My journey through the Highlands & Islands so far…..

 

The Growth at the Edge project (aka ‘the rural one’) is all about building a picture of the health and wellbeing benefits of social enterprise activity in the Highlands & Island of Scotland. As I have journeyed to some of the most remote and rural communities in Scotland in the past few months, I have been keeping a photo diary of my adventures….

I’ve met the most amazing community spirited people dealing with major transport issues, lack of services and issues that us urban folk may take for granted, such as access to fresh fruit and vegetables, or being able to reach a doctors surgery. Some rural inhabitants see themselves as the ‘forgotten people’, with ever depleting populations and a lack of vital infrastructure.

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A run down filling station in Helmsdale, the only one in the area

 

In spite of such challenges, the people of rural communities are defiant and resilient, both making the most of what they have and continually fighting for more. They are coming together and building new community centres to create meeting places and to provide activities for all ages…….

 Atlantic Centre, Isle of Luing and the Seaboard Centre, Balintore

They are encouraging people to curate their heritage, and are fiercely proud of their history….

The Mermaid of the North and Fish Sculptures, celebrating the fishing folklore of the Seaboard Villages

They are bringing education, arts and crafts to their communities, utilising and nourishing the skills that they have in their populations…

Art projects and handmade woodwork at Cantray Park, Cantray

As well as offering employment to people in the local community, including vulnerable groups and those in need……

Shetland Soap Company, Lerwick and The Elgin Youth Cafe, Elgin

They are encouraging people to ‘grow local, eat local’, with many communities investing in land for traditional crofting and market gardens and education to promote healthy living….

Blooming polytunnels at Cantray Park, Cantray and healthy living education at Elgin Youth Development Group, Elgin

And they are also investing in renewable energy and the recycling of materials to aid the sustainability of their communities for the future of their generations……

       Wind Turbines and a brand new ReStore furniture upcycle workshop at Cothrom, South Uist

I have met some very interesting service users along the way…….

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Some happy ducks and geese using the pond at the aviary at Cantray Park, Cantray (some had flown all the way from Canada just to use their service)

And I’ve literally been to the very edge of civilisation…..

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Views from sunny Lerwick, Shetland

But what is most exciting is that this is only the beginning of my project and I’m looking forward to uncovering so much more! My journey will be taking me to many more remote and rural communities, all with their own stories, of which I hope to share with you along the way!

Growth at the very edge

Born and bred in an inner city, I’ve had my preconceptions of social enterprises as well funded, technologically capable and fast growing entities that exist, quite commonly in urban deprived areas. The very word enterprise has synonyms of ‘boldness’ and ‘inventiveness’ that is all encompassing. Coupled with the idea of the ‘Starship Enterprise’, it might lead someone like me to believe it to be some abstract yet powerful third sector force to be reckoned with.

The reality is that many social enterprises are fragile organisations that can suffer from a lack of guidance, funding and resources. This could not be truer for many rural and remote community enterprises in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, where life can change completely on the roll of a dice. Communities in these areas can live on the tipping point with depleting populations, poor transport links and lack of infrastructure. All of which can be contributing factors to the small population size in many rural communities in these areas.

Of the existing populations many choose to migrate to mainland cities like Inverness and Aberdeen to gain an education or to look for work. This can result in a disproportionately large ageing population, threatening the future development and sustainability of communities.

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To me the idea of this was initially hard to comprehend. Imagine an island with only 100 inhabitants, 10 of which are aged between 18-30yrs, what happens if 7 of these leave to go to University? How do keep the remaining 3 people from leaving?

Like in inner cities, social enterprises in rural and isolated regions are built from the ground up with the intention of strengthening and sustaining communities economically, socially and culturally. Yet, if social enterprises in remote areas are primarily governed and run by ageing populations this brings into question their shelf life. The very nature of these enterprises is that they are community led and governed in such a democratic way that everyone is entitled to a voice. But what if the voices are depleting? Who continues the conversation?

It could be said that the future of social enterprises in fragile remote and rural locations lies in community development initiatives that involve a cross section of all age groups. However, opportunities and anchors for young people must be put in place to persuade individuals not to leave and also to attract young outsiders to move into these areas. This may include targeting them as service users, employing them as staff members, or electing them onto boards of governance. Their skills and opinions must be utilised and coveted. But this is not as simple as it seems.

Of course there are many factors that require consideration, but here are a few of my initial thoughts: Community development may involve the delivery of ICT education, installing of broadband internet and workplace placements for young people. But this could serve to broaden the horizons of young people and open them up to a world of possibilities outside of their community, which may make them more likely to leave. Similarly, universities across Scotland are offering opportunities for young people from rural areas to move away from home and study in large cities to improve their job prospects.

Interestingly, the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) based in Inverness offers courses that cater to rural industry such as forestry, tourism, game-keeping and sustainable energy solutions. Courses can be studied online or remotely at one of their many campuses which could ensure that young people’s skills are re-invested into rural development and conservation within their communities. But, in the same breath, young people’ skill sets must have a welcome place back into the heart of their rural community home. They must be recognised as vital assets for the future of social enterprises and communities themselves.

Ultimately, without the utilisation of youth ideas and skills into rural social enterprises, we can only hope that ageing populations are living long enough to leave some kind of enterprising legacy for the next generation to build upon.