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Rural Scotland needs to manage Net Zero carbon land rush and support ‘places’ for a sustainable future

Managing the impact of spiralling prices for land related to carbon capture and ensuring that rural communities can provide the housing and infrastructure needed to support employment opportunities in the modern rural economy were major themes to emerge from the second annual Scottish Highlands and Islands Rural Economy (SHIREs) Conference.





The virtual event, which took place yesterday (Thursday, 18 November), was a fascinating insight in the challenges and opportunities facing businesses, organisations and individuals in rural Scotland. With a theme of ‘Our Land, Our Lives, Our Legacy’, and coming just days after COP26 closed in Glasgow, the climate crisis and the much vaunted ‘just transition’ to a greener economy were recurring factors in several of the sessions.

Other key themes to emerge from the day’s session included: the importance of community engagement; the need for a nuanced approach to each different rural area, rather than a one-size-fits-all solution; and the inherent entrepreneurialism and solution driven nature of the modern rural economy.


The virtual event, organised by leading law firm Harper Macleod LLP in conjunction with Highland News and Media, was hosted by broadcaster Nicky Marr and Chris Kerr, head of the firm’s Highlands, Islands and Moray operation.

Chris Kerr said: “This year’s SHIREs brought many of the real challenges and opportunities facing the rural economy to the fore. The event covered a broad sweep of what is a diverse economy, but what was fascinating to see was that the same issues recurred, whether we were hearing from a landowner, an entrepreneur, a community group or even a governmental body.

“Following on from COP26, it’s clear that the way we live and work in rural locations is going to change in the coming years, and it’s a change that we must ensure is for the better and not miss the opportunity that change presents to those living and working in rural and remote settings. For example, it seems that the market in carbon sequestration and the land use to offset carbon use elsewhere is set to grow rapidly. As a nascent sector we must be mindful of unintended consequences of that rush and ensure it does not adversely affect the communities on which our entire rural economy is based.”

The conference opened with a keynote address from Mairi Gougeon MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Islands, who got straight to the big issues, saying: “What COP26 drove home for me was really the pivotal role that rural Scotland has to play in addressing some of our long term-climate issues.”

She recognised the challenges facing rural and island communities, adding: “Challenges allow us to reflect on the kinds of communities that want to build for the future, how we might work differently, how we use our land and natural assets and how decisions today will directly impact future generations.”

She rounded off her address to by focusing on the people. “People have to be at the heart of our just transition and our first population strategy aims to make communities across Scotland attractive places to live, work, bring up families and to move to.”

The Cabinet Secretary was followed by Mairi Spowage of the Fraser of Allander Institute, who examined what data and statistics tell us about the state of our Rural Economy. She identified the projections for falling populations as a big issue, while the impact of decarbonisation could be both a challenge and an opportunity.” “The challenges that face the rural economy are not new but have been exacerbated by our experience during the pandemic.”

Mat Roberts of Kerry Roberts Associates, a business adviser from Shetland, gave a frank talk on the reality of sustainability in rural Scotland, making it clear that imagining a rural idyll from afar, or looking at it through rose coloured glasses, did more harm than good. He said: “It’s easy to confuse a lifestyle, and a way of life. Even well informed policymakers are vulnerable to what I would call the ‘Countryfile effect’.”

Mat was joined by Jamie McGowan, founder of lifestyle brand Essence of Harris, who has grown a business with global reach from the island. He shared his experience of not just growing, but sustaining a business in a location such as Harris. Both focused on the need not to become fixated on the problems of being on an island, for example and instead seeing the opportunities in what are inherently entrepreneurial communities. Jamie added: “In Scotland we need to be braver and not set any limits on ourselves. Of course there are challenges from having a business on the islands due to remoteness, but in reality the island is my biggest asset.”

The second half of the conference began with a fireside chat which gave a fascinating insight into a landowner’s perspective of the current environment. Peter Graham of Peter Graham Associates, joined Sir Alastair Gordon-Cumming and William Gordon-Cumming of Altyre Estate, which has pioneered new ways of doing things on land which the family has held for over 800 years.  Regenerative farming, estate diversification and landowners collaborating with communities were all part of a real ‘through the keyhole’ conversation.

Delegates at The SHIREs were able to enjoy one of three breakout sessions on: Employee Ownership with Dennis Overton of Aquascot; Community Ownership with Kirsten Logue of South of Scotland Enterprise and Sandra Holmes of Highlands and Islands Enterprise; and Skills Development with Becky Shaw of NatureScot.

A second fireside chat saw Jo Ellis, Head of Planning and Environment at Forestry and Land Scotland tackle the huge issue of why Natural Capital assets are such a hot investment at the moment, alongside Graeme Nisbet and Tom Gray of Harper Macleod’s Rural Economy team. They considered how carbon sequestration will impact rural land use and biodiversity, with demand growing for land to be used for offsetting carbon.

The final session featured a Young Entrepreneurs Panel discussing starting up, living and working in a rural community. Chaired by host Chris Kerr, Cameron Carroll of RedBeard Productions, Jack Smith of Cairngorm Gin, Reina Edmiston of Reina Edmiston Art and Sophie Beveridge of food delivery business Post-Tatoes gave a fascinating insight into what it takes to start and run a business in a rural setting, with a particular focus on how they have dealt with the unique challenges of the past two years.