At North Highland Initiative (NHI), we strive to develop a sustainable economy in the Highlands and I’ve been heartened to see local businesses coming to the fore in the shortlist for the Scotland Food & Drink Excellence Awards, but this success has to be recognised in the context of challenges that apply to rural regions.
Two very different businesses were shortlisted from the north Highlands: Eilean Dubh, a family restaurant that specialises in putting local produce on the menu, and FAO27 by Interseafood Scotland, a bilingual business working with seafood producers in the area to export Scotland’s best seafood. One thing they have in common is that they’re both adding value through provenance rather than bulk-selling a commodity. Such businesses act as ambassadors for the Highlands and for Scotland as a whole and it’s particularly commendable when you consider the background against which such businesses operate.
The Highlands is one of the most remote and fragile economies in Europe, so distance from market can be a significant hurdle. This is exacerbated by a lack of basic communications tools. The Federation of Small Businesses recently decried Scotland’s lamentable mobile phone reception. This is particularly true of rural areas like ours but Scotland-wide readers will recognise this. We all need to be looking outwards at potential markets to truly succeed but require the infrastructure to do so.
At NHI, we see tangible success in terms of sustainable economic development by bringing businesses together to give the region collectively a louder voice. It’s by working together and recognising our high quality resources that we will achieve growth, overcoming the challenges that come with our geography. I’d urge Highland Council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise to implement and fund a cohesive delivery model to support those micro and SME food and tourism businesses with clear strategic direction. Public sector support of businesses like this could be a powerful way of using public funds to develop real economic growth in rural areas. Stimulating sales both at home and overseas is a very tangible way of benefiting the local economy and generating employment.
• David Whiteford is Chairman of North Highland Initiative