"Three Scots, one Englishman, one Dutchman, one Finn and a lady from Japan, sounds like the start of a particularly complicated story, but it was actually the composition of the group who met up at Queen Street Station for a whistle-stop tour of some interesting social enterprises in the Highlands of Scotland in the last week of March. It had the makings of another unseasonably hot day and the sun rose higher in the sky as the train rolled us out of urban Central Scotland, past Stirling Castle and the Wallace Monument and up through the rich farm land of Perthshire into the Highlands.
Our first stop was Kingussie where we visited Caberfeidh Horizons
, a wonderful social enterprise that recycles books, runs a great shop, employs a happy workforce and generally puts a smile on everyone's face. Manager Carolyn explained to us how the business works, but employees Evan and Jason brought it to life. Angela for CEIS Ayrshire and Caberfeidh Horizons employee Leslie-Anne became great friends and discovered they'd lived in the same town and if we had stayed long enough, they might have worked out that they are related! Sheena, one of the directors of Caberfeidh Horizons joined us for a lovely lunch, and Audrey was so taken by the shortbread that she ran off to get the recipe from the lady who works across the road! The real eye-opener of the visit was seeing how a social enterprise in a small Highland village can be operating a business that sells books across the world thanks to an online shop through Amazon and people like Jason.
Our next stop was Badaguish
, a social enterprise that provides accommodation and respite care in a wonderful mountain location. Staff members Sylvie and Andrew showed us around, explained the ethos and the financial challenge and made us feel very welcome. The cameras were clicking and everyone enjoyed the clear cool air. At supper we sampled the delights of haggis and whisky, with Nobuko, the Japanese professor, being particularly fond of the latter, while our Finnish friend Jari wasn't keen on the former! Our lodge was beautiful and everyone slept like a log. Heinz, from the Netherlands, probably dreamed of riding a bike through the mountains.
After breakfast, we were off through Aviemore to the community hall at Farr where we met Paul, Ray and Jenny. Anne from Highlands and Islands Enterprise also joined us and Paul explained the challenges of delivering care services to a community in a sparsely-populated area. As visitors, we were all fascinated by the fact that the challenge is not necessarily one of finance; because of the income generated by the local wind-farm, funding is unlikely to be a problem in the near future. This is one of the first communities to be receiving wind-farm funding and its progress would make an interesting academic study in the future.
The mini-bus took us over the hill and stopped to let us see Loch Ness. We scanned the horizon, took the photographs and peered into the blue, but there was no sign of Nessie.
Our next stop was Ness Soap
in Inverness, one of the classiest social enterprise retail outlets in the country. Jamie from Ness Soap gave us the background as to how the business works, but as in most good retail businesses, the product did its part. Ness Soap provides employment for people, but it is successful because it makes really high quality products and we all bought presents to take home.
And by now it was lunch time, so we popped next door to Artysans
, the cafe owned by The Calman Trust. Calman was set up to help solve housing problems for vulnerable young people, but has gone on to deal with employment and training and all sorts of other challenges. Like Ness Soap, it operates from beautiful premises and most of its customers go there, not because it's a social enterprise, but because the food is great. Andy from ILM Highland
joined us for lunch and told us about running a social enterprise in the recycling sector and Polly, a community consultant, gave us the background on Artysans.
And still we weren't finished. On the other side of Inverness we visited New Start Highland
, a social enterprise started by James Dunbar about 12 years ago, with one flat-pack desk and the enthusiasm of youth. Then, it was all about offering start-up packs for people moving into accommodation; now it is a multi-million pound organisation that recycles on a grand scale, operates a bicycle shop, rents out space to private businesses, delivers employability programmes and still offers start-up packs. From an Inverness base, it now operates from shops throughout the Highlands; it employs over 50 people, has the same number of volunteers and provides opportunities for too many to mention. It's a long way to come in 12 years, and we were mightily impressed by what James and his team have achieved.
Our trip through the Highlands showed us that the challenges faced by urban communities are reflected in rural areas, but the solutions have to be different. But being different doesn't mean that they have to be any less inspiring and in a couple of days, we saw some wonderful people doing the impossible. Some did it because there was no alternative, some did it because there was an opportunity, but the thing that links them all, is that they did what needed to be done, and didn't wait for someone else. And that is what social enterprises always do.
When you read this, Geoff will be back at work in Edinburgh, Audrey and Angela will be at their desks in Ayrshire. Jari will probably be catching up on his emails in Helsinki and Heinz may be cycling in the streets of Utrecht. Nobuko will probably still be sleeping, as she lives half a world away in Hiroshima. But speaking as the local Highlander, I can only say that this group of very different people enriched my life last week and together with the people we met on our visits, I felt inspired and humbled in equal measure.
I think we should do this more often!"