HIE CEO Stuart Black in front of a still at Dunnet Bay Distillery

Stuart Black, HIE's chief executive, reflects on his recent visit to businesses and community groups in north Highlands.

It was great to get the opportunity to visit Caithness and Sutherland last Thursday and Friday (30 June – 1 July) for my first visit as chief executive. It’s hard to believe that I’m now six months into the job.

Arriving in Sutherland on Thursday, I met our Caithness and Sutherland area manager, Eann Sinclair in Brora. Our first stop was at the Royal Marine Hotel in the town where we spoke to David Whiteford, chairman of the Highland Coast Hotels. The group owns six hotels around the north Highlands and they are planning an ambitious programme of investment in the area.

Tourism and hospitality are important sectors that provide a vital source of employment in the north, particularly around the North Coast 500 route. Despite those sectors being hit hard over the last couple of years, we are thankfully seeing signs of recovery. As well as discussing some of the challenges facing businesses located around the route, it was great to talk about future opportunities and this was a positive start to the day.

On Thursday afternoon, we arrived at the North Coast Visitor Centre in Thurso where we met HIE’s Caithness and Sutherland area team. I really valued the time spent with our staff who are all working well together across a challenging geography with huge distances involved and a diverse range of clients to support.

Our next stop was at the Thurso Community Development Trust which was an excellent visit. The trust has taken a very climate-friendly approach in making Thurso a better place to live, work and visit. They want to make Thurso the first net zero town in Scotland, which is a great ambition. The group is also involved in a lot of work on fuel and food poverty as well as a vegetable growing initiative. They are stocking planters in the town with vegetables such as beetroot, courgettes and lettuce – a very interesting project in which the group and local people are rightly taking great pride. And, of course, the harvest will be distributed to people in food poverty, which is unfortunately a growing issue.

The final visit of the day was to AMTE Power Ltd at Denchi House, the HIE custom-built battery factory on Thurso’s business park where many local people are employed. The team has significant experience in developing new technology, particularly in the battery cell sector. I met processing manager, John Perry and we talked about their exciting plans for the future.

That evening, I caught up with David Calder, the new head of socio-economics for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority at Dounreay. He is looking at how they can diversify the economy and we had a good discussion around what the future might hold for the Caithness and North Sutherland Regeneration Partnership and also some of the projects we are involved with in the north. 

On Friday morning I visited Martin Murray, the managing director at Dunnet Bay Distillers, which is famous for producing Rock Rose Gin. We had a look at the herbs they collect nearby to make the flavourings in their gin and vodka, including holy grass, which I now know comes straight from the banks of the River Thurso.

It was great to visit the 200-year-old Castletown Mill, which has been bought by the company for the next stage in their development. The mill will be sensitively restored to become their home for expanding into the whisky market. It’s fantastic to see a young company such as Dunnet Bay Distillers investing in the future of Caithness and creating high value jobs for local people. It was an excellent start to my second day.

Afterwards, we carried on to Forss Business and Energy Park in Thurso where I met Neil Robertson, managing director at Abbey Ecosse, which manages the site. The company already operates a small wind farm and they are looking to do other projects particularly using by-products from the whisky industry.

Also at Forss, NorthPoint Rum Distillery has created a new craft distillery producing rum and gin. The business is based at the former US Navy base and I spoke to the team and co-founder Struan Mackie about plans to increase their warehousing using redundant buildings. The businesses also benefitted from our Graduate Support Scheme as well as a previous round of our Young Business Capital Investment Grant, which we’ve just relaunched this week.

The two distilleries will enhance local tourism as well as the food and drink sector, notably around the NC500. All of this encourages visitors to stay longer, which benefits a broad range of local businesses and communities.

Other fantastic opportunities in the north include the space industry, which is expected to bring many social and economic benefits to Caithness and Sutherland. The A' Mhòine Peninsula is the setting for Space Hub Sutherland, a small-scale commercial spaceport from where rockets made in Moray will launch into low Earth orbit.

Back to Earth, after getting the train south through the Flow Country, I’ve now racked up 7 out of 8 of the local areas served by HIE. The only one I have left is Shetland so watch out Shetland - I am keen to come and see you very soon!





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