The North Highlands have long played a part in my life ever since I was a small boy and used to visit my Grandmother each year at the Castle of Mey. Now that I am able to spend more time each August in this unique part of Scotland, I have grown increasingly to love its wild beauty and dramatic contrasts. However those very qualities also pose real challenges for the rural communities who live there – particularly in the wake of all the changes to the Common Agricultural Policy.
For this reason, I could not be more delighted to be launching later today a project which is very close to my heart and which, I hope, could make a real difference to the long-term future of this northern part of the British Isles by building upon its local distinctiveness and identity. Work on my North Highland Initiative has been going on behind the scenes for over a year now with three main objectives:
• To improve distribution and access to UK markets (and beyond) for food and other produce.
• To encourage sensitive and sustainable tourism.
• To breathe new life into the rich and diverse built heritage, in turn aimed at improving tourism prospects.
It all began in August 2003 when I heard the findings of a report produced by the Arkleton Institute, which had been funded by The Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey Trust. The report made fascinating, if somewhat alarming reading, highlighting the many changes which have swept through crofting and farming in particular, with declining incomes and reduced family involvement in agriculture.
If you add that to the area's relative Northerly setting, it is easy to understand the immense challenges that can dominate life in this part of the world…
So in April the following year I took a group of business leaders to visit two farms in Caithness. First, we visited Clarence and Susan Munro at Dorrery Farm near Halkirk who told us what a terrible time they had faced as a result of the Foot and Mouth crisis. I was very impressed to hear of one way in which they had responded and managed to widen their enterprise by opening a holiday cottage on the farm.
We then met one of the major cattle farmers in the area, Danny Miller, on his farm in Bilbster, who explained how difficult it was to make a decent income with the low margins currently received. Since that visit a great deal of activity has been going on with the aim of encouraging people to work together in ways which might help to increase awareness of just what a special area the North Highlands is. It seemed to me that by developing a powerful identity for the area in relation to its produce, tourism and its wonderful built heritage, everyone might benefit in some way.
Thanks to the sterling efforts of Lord Maclennan and Robert Gray (generously seconded from Dounreay as Project Manager), who have been working away behind the scenes, real progress has been made in the last fifteen months. Already a new company, North Highland Products, has been formed to market the beef, lamb and mutton from a number of farmers in the area under a new “Mey Selections” brand, and discussions are now underway with some of the U.K.'s leading retailers and other quality outlets.
Following a gathering I hosted at Birkhall last October, around 130 tourist operators have come together for the first time to form a new organization which will work collaboratively to encourage people to visit the area and to engage with its assets, rather than simply compete for business. There have now been two successful conferences held in Wick and at Dunrobin Castle, and work is underway to draw up a new promotional campaign for Caithness and Sutherland.
The third element of the Initiative, which involves economic regeneration through restoration of the built environment, has as its objective the compilation of an inventory of properties, particularly farm buildings, and, with targeted assistance, to identify those suitable for restoration and re-use as economic units. Once again, a small company is being established to lead the work in the area and I hope that more can be said about this in the months ahead.
The objective of my North Highland Initiative, therefore, is simply to encourage people to work together more closely, and more effectively, through shared objectives and ultimately to the gain of the inhabitants of the North Highlands. I am immensely heartened by the progress that has been made, not all of which has been particularly easy, and I am more convinced than ever that the work started must continue.
By working together in this way, I am sure we can make a real and lasting difference for this and future generations.