Joy (who manages the Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage) and I went to a conference on Monday about Tourism in the Northern Highlands. It’s not all changing sheets and admiring the views here at Noss Head. We have jollies too.
The themes that came through were collaboration and sustainability and the overall impression was of passionate people running small businesses that punch way above their weight.
“If you succeed, I succeed” was the the generous welcome given to Tanja Lister by someone who could have seen them as rivals but instead saw them as neighbours. This collaborative spirit was echoed by many speakers who championed buying from local suppliers. Kenneth McKenzie pointed out that any extra costs or time involved by engaging local suppliers are more than reimbursed when they give out-of-hours after-service. I was struck by Gordon Quinn’s observations that so much great Highlands produce skips the local market to be sold overseas or in southern England, making it harder to show off Highlands products here in the Highlands.
Catriona Whitfield reminded us that as business owners here we have a duty to make sure our teenagers have strong communities and economies to come back to, where they too can make their lives (the plot of Monarch of the Glen). In the film Local Hero, Dennis Lawson doesn’t just run the village pub, he’s also the local accountant, but he wasn’t really trying: Billy Muir on North Ronaldsay had 20 jobs. In theory, the part-time and seasonal nature of so much hospitality work should fit right in to this sort of economy, but it only works if there is enough other part-time and seasonal work for people to patch together a living. It’s completely contrary to the way that people come second to the the priotised, optimised, streamlined workflows of the big corporates. This was too big a problem to solve in a single afternoon, and I am sure I was not the only person in the room who worries about a second enclosure movement, where global businesses turn us into Scotland-Land.
There was a strong theme of taking responsibility for the Highlands and showing our visitors how to connect with the people and the place. Ellie Lamont observed that if Highlanders want something done, they’ll do it themselves. Catriona Whitfield summed up our changing role by saying “there are a lot fewer visitors’ centres – we’re the visitors’ centre now” and there was an important discussion about our duty to give our visitors the tools and knowledge to enjoy their stay safely and sustainably between Tom Tindale, Tim Hamlet and Catherine Bunn, whether that’s where they can safely empty their chemical toilets (into any sewer, even a septic tank) or where they can legally start fires (not just anywhere, despite films and advice to the contrary). We cannot complain our visitors are irresponsible and ignorant if we don’t give them the knowledge they need.
Several speakers had similar experiences (one I share) of leaving jobs where they had to espouse other peoples’ values in the corporate world and coming to the Highlands to establish a business they are passionate about. These corporate escapees all stressed getting the basics right and learning from our visitors. Maybe we have the zeal of converts, maybe we are forced to see the big picture by starting from scratch, but this strongly resonated with me.
The conference showed the people involved in tourism in the North Highlands are thoughtful, passionate, and have great integrity. The same problems and approaches were repeated and several speakers, particularly Tom Tindale and Catriona Whitfield, issued rallying calls to responsible action.
I would have liked more time for discussion and Q&A because difficult issues were raised but not addressed and some were actually dodged. I would also have liked more actionable advice, but that may be because we haven’t yet been open a year.
I came away encouraged, inspired, proud to have joined this group of people providing hospitality here in the North Highlands, with food for thought, and a list of things we can start doing right away.
And I bought a couple of books from