THE Federation of Small Businesses published a league table of the most entrepreneurial towns in Scotland a few years ago. Two Highland towns, Ullapool and Newtonmore, topped the list.

The research analysed towns across Scotland, and concluded that towns in the Highlands and Islands were often more likely to be entrepreneurial, with high levels of self-employment.

Interestingly, areas which had a prominent industrial past were less likely to have high levels of self-employment and entrepreneurial activity. It was the same in areas which had just a few large employers that dominated to the detriment of smaller employers.

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Now I’ve no doubt there are various reasons for those conclusions, but it did confirm two arguments about rural Scotland. The first is that Highland and Island communities have long depended on themselves to make a living and the second is that we are perfectly capable of achieving everything that can be achieved in more urban areas – if given the opportunity.

Our landscape bears testimony to the active, persistent and wholesale destruction of communities. Some of it was at the hands of a single landlord. But mostly it was at the hands of a disinterested elite who only saw a problem, and suggested that the best answer was to induce movement out of the Highlands rather than capital into the Highlands.

That sentiment is now entirely consigned to the history books, largely due to the growth of the Highland economy.

In November, Scottish Fiscal Commission chair and Economics Professor Graeme Roy wrote an article about the transformation of the Highlands. He contrasted the perception of Sir Donald Mackay, leading economist of his generation, with the reality of economic activity today. Mackay had argued that “the economic solution to the ‘Highland Problem’ is to induce the movement of labour out of, and not the movement of capital into, the area.”

In contrast, over the last few decades, economic activity per capita has grown in the Highlands from 90% of the Scottish figure in 1998 to 96% in 2019. Professor Roy points to the growth of renewables, increased investment in decommissioning oil and gas and the smelter and sawmill in Fort William.

You can add to that list the food and drink, tourism, textile and cultural activities across the Highlands and Islands. And workers in every single one of these industries are responsible for powering the Highland economy.

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It’s a far cry from the sentiment expressed by the secretary of state for Scotland, Willie Ross, when he established the Highlands and Islands Development Board in the 1960s.

He said, “For 200 years the Highlander has been the man on Scotland’s conscience.

“No part of Scotland has been given a shabbier deal by history. Too often there has been only one way out of his troubles for the person born in the Highlands – emigration.”

That isn’t the case anymore. On the contrary, businesses and industries in the Highlands have the opposite problem – not enough people to fill the roles and vacancies across the Highlands.

There is increasing discussion about the demographic emergency in the Highlands and Islands. Indeed, I was quoted in this very newspaper expressing deep concern about the population forecasts in the Highlands.

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Rural areas are seeing double-digit declines in their population. The working-age population is shrinking, we are all getting older and the pressures on public services are growing ever more acute. It is a serious issue, that everybody must engage with.

The overall figures for the Highlands are most certainly masked by the fact that Inverness and the surrounding areas continue to grow – in keeping with all cities and urban centres. Meanwhile, in at least one community in the rural Highlands, I know that 60% of the population is over the age of 65 and the school roll has dropped to a couple of children.

The Western Isles, Argyll and Bute and the north-west Highlands are particularly affected. I said last week that the figures should force us to confront the realities.

BUT I don’t believe that is an invitation for charity. We have all the resources, talent and capability to create jobs, reverse the trend of depopulation and outperform the Scottish economy.

What we need is to back the people, the initiatives and the policies that are working – and ditch the ones that aren’t. There are so many success stories, and yet it’s often circumstances outwith their control that trip them up and undermine their success.

One of the greatest economic and social successes of the last two decades is MG Alba. For the uninitiated, MG Alba is the Gaelic Media Service. It broadcasts brilliant Gaelic-language content, supporting Gaelic media across TV, radio and digital services. It contributes significantly to the development and sustainability of the independent production sector in Scotland. Just last year, it invested £9 million in commissions from independent companies, directly employing and supporting people working in the culture, creative and media industries.

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Now, it goes without saying that it plays a key role in protecting the Gaelic language. It is well-documented how fragile the Gaelic language is, and nobody else will preserve Scotland’s language except for us.

If we don’t, we lose a core part of our identity, our landscape, our history and our daily life. MG Alba is key to that mission – it broadcasts sport, documentaries, dramas and entertainment in the language. It ensures Gaelic speakers can access media in their native language, and also supports Gaelic learning through educational resources.

But that’s not my argument here. MG Alba has also become a critical employer in one of the areas most at risk from rapid depopulation. It is employing people across different occupations, from accounting to broadcasting, unleashing their talents and attracting many more by the quality of the roles.

In the last decade and a bit, it has actively recruited talented people to live and work in the Western Isles, who might never have done so had it not been for the brilliant work MG Alba produces. Many of them have families, now filling the local schools.

Beyond that, it works with independent production companies across rural Scotland – including nine in the Western Isles and Skye last year alone. It does all of that on a shoestring budget. Whilst Welsh language broadcaster S4C gets tens of millions of public funding, MG Alba gets a tiny percentage of that. MG Alba receives £13.4m from the Scottish Government – while S4C receives £89m of licence fee funding.

And yet not only is MG Alba’s impact considerable, it is critical to the very areas most in need of economic activity. The local GVA [gross value added] impact on the Western Isles and Skye alone was £7.8m last year.

The depopulation challenge in the Highlands and Islands will most certainly be stemmed by increased investment in infrastructure and transformation of the housing market.

But so often, the answers are already there – with brilliant, entrepreneurial organisations already engaged in the work of recruiting and attracting talented people and their families.

MG Alba is one of the best examples I have come across. If they are achieving great things on a shoestring budget, I can’t imagine what they could accomplish if treated on a par with S4C.

Highland and Island communities are entrepreneurial to their core; history has made them that way. That’s what drove the economic transformation of the last few decades, and it’s what will stem the depopulation crisis in the more rural areas.

Back the organisations that are bucking the trend, and we will outperform the worst forecasts once again.