Frank O’Donnell: spotlight on the rural economy

The Summer 2017 edition of Vision Scotland.
The Summer 2017 edition of Vision Scotland.
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The spotlight is so often on our towns and cities; Edinburgh for its burgeoning tech sector, Glasgow for the arts, oil and gas in Aberdeen and Dundee as a computer games centre. And Scotland’s successes in these areas are certainly deserving of the attention they receive.

But 80 per cent of Scotland’s land is used for agriculture and it is perhaps too easy to forget how important our rural businesses are.

Rural Scotland is flexible and dynamic. It is home to diverse enterprises, from livestock and arable farms to commercial forestry, artisan food and drink production and green energy.

Scotland’s farmers, crofters and growers produce output worth £2.9 billion a year and they are the driving force behind much of the country’s £5bn food and drink exports.

Rural Scotland is also rich in history and culture and is home to much of the landscape that is so important to our tourism. In 2017, the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, there is no better time to celebrate all that comes from Scotland’s fertile fields and clear waters. After all The Scotsman, which publishes Vision Scotland, is itself celebrating its 200 years of history.

In this edition, the rural economy is the star of the show. Our writers speak to the people who champion the value of the land, who work tirelessly to care for it and reap the rewards whether they are rearing cattle, farming salmon or embracing energy-efficient technologies.

Many of these people and their businesses face challenges – the Land Reform Act 2016 which is falling behind schedule, cuts to renewables subsidies, delays to financial support, fluctuating commodity prices, poor connectivity. Farms and estates are having to think outside the box about how to make the land work in different ways, whether that means exploiting the sporting potential, planting new woodland or renting out cottages as holiday lets.

Brexit and the possibility of a second referendum on independence continue to fuel the sense that we are marching towards the unknown, and it appears that the only certainty is change.

But the message is clear: where there are challenges there are opportunities.

It is exciting to see how construction firms, farmers and fish producers are embracing innovative technologies.

Big data is revolutionising farming by connecting agricultural equipment with owners, operators, dealers and consultants to enhance productivity. Both the next generation and seasoned business people are wise to the possibilities presented by developments in techniques and equipment.

The new collaboration between Scotland’s eight innovation centres and our 26-strong college network, shows how the correct training for the workforce of the future is key to the success of industries such as housebuilding, health and care and data science.

Delivering change for the better stands out as a priority for many. Fergus Ewing, Cabinet Secretary for the rural economy and connectivity reiterated earlier this year that delivery of common agricultural policy payments and a fit-for-purpose IT systems remained high on his agenda.

Abellio ScotRail is working with communities to transform disused station buildings into art galleries, shops and cafés in a bid to breathe new life into towns and villages, and its rail services are of huge importance to commuters and tourists alike. In this edition, ScotRail’s economic development chief explains what the operator is doing to improve connections across Scotland.

Cornerstones in the rural events calendar are the Scottish Game Fair in July and the Royal Highland Show. Almost 200,000 visitors – both rural and urban dwellers – are expected to pass through the show gates. In this edition of Vision Scotland we have used The Scotsman’s extensive archive for a special feature on the history of the Royal Highland Show, which is celebrating its 177th year. There is certainly much to celebrate in our rural economy.

This article appears in the SUMMER 2017 edition of Vision Scotland. An online version can be read here. Further information about Vision Scotland here.