During the latter half of each year, but especially in October and November, there are a succession of livestock sales at the mart (a market for livestock – identical words in Gaelic, Scots and English) in Lochboisdale. The buildings and lairage (holding and handling pens for the cattle and sheep – a Scots word) of the mart are behind the row of houses, but the livestock haulage vehicles park up in the ferry marshalling area beside the main road – which runs between the houses and the trucks.
The big trucks all belong to mainland livestock dealers and agents, here to buy up the top quality traditionally raised (outdoors, natural grass-fed all their lives) cattle and sheep, to be sold on to mainland farms for ‘finishing’, or taken to abbatoirs for … well, for food. It’s almost exclusively a one-way trade ; and as the buyers consist essentially of a handful of dealers or livestock agents (ie those who buy and sell on behalf of their clients) with very few individual buyers, there is very little competition, and prices obtained by island crofters are significantly lower than for comparable beasts at mainland marts. However, that’s another tale entirely.
Many first-time visitors to Uist express surprise – perhaps even disappointment – that Lochboisdale is such a small place, and, frankly, … It would be unfair to say ‘dead’, and ‘dormant’ would suggest an alternate state of vitality – which would be untrue ; but ‘clinging onto life’ would accurate, if painful. So perhaps tactless ; but true, all the same. Those houses? In fact they are flats, on two levels, over retail and office units ; almost all vacant – and always have been since built more than 20 years ago.
The reason for this malaise? Well, it’s very simple. Few of us islanders use the ferry more frequently than, well, infrequently. Denise and I might be exceptional in this respect, but we’ve not used the ferry more than once in the past ten years or more (and that quite recently). Even before then, when I was still travelling frequently (weekly, at times) to the mainland for work, I was increasingly going by air.
So, from the perspective of the every-day life of islanders, Lochboisdale is not a through-route to the mainland, as so many first-time visitors to Uist assume. It’s at the end of a very long dead-end road ; except not dead yet, but clinging-on-to-life.
That’s why, these days, the centre for shopping and services (whether medical or religious) is now at Daliburgh. That’s six miles away – at the junction of the Lochboisdale road with the main north-south route that joins all our islands together, rather than joining us to the mainland.
There’s much talk, at present, in connection with Brexit, of ‘internal markets’ : the idea being that the UK will have to become more self-sufficient, rather than relying so heavily on imports to, and exports from, the EU. Here in the outer islands, we understand this – we already have experience. It’s in the last two decades that the islands have developed any significant inter-island economy, in the past each island being individually dependent on trade with the mainland. It’s no coincidence it’s in the past two decades that at last we see the islanders enjoying a good standard of living, as well as a good quality of environment.