Leader, Ladies and Gentlemen, can I first of all say what an enormous honour you’ve done me today in conferring the Freedom of Caithness upon me. I can’t tell you how touched I’ve been by the news that you wished to do this and I could not be more flattered and indeed grateful to Highland Council for what has turned out to be probably one of the best early birthday presents that I could possibly have. That is, of course, as long as I survive until November 14th!
As has just been said my experiences of Caithness go back quite a long way to childhood in the 1950s. I remember so well in the mid 1950s arriving on the Royal Yacht Britannia at Scrabster and that drive all the way along to the Castle of Mey – and then each year after that we would do the same thing. So, as you can imagine, I became really quite used to that drive from Scrabster and in a funny way when you have those childhood associations they remain as something incredibly important to you as you get older – as most of you probably realize. So there was something, I think, tucked away in my heart for a very long time about this particular part of the world.
And of course, as you know, I adored my Grandmother. In fact, one of the most frustrating things about today is I can’t ring her up and tell her about it. But I hope she would have been pleased because one of the things I wanted to try and do is to continue her work and association with this remarkable part of the world.
And, as some of you may know, having sailed my own ship through the Pentland Firth on several occasions when I was commanding a small mine-hunter, trying desperately trying not to hit the various obstacles on the way and experiencing the strength of the tidal stream (which of course now many people realize can possibly be worth harnessing for the future), I of course had some understanding of this part of the world.
So I’ve been so thrilled to have at least been able to play a small part in the establishment of the North Highlands Initiative and Mey Selections. All as a result of a study that was done, as you all know, into the future particularly of farmers in this part of the world. Not easy in today’s situation – so volatile. We did see the need, and one crucial way of dealing with these challenges was to try and get greater cooperation and coordination and also to look at the whole issue of marketing and branding. So I could not be more pleased that bit by bit each year the success and the effectiveness of the North Highland Initiative is becoming more palpable.
And so much of that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is due to the immense hard work of people like Lord Maclennan, without whom we would really have got nowhere I suspect. His knowledge and understanding and appreciation of this whole area is immense. And also due to Robert Gray who has been the first project manager and, of course, to the enormous assistance from Dounraey. We could not be more grateful for all that assistance.
I’m told that now we have nearly 400 farms signed up as part of Mey Selections. We also have a Tourism element and a Built Environment element and I also want to add a Sustainability element so that we can then look at the whole of the North Highlands in an integrated way. I’ve always believed in safety in numbers and if you get people talking to each other it’s remarkable what can be achieved in the future.
So, Ladies and Gentlemen, I hope and pray that the good Lord will spare me for a few more years so that I might at least be able to see the various projects of this kind come to fruition in the future, and the investment I hope will pay off in terms of the way in which the North Highlands is prepared for what is in so many ways an uncertain and challenging future. But I’ve always felt that this is a part of the world that could really lead the way in indicating how to create a really sustainable and integrated approach to the future. And to demonstrate how you can work in harmony with nature in order to meet those immense challenges.
So, once again my heartfelt and profound gratitude goes to Highland Council and, indeed, everybody here in Caithness who have done me so proud as to give me this honour today.