Our more than a mart report, inspired by HRH The Prince of Wales’s visit to Louth market in 2018, confirmed that marts boost farming businesses. Scottish Island farmers reported a thriving community spirit, although concluded the mart was more important to their business than to their social connectivity. This proves that marts are essential to both supporting family farms to thrive, and tackling issues such as social isolation.”

Speaking to auctioneers either on, or working with, the islands, it’s clear how strong their ties are, and how solid the sense of community is that surrounds these marts.

Erica Mathers, the manager of Orkney mart, told me that the business serves around 200-300 farmers and crofters on the island who sell their stock there, plus around 100-200 buyers who farm either on Orkney or the mainland. The traffic between the island and mainland is substantial, with the majority of stock being transported across the water.

It’s importance to the economy can’t be understated, with Erica explaining; “We employ lots of local staff, so we provide jobs and contribute to the economy on the island. We also source everything possible from island businesses, right from our paper to our IT services, and have other agricultural businesses, such as a machinery ring, based at the mart, as well as a canteen.

“The mart also hosts a book and arts sale, gardening exhibition, a vintage rally, and our exhibition hall is well-used for community clubs, training and celebrations. So there are lots of people who come to the mart beyond just farmers, including to support the mart canteen.”

Just the livestock business done at the marts is a big income generator though – according to Grant MacPherson, managing director at Dingwall, which works with Lewis and Harris mart on the Isle of Lewis, North Uist and Benbecula mart on the Isle of North Uist, and has its own market, Portree, on the Isle of Skye, calf sales on the islands brought in £1m last year.

“The island marts are a huge part of what we do,” says Grant. “The island stock are known for their hardiness and doing well after coming off more marginal land. So they are easily finished on better grass. The Isle of Uist in particular is known for the quality of its store lambs and weaned calves, which are outstanding. Lewis and Harris stock has improved greatly in my time travelling to the island, with many top lots of lambs produced.

“On market day everyone comes out, not just the farmers, and each island really feels like a big community. The social aspect of the markets is really important because it’s maybe the only time farmers and crofters get together.

“People like to see their stock sold, to be able to talk about it with the buyer and connect with them. If marts didn’t exist on the islands and livestock were just shipped straight to the mainland, farmers would lose that connection between what they produce and where it goes.”

James Scott, a young auctioneer at United Auctions, who has just started working with the islands, agrees that the island communities and farming skills are second to none;

“It’s a great collection of customers and they’re tremendous stock people. It’s critical that the island marts stay open as a long-standing service to islanders – they already have to deal with more costs because of importing feed, so having marts on the islands helps save on transport costs the other way.”

Another point that was made widely, was the role of the mainland farmers who are prepared to travel across to the island marts. Their support is vital not just to the farmers and crofters on the islands, some of which they have been buying off for multiple generations, but to the continued success of the marts and their far-reaching community benefits. So too, the skills of the islanders in breeding healthy and hardy stock that support the genetic strength of the whole Scottish herd.