There has been a lot of doom and gloom around in the last few weeks about the state of retail and high streets across the country.  There is clearly a new changed set of circumstances around consumer behaviours and the profitability of physical retail spaces.  But, as we have argued previously, a lot of this is overstated and the data sources often claim about things they never measure.

In the last couple of weeks we have had surveys about multiple retailers being reported as reflecting all retailing, spending on (some) cards being seen as representative of all spending, eight large places in Scotland masquerading as the entire country and so on.  Yes, there are issues and changing patterns, but let’s be a little more careful in our considerations.

This was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago during a holiday on Orkney.  There are only two places on Orkney that could qualify as towns – Kirkwall and Stromness (see usp.scot).  I’d never visited the islands before and did not know what to expect.  Wandering around a place – and in a week of unbroken sunshine – is not a good indicator of the issues or the state of the town, but I was taken with both.

The lack of retail vacancies surprised me – I could see only one in Kirkwall and that was a recent move.  Independents predominated and the economy seemed highly cash based.  The Tesco van was ubiquitous however and Tesco faces off on the same road against Lidl and the Cooperative in Kirkwall as well as local stores.  The Dealz (shown below) is soon to be a Poundland (according to the Orcadian) and prices dropped as the ‘island markup’ is removed.  Both towns felt busy and well used.


Orkney is of course well known for its tourist attractions and at the Bishop’s and Earl’s Palace an Historic Environment Scotland staff member put me right on a few things.  On learning I was from Stirling she asked why I was not a HS member given Stirling Castle was on my doorstep.  As a Stirling resident I get in free to Stirling Castle and so I indicated that there was no need for membership given I get free entry into the best HS attraction in Scotland!

That led to a friendly debate about the historic merits of Orkney (which in her eyes I had clearly insulted) and Stirling (with Bannockburn and the Wallace added to the Castle).  Her killer blow though was when she asked me to compare Kirkwall’s approach to tourists to that of Stirling.  Scale helps, but she pointed to the well organised, clear, coordinated action to make visitors (and especially the cruise ships) very welcome at Kirkwall (and beyond).  When we were there three ships came in, one with c4500 passengers.  All businesses know when, where from and who is on the ships and have a note sheet of weather and events for the week.  Tourist buses and organisations flow between the (excellent) historic and outlying sites and the town facilities.  Yes it is easier with cruise traffic, but the approach puts Stirling to shame.

I am making two points in this post.  First, I doubt that Kirkwall or Stromness has appeared on the surveys reported earlier; yet they are every bit as reflective of Scottish towns and the reality on the ground as are Stirling, Aberdeen etc.  Secondly, these towns have come together to make the most of what they have and build action from the bottom up.  Whilst I am certain both have issues I can only imagine, Stromness and Kirkwall appeared (yes on a glorious early busy summer week) to be thriving, independent oriented towns.  It is not all doom and gloom out there and we need to remind ourselves what can be done at a local level.

Just down the road from our cottage was a food truck – obviously with a splendid name (see photo).  It came highly recommended and indeed provided delicious and good value food (steak sandwich a firm favourite).  I tried my luck at a discount because of my name, but got a firm ‘no’.  But then a free Tunnochs teacake appeared with my coffee.  Lovely stuff.

Leigh's Van

The title of this post was a variant on a suggestion from a kind colleague of mine when she saw the photo below after my accident on my final day on Orkney (there is more on twitter if you are that sad).  You really can’t get respect from colleagues these days! Don’t let my misfortune put you off visiting a glorious part of Scotland.

Yma o Hyd

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
This entry was posted in Community, Cooperative Group, Creative Places, Environmental Quality, Food Tourism, Heritage, High Streets, Independents, Lidl, Orkney, Personal, Places, Pound Shops, Poundland, Public Realm, Retail History, Scotland's Islands, Seafood, Small Shops, Small Towns, Stirling, Tourism, Town Centres, Towns, Understanding Scottish Places, Urban History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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