Housing and Highland Hospitality

The housing crisis is having an increasingly worrying effect across sectors in rural Scotland. Good employment opportunities already exist in many remote and rural areas, particularly with the post-pandemic increase in ‘work from home’ opportunities, but this is of little value if there is nowhere for workers to live.

A recent survey on the Isle of Skye, commissioned by SkyeConnect, Lochalsh and Skye Housing Association, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Highland Council, which was completed by over 140 businesses, found that two in five businesses are having recruitment problems. Hospitality has been particularly hard hit, largely due to lack of accommodation.

If our rural areas are to survive, and thrive, then people must be able to live and work in them. In the following guest blog, Jon Glover, a restaurant owner on the remote west coast peninsula of Applecross, reflects on the major challenges currently facing the Highland hospitality industry.

Milltown Loch, Applecross

When I was a young boy in the 1970’s, we regularly took caravan holidays around the north west Highlands. These trips, to such iconic destinations as Skye, Torridon and Lochinver, fuelled my love of the area and are probably the reason I’ve lived in Applecross for more than thirty years.

Whilst the hospitality of the Highlands has always been legendary, the tourism and hospitality industry in those days was of little value to the local economy. Campsites were rarely more than a muddy field with a standpipe, whilst opening hours – and choice – for food and drink were extremely limited. With free movement of labour in the EU, cheaper international travel, and greater access to private car ownership, all this changed over the course of forty years. B&B’s and guest houses became more sophisticated, delis and modern cafes sprang up, and pubs and hotels took on more staff to cope with the influx of tourists. Many hospitality businesses began to open seven days a week, offering breakfast, lunch, dinner, and everything in between.

Half a century after I first fell in love with the area as a four year old boy, I recently drove through Shieldaig, Torridon, Kinlochewe, Gairloch, and round to Lochcarron on a glorious late spring Sunday morning. Every single cafe we passed was closed, and most had signs explaining that opening hours during the rest of the week were now restricted. Our own business, The Walled Garden Restaurant in Applecross, is now open less than half the hours it was only five years ago.

The twin impacts of Brexit and Covid created a labour shock that, in less than three years, have effectively reversed those forty years of progress. Worse, expectations have been raised, that can no longer be met.

There are two major problems that need to be addressed if the threat to small, seasonal businesses in the Highlands is not to become existential, (and it is important to remember that the wider tourism industry is entirely dependent on a functioning hospitality sector). We are now almost entirely dependent on the hugely competitive domestic labour market, within which we need to attract seasonal staff to the area or hire from the limited local labour pool. To achieve this, we need to develop quality, innovative accommodation solutions that allow workers to move or stay in the area, and make seasonal work in the Highlands more attractive than it has been in the past. 

Whilst larger employers in the area are able to create modular accommodation units for contractors and non-local staff, this is rarely an option for small seasonal employers. Low cost affordable housing rightly remains a priority but as communities, we also need to start considering alternative, flexible housing options for our vital seasonal workers, who only want accommodation for part of the year. Of course, the long term goal would be to create jobs that are less seasonally dependent, and there are lots of stories locally of people who have begun their lives in Applecross as seasonal workers and transitioned into full time, year round employment, driving population growth and retaining a kernel of cultural diversity that has recently been lost. In so many ways, seasonal work seeds our local economies and supports populations with diverse, driven, enthusiastic and ambitious young people – all of whom retain a life long love for the area – some of whom stay for life themselves, providing they can find somewhere to live.

In Applecross, the charitable trust that manages the estate have – through their own recent experience of managing the local hostel – come to realise just how dependent we all are on seasonal workers, and are now working with us and other local employers to see if we can develop a modular container-based site with shared high quality amenities and low rents, which may start to mitigate the acute problem we currently have. Other communities will have to find other solutions, given that local circumstances vary greatly, but if the sector is to survive, it seems certain that community development companies and local government are going to have to recognise the wider importance of the sector, and work together with communities and rural housing enablers, to find bespoke solutions to an accommodation issue that has, for far too long, been flying beneath the radar.