Scrabster at sunrise

Anyone driving north on the A9 for the recent Focus North launch event in Thurso would have been treated to a spectacular crimson sunrise. It added to the sense of the day being out of the ordinary (and subsequently proved the old adage that red skies in the morning are indeed a shepherd’s warning!)

For me one of the great pleasures of the Focus North launch was in having visitors from other areas of our region and beyond being reminded of the amazing range and scale of opportunity in front of us in the north. The event was very well attended – around 150 people in Thurso – and for many of us was one of the first big face-to-face events since the start of the Covid Pandemic.

The buzz in the venue was palpable, helped by a series of excellent presentations on key areas of opportunity for the area including space, offshore wind, hydrogen, tourism and green finance. The organisers had also brought together survey data from young people at local high schools and UHI North Highland. This brought home to many in the audience the realities of education and work in the current climate (all of the presentations are available at

Days later we hosted a Board engagement event. This was a more intimate opportunity for our chair, Alistair Dodds, and Board members (Belinda Oldfield and Keith Nicholson). Keith runs a nationally known cyber security business from a base in Caithness whilst Belinda has a successful career in the civil engineering sector. The purpose of the event was to engage directly with clients and stakeholders and hear more about the challenges facing businesses and communities. Equally important, it was an opportunity for us to get feedback on HIE’s work, with one of Alistair’s key questions being “how are we doing?”

I know they were impressed with the depth of discussion that took place. The range of voices – from Assynt to John O’ Groats – provided a very clear picture of the challenges, from rising fuel and energy costs to labour, housing and childcare. Digital connectivity remains a source of concern for parts of our area, with several attendees calling digital a 21st century utility comparable with electricity and water.

There was an acknowledgement that these challenges are not necessarily unique to our area, and that solutions may need to be led at regional or national level. But the point was well made that a key part of HIE’s role should be providing advocacy, communicating the scale and urgency of the particular needs of areas like ours.

It was a conversation that resonated with everyone on the call, and I’m sure will have been taken away by HIE Board attendees too. If those key areas of challenge are not addressed, how will the area capture the economic benefits from opportunities highlighted at the Focus North event? It was a great example of why maintaining a conversation with our clients (both formally in this type of situation and continuously during the year) is so valuable.

We were also challenged to go further in our desire to position the area to benefit, whether by looking at options to become a net zero exemplar, focusing on creating business space, or simply by being more visible across the patch.

All good points, and all of them a springboard to continue our conversations during the coming weeks and months.

Opportunities to step back from day-to-day engagements and listen are very valuable. When colleagues, clients or others offer us the chance “to see ourselves as others see us” we may ignore that gift at our peril.

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