It seems hardly believable that only a year ago I was welcoming guests here for the launch of my North Highland Initiative of which I am very proud. I am sure that many of you are familiar with its main objectives – in other words, improving the economy of the North Highlands through better marketing and distribution of local meat and other products; developing a more sustainable and effective branded tourism offering and, thirdly, breathing new life into the amazing richness of the built heritage and, I feel very strongly, into the quality, sustainability and character of contemporary development.
That's not an insignificant set of tasks one might say, and particularly so given that some similar projects had been attempted in the past but, sadly, had not prospered. And of course, human nature being what it is, in the beginning both poor Bob Maclennan and Robert Gray, who were later joined by new colleagues such as the North Highland Products Managing Director John Strak, faced the predictable chorus of “Oh no, that'll never work”, or “what on earth do you think you're doing – it'll just cause a lot of fuss and there'll be nothing to show for it.”
Well, a year on from its launch North Highland Products has reported a turnover of, can you believe this, over two million pounds since it began trading with, and this is, I think, the most encouraging thing, an additional £150,000 going straight to the 150 or so farmer members. Through a blend of very hard work and persistence, under the brand of “Mey Selections” which I was pleased to help create through the use of one of my rather indifferent watercolours of the Castle of Mey, I am delighted to say that products are available in a wide range of outlets and that with the launch of a soft cheese from Tain, which Sainsbury's have stocked in a number of stores, there is every prospect that more products can be taken to market.
So, I think we are seeing a rapidly growing success story as far as Mey Selections and North Highlands Products are concerned… of course you can't be complacent and there is much more work ahead, but I particularly wanted to congratulate John Strak, Danny Miller, the tireless Chairman Bob, and Robert Gray and the other Directors on the truly remarkable results they have achieved.
But, Ladies and Gentlemen, we are doing more today than recognising a great success story, we are here to launch the second phase of my Initiative, the tourism element, and equally important, in my view, to achieving long term success for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross-shire.
We began work in this area with a seminar which I hosted at Birkhall in 2004 where we brought together a host of representatives – and I think some of you here came to it - to ask people what it was they really wanted and needed to help to make their enterprises work, whether they were bed and breakfast operators, hotel owners, cruise-ship operators or indeed retailers.
Interestingly, it had not happened in such a way before that everyone got together, and as a result - and again with a lot of hard work - the North Highland Tourism Operators Group was fully formed, a body which now has a business membership of 150. I've always believed there's safety in numbers. People start paying more attention when you all work together. The potential for tourism growth is enormous, which is why over the last six months, the Group has been working with the brand consultants “Jane Wentworth Associates” in bringing forward a distinctive umbrella brand – a valuable exercise which has involved VisitScotland, the local enterprise agency CASE and the Highland Council.
You can see the results of that work built around the theme of “Pleasure in the Extreme” which makes a feature of the North Highlands' extreme geographic position and the unique experiences that the area has to offer visitors – I think the experts here can give you much more detail about the thinking behind the strategy - except to say that it is built on three key strands:
- To present the North Highlands as a distinctive tourism destination
- To encourage people to stay longer and to increase their expenditure
- To encourage them to spread their visits throughout the year
Ladies and Gentlemen, I have always been struck by the riches of the area in terms not just of its natural beauty, but of its human traditions, of the music and culture which are so precious and of its largely undiscovered archaeological interest which I can only hope will become more and more recognized as people begin to discover this extraordinary part of the world for themselves.
I wish you every possible success and I look forward next year to seeing the results.