A wee wooden shop at the side of the road
In June 2019 (seems like a lifetime ago!) I had a fantastic trip on the Outer Hebrides. I first stayed 5 days on Harris and Lewis, meeting renowned Harris Tweed weavers, enjoying the white-sand beaches of the islands, driving on winding roads and photographing dramatic landscapes and friendly sheep.
Then I embarked on a ferry in Leverburgh on Harris, to go to Berneray on North Uist. I knew very little about North and South Uist, and was not too sure what to expect, apart from beautiful scenery, of course.
After a quick lunch in Berneray, my partner and I started driving and quickly spotted a very cosy-looking cabin on the side of the road. We parked our car next to it and entered Coralbox GIft shop, which was one of the cutest shops we had ever been in! Looking back, I wish I had been less shy, and engaged with Eilidh, the owner of the shop. I did not know about her incredible story and only found out later, while following her Twitter account. While I cannot go yet to visit her again and have a face to face conversation, she kindly accepted to share with me her journey, and answer my questions.
Meeting with Eilidh Carr, photographer and owner of Coralbox gift shop
Atelier Escapades : You left Berneray and North Uist, where you were born, to study photography in Aberdeen. How was it to have such a big change in your life? Had you first planned to stay on the mainland?
Eilidh : After finishing my school studies here on Uist, I moved first to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis aged 17 to study Gaelic and then onwards to Aberdeen 2 years later to study photography. Moving first from an island like Berneray to Stornoway, definitely helped bridge the huge gap and shock of moving so young from a tiny island to a bigger city like Aberdeen.
When you are younger and grow up here on the islands, there is always a pull to leave when you are old enough to either study or live away on the mainland. The bright lights and new world of the city are too exciting not to miss.
I studied photography for 2 years in Aberdeen and after completing my course, I worked at John Lewis department store for a year afterwards while deciding my next steps of what to do. During my time in Aberdeen I was kept busy with studying and also photography related jobs such as photographing music events, portraits, wedding photography and even nightclub & bar photography. It was all a great mix of living, working and studying in a new city and busy environment.
When I first moved to the mainland and to Aberdeen, I had no thoughts of returning home to the islands where I had grown up, I wanted to live away in a city. But as time went on, I would return home for holidays to the Outer Hebrides more and more, I missed the quieter life and the beautiful beaches that Aberdeen didn’t have. And in the summer of 2015, I moved back home to Berneray.
Atelier Escapades : How did your business idea start, and grew up? What inspired you?
Eilidh : After moving back to Berneray aged 23, I was unsure of what would follow, if I would stay for a long period of time or what work I could do. I knew I wanted to continue to use my own photography and from this a small idea began to grow. Using my own photographs I had taken locally around the island, I started to sell coasters, mugs and other items all printed with these photographs. I purchased equipment allowing me to print my own coasters and mugs here at home and in my own time. During the summer of 2015, I first started selling these items at craft fairs, tabletop sales and shows around the islands. As Coralbox began to grow from this, I then converted a 2 berth Dalesman caravan into my first small shop for 2016 – a base for people to visit and buy items. In June of 2016 work also began on my new purpose built wooden gift shop, in which my gift shop Coralbox trades from today.
Atelier Escapades : You started your gift shop in a self-converted van, which has now become a beautiful wooden cabin on a stunning location with breathtaking views on the sea. Can you tell us a bit about the process of setting up, and building your shop? What were the main challenges of setting up your business in Berneray?
Eilidh : When I first started selling my own printed coasters and mugs at craft fairs, little did I know that years later I would have my own purpose built wooden shop and be self-employed. I had not planned on building a shop or even Coralbox being my full time employment, but looking back now it has all worked out better than I could ever have planned or imagined. Growing from small events such as tabletops, to then converting a caravan and to then building my shop, it has all been a lot of hard work with plenty of ups and downs but I wouldn’t change anything. It was a great way to scale up slowly and now I see the demand for my shop increase year on year.
My dad and I designed the new purpose built wooden shop in which Coralbox trades from today, with my dad building it from scratch himself. One of my favourite parts of my shop is my lilac coloured floor! It was great to be able to build and design Coralbox, both the inside and outside from the beginning. Iit means so much more being involved in the build from the start and that family has helped create such a wonderful business.
I received no funding or grants during the startup or growth of Coralbox, but instead I used income from my shop being open in my converted caravan and also savings. Looking back it did make it more difficult but I can now say, we did it all on our own and the hard work has paid off all these years later.
Atelier Escapades : You are selling both your own products, and products from local makers. How do you select them? How do you showcase the island in your shop?
Eilidh : I sell my own Hebridean collection, all featuring photographs I have taken on Berneray and surrounding islands. My range now includes calendars, tea towels, greeting cards, coasters, mugs, keyrings and more. It is nice to still continue to sell my island photograph products, linking back to where Coralbox began over 5 years ago. In Coralbox gift shop I stock products made by other people and businesses, living both here on the islands and throughout Scotland. I like to stock items I would either buy myself or buy for other people. I also try to stock different products to other shops here on the islands, so as to not duplicate what customers see and to be different as an independent gift shop. It is hard to pick what to stock and not to stock, but over the years I have gotten better in knowing what sells and what people like to buy, as souvenirs or gifts, as my shop caters for both those visiting the islands and those who live here.
Atelier Escapades : Berneray is a fairly small island with around 130 inhabitants and North Uist with around 1800 inhabitants (2011). What part did social media play in helping you connect with people from the rest of the UK, and other countries? Have you met people that you were conversing with online, thanks to social media?
Eilidh: Social media plays a very important part to both Coralbox and to myself as an individual. It allows me to share photographs, stories, my shop, products for sale and different parts of my life with others around the World.
Living and working in a remote area like the Outer Hebrides, it is important to get your name and story out into the social media world. A lot of people who visit Coralbox, will have followed me online before calling in to the shop here on Berneray and it is a great way to let people know who you are and what your business can do / offer. It is also a lovely way to connect with people locally, nationally or internationally and it all feels more like an online family. I have made friends for life through social media.
Atelier Escapades : Like most businesses tightly linked to the tourism industry, your business must have been deeply affected by the current situation. But through lockdown, you kept running your online shop, and I know you have been keeping busy with new projects, allowing people to “travel” on the island from the comfort of their home. Can you tell us about it?
Eilidh : My business Coralbox has been adversely affected by both Covid-19 and the lockdown restrictions in place. After a winter break, my shop was ready to reopen for a new season in March 2020 after months spent sourcing new stock, tidying, reorganising inside and restocking the shop throughout. But the week I had planned to reopen, the United Kingdom was put into lockdown and all businesses were closed. I still remain closed for now, and will reopen when the time is right for both people visiting my shop and those within the local island communities.
With my physical shop building closed, I moved my own Hebridean collection of calendars, tea towels and greeting cards online. Updating my website and moving to online sales has been a great success and parcels have been posted not only within the UK, but to Europe and also Worldwide.
During lockdown I also launched my new island webcam project, where I have 2 webcams placed on the shoreline of Bays Loch here on Berneray. These webcams stream live 24 hours a day – where you can watch the weather change from sunshine to gales, watch the tides rise and fall and also wildlife of all kinds can be spotted such as otters, seals and birdlife. One webcam is fixed looking out onto a pier / sea and the other is a moving ptz camera which scans around the sea bay.
During lockdown and even now, this webcam project has allowed people to visit the islands and Berneray all from their own homes enabling them to watch the cameras any time of the day or night. We have people viewing my island webcams from as close as the Hebrides or Uk, to Europe and around the World.
These can be viewed online : Bays Loch Webcam by Coralbox.
My webcams on Berneray have had over 10,000 visitors from over 35 countries worldwide in the first 8 weeks since launching. Thank you all for your comments & support towards my live streaming webcam project here in the Outer Hebrides. 🌍🌎🌏 Watch live at: https://t.co/BDgiXNu2V9 pic.twitter.com/pU0TiyfuJn— Eilidh (@EilidhCarr) June 18, 2020
Atelier Escapades : What do you think is the most important, to start a business? What advice would you give to your 23 years old self, or to other young people that have a business idea but lack self-confidence?
Eilidh : I would say it is most important to believe in yourself and to keep going. I had not planned on starting a business, the idea just grew and grew but I could not be happier with the way things have turned out. If you have an idea or a business you want to start, the best way to know if it is going to be successful is to try it out and see what happens. It may work the first time or if not, something else better may come out of it. You never know until you try.
Atelier Escapades : Where do you see yourself in 10 years? What would be your dreams, ambitions for your business?
Eilidh : In 10 years, I would still like to be running Coralbox and be self-employed. Over the next few years, I look to expand on the products I stock and work with more local makers. As the Scottish islands become a more popular destination to visit each year, I would also like to be able to open all year round. And maybe even have another little Coralbox shop on another island!
North Uist delivered to your doorstep!
It was a real pleasure to walk in Eilidh’s gift shop when we visited last year and then to follow her adventures and daily life in Berneray on Twitter and Instagram. I had planned a 10 days trip to the Outer Hebrides last may, but had unfortunately to postpone it due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I was really looking forward to seeing these beautiful islands’ scenery, but above all to seeing people I had first met last year, and making new acquaintances.
I will definitely plan it again for next year but in the meantime, if like me, you are longing for sunny days on North Uist, you can find Eilidh’s beautiful Calendars, greetings cards and more on her online shop! A great way to remember (or discover?) its beautiful landscapes and wildlife, while supporting a Scottish business in what could possibly be their challenge of a lifetime.