IN the small village of Shieldaig, on the shores of the mighty Atlantic, there’s a café called Nanny’s.

I got to sample Nanny’s delicious produce last week, having escaped to the village of my forebears on the west coast to recharge after the leadership contest. 

It was five tumultuous weeks, debating and discussing the best way forward for Scotland and the SNP. I’m immensely grateful for the support of SNP members during the contest, and I’m very hopeful that we can all now get behind our new leader, Humza Yousaf, as he leads the party.

I thoroughly enjoyed exploring policy areas during the contest with SNP members and the public, and I’m delighted to have the opportunity with this new column to continue to consider issues of importance.

I intend to do so from the perspective of how policy impacts on people. Too often we discuss issues, like the environment or the economy, in an abstract way, forgetting that policy is all about improving the lives of our fellow citizens.

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And so, back to Shieldaig. Nanny’s cafe started life in a tin shed on the waterfront, selling coffee and cake. Such was its popularity that the new owner, Lynn – a local woman – invested heavily in a bricks-and-mortar building.

Now, Nanny’s is all a' bustle, employing at least five other local women. If small businesses are the backbone of the Scottish economy, they are the lifeblood of rural Scotland.

There’s little doubt that this business is a labour of love, as well as economics. Hospitality businesses have weathered the storms of Brexit, Covid and now inflation.

And in the coastal villages of the Highlands, the higher costs, poorer infrastructure, and seasonal nature of tourism all mean that success is born of pure grit and determination.

But success becomes so much more than financial returns. It's about the number of well-paid, secure jobs that attract permanent residents and secure the future of this small population.

A big sign outside Nanny’s declares to passers-by that the café has ‘fresh seafood –  buy before we sell out’. That means a local fisherman’s hard labour has been recompensed too.

The sea and its produce have always dominated life on the west coast, and whilst there are fewer fishermen than ever before, they sustain and nourish the small communities and businesses dotted along the coastline.

In terms of food miles, it’s only a few yards from harbour to plate in Shieldaig. A local business, selling local produce fresh from the sea, caught, and served by local people. That’s the future of rural Scotland, and an example of what government should seek to replicate across communities.

Fishing is about livelihoods, and not just those at sea. I’ve never met a fisherman who didn’t understand that the future of coastal communities and local economies depended on careful and ethical management of marine life.

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It matters not only for the future of the fishing industry, but also for the economy and culture that surrounds fishing. In our islands and across the peninsulas of the Highland west coast, it is people who are at risk of being the rarest species. So to sever the link with fishing is to sever a lifeline for survival.

There has been much focus in recent weeks on the proposal to create a network of Highly Protected Marine Areas (HMPAs) that would ban fishing in a tenth of Scottish waters by 2026. This is part of the Bute House Agreement between the SNP and the Scottish Greens, agreed in August 2021.

We already have Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), which currently cover about 37% of Scotland’s seas. MPAs strike a balance between the core purpose of protecting biodiversity and allowing sustainable use of our seas – for example, some kinds of fishing.

HPMAs would go much, much further, and place strict limits to ban all fishing, aquaculture and infrastructure development. The consultation is still open, and I’d recommend anybody with an interest to respond before the deadline of April 17, 2023.

As we drove through Shieldaig last week, we also popped in to see the owner of the Shieldaig campsite, Ruaraidh, a local boy who returned to the village a few years ago with his wife and three young children.

His eight-year-old daughter tells me that there are 24 children in the area, and three teachers at the school, two of whom hail from New Zealand and Germany.

That is exactly double the number of children as were there when my husband was a pupil in Shieldaig Primary in the 1980s.

The new school building, perched high on the hill above the sea, has an amazing new playground. The sound of children’s laughter echoes through this ancient village. It sounds like things are going in the right direction.

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If so, Shieldaig is bucking the trend in rural and coastal areas of Scotland. The most recent report by the Scottish Fiscal Commission (SFC) into Financial Sustainability offers a stark warning in its opening pages about our population.

According to the SFC, between 2022 and 2072, Scotland’s population is projected to fall by around 400,000 to 5.1 million. This isn’t as bad as it was in the last SFC report, almost entirely because of higher forecasts for immigration. But those high-level figures, tough though they are, hide the real difficulties.

National Records of Scotland break down the projections by local authority. It shows population figures falling off a cliff in the most coastal, rural areas of Scotland.

Inverclyde, the Western Isles and Argyll and Bute are all projected to see double-digit reductions in population between 2018 and 2044. Whilst local authorities like Midlothian, East Lothian, East Renfrewshire and the City of Edinburgh will all see their populations grow, every single local authority with any islands will see a decline.

Why does this matter? Because we must govern for all of Scotland, not just parts of Scotland. The SNP must truly be a national party, representing all of our people. We must not adopt the failed UK economic model of only firing on one cylinder (in the UK that is London and the South East).

Instead, we need to create and redistribute wealth across Scotland, so that no area is left behind. We have immense resources and great talents in every region of Scotland.

We must harness all of that and ensure that everybody has equal opportunities to participate in, and benefit from, the success of the Scottish economy. That’s surely what the ‘wellbeing economy’ is all about.

The Scottish Government defines it as an economy which serves the collective wellbeing of current and future generations. That must include the young and old of our rural, coastal areas.

In Shieldaig, it is enterprising people, with their families, who are boosting the local economy and creating jobs.

They’ve done it against the odds – of Brexit, Covid and the cost of living, to name just three hurdles. Politicians should work with people like them, not against them. Their success is Scotland’s success.

It’s partly why the school roll is higher than it was forty years ago. It’s why there is a real buzz in the village.

It’s why more houses are home to permanent residents than might otherwise be the case, those who have moved specifically to work there and those who’ve been able to stay. And it is why I’ll be going back to Nanny’s for more delicious, local fare as soon as I can. 

Kate Forbes is the MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch. She served as finance secretary from 2020 to 2023.