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Report highlights importance of social enterprises to Scotland’s rural economy

Published: 22/11/2019

Social enterprises are a critical part of the rural economy contributing £250m in the Highlands and Islands and South of Scotland areas.

Land Commission's Sally Reynolds
The Shieling project winning a Social Enterprise Scotland Award

This is according to new figures released today (22 November) by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and South of Scotland Economic Partnership (SoSEP).

The figures focusing on the impact of social enterprises in the two areas is drawn from data in the ‘Social Enterprise Census 2019’ published by the Scottish Government in September.

The study shows that social enterprises have an important role in shaping rural communities. Over the past four years, there has been a consistent rate of growth in the number of social enterprises in the Highlands and Islands and South of Scotland. In both regions, the sector generated £320m and £192m in annual income and was valued at a net worth of £548m and £285m respectively.

Around a third of Scotland’s social enterprises are in rural areas. There are 1,270 in the Highlands and Islands and 481 in the South of Scotland. The number of people employed in social enterprises in both areas has slightly increased from 10,163 in 2015 to 10,401 in 2019 (7,294 in the Highlands and Islands and 3,107 in the South of Scotland). Over half (57%) of social enterprises in the Highlands and Islands are led by women and in the South of Scotland, it is higher at 64%.

Anne Macdonald, communities co-ordinator at SoSEP, said: “The report provides us with robust data that helps demonstrate the breadth and diversity of social enterprises as well as highlighting needs, challenges and opportunities. This will assist us to inform policy and investment to ensure the sector on the ground is given the support it needs to deliver social and economic benefits to their communities.”

Margaret McSporran, head of social enterprise development at HIE, said: “Social enterprises are a vital part of our community and economy. They often play a pivotal role in shaping and promoting the economic and social development of our more fragile and disadvantaged communities, including those battling population decline. We see the sector as an important element of the rural economy and for the sustainability of rural communities.”

Social enterprises may own and manage land, including estates and islands, harness renewable energy technologies, create employment and provide an increasingly diverse range of essential services.

One example is community landowner, Urras Oighreachd Chàrlabhagh (Carloway Estate Trust), which covers 11,500 acres on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis. The community group recently published a community plan that identifies development priorities for the area, some of which have already been taken forward. These include opportunities for business growth and job creation, making the area an affordable and enjoyable place to live and maintaining and enhancing the use of Gaelic in businesses and communities.

Sally Reynolds, development officer at Urras Oighreachd Chàrlabhagh, said: “The community purchased the Carloway Estate in 2015 and since then, we have been working hard to create opportunities to grow businesses and create jobs as well as developing the area as a vibrant area to live, work and visit.

“Community ownership of the estate has had many benefits for the development of projects that could help provide employment and housing and generate income. These are largely based around tourism, renewable energy and business development to stimulate the economy in the area. There is also a drive to manage land and build local skills through volunteering opportunities. This demonstrates the potential environmental and social benefits from community ownership and management of the estate.”

The Shieling Project was set up near Beauly in 2013 to provide people with the tools to live a more sustainable life and also benefit the winder community. Its founder, Sam Harrison set up the off-grid learning centre that encourages everyone to experience outdoor living. The team teach people how to raise livestock, erect buildings from scratch, weave baskets and make burgers from meat they have raised onsite.

From an empty plot of land in the Highlands, Sam and his team of dedicated volunteers have built the Shieling project hub from scratch. The facilities include bothies that can sleep up to 36 people, a kitchen, washroom and a classroom and outhouses. The team hope the project can inspire others with similar ideas to make them a reality.

The Shieling Project is a business success story: in 2015 revenue income was just over £3,000 and now in 2019 it is reaching a revenue of just under £100,000.

Sam said: “I wanted to create something that was both beneficial for the community and sustainable as a business. By harnessing centuries old skills that were common across the Highlands, we believe that by looking to the past, the project can provide a blueprint for a more sustainable future. We have a strong sense of purpose and it is truly rewarding as you soon see the benefit your work is having on the community.”

ReTweed is an award-winning social enterprise based in the fishing town of Eyemouth in South East Scotland. It offers women a new way to think about their futures by gaining the skills and experience for creative industry and enterprise whilst producing amazing and original furnishings and fashions and crafts. The student progress into employment, self-employment, education and volunteering. The project also delivers a range of low-cost heritage, thrift and craft workshops to the wider community and to visitors to the area. More recently, ReTweed set-up a Business Incubator where women are now receiving intensive personal and professional development support to develop their own creative enterprises. 

The idea for ReTweed arose after founder, Hazel Smith, returned from a volunteer role in Senegal where she’d helped women set up community enterprises.

Hazel, said: “One of the most important aspects of our strategy are the products that are made by using the environmentally friendly material. ReTweed is upcycling up to 90% of textiles that are donated through the local community resulting in reduced landfill and C02 emissions. We have successfully helped women gain confidence and expand their skillset while learning the fundamentals of craft, design and technology in textiles.”

The full Scotland report is available at
The Highlands and Islands version is available here.