UK: Looking for cash and cachet - CAITHNESS, HIGH ON SCIENCE BUT LOW ON JOBS.

UK: Looking for cash and cachet - CAITHNESS, HIGH ON SCIENCE BUT LOW ON JOBS. - The news that a wild boar had broken out of a truck, swum Loch Fyne and was terrorising the wilds outside Lochgilphead - probably just waiting to sink its teeth into some pas

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The news that a wild boar had broken out of a truck, swum Loch Fyne and was terrorising the wilds outside Lochgilphead - probably just waiting to sink its teeth into some passing young lassie - did not seem to worry anyone.

"A wild boar?" a bespectacled member of our party looked languidly across the table. "I've been cornered by many, too many of them." His listener opposite looked blank.

"Different spelling, different spelling, my dear," Archie McCreevy nudged sympathetically, as comprehension dawned on the visitor's face. It had been a long day. Clearly it was time to revive our minds with another round - Archie's treat.

Miraculously the two extra bottles of Australian Yalumba, reluctantly ordered, had disappeared. But no matter. Even if we couldn't hear it, sure as the sky is blue (and that day in Caithness had been not only blue but six degrees warmer than in London) the wind was whipping around out brick oven of a lodging, the Forss House Hotel - perched as it was, nearly falling over the top edge of Scotland. A wind like that called for a whisky. And Mr MacGregor behind the bar already had in hand a virgin bottle of Wick's own eight-year-old Old Pulteney.

The talk at the table had long since strayed from the serious business of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) - represented by marketing chief Archie McCreevy - selling the region of Caithness to its journalist visitor. The story-telling had turned to that American, Stanton Avery, who had made his fortune selling adhesive tape to hold baby diapers together. Apparently Avery had set himself up in a windmilled "summer castle" and was stretching his talents to raising cashmere goats.

Caithness, it turns out, has no shortage of celebrities. On a good day you can find the Queen Mum up fishing in the Pentland Firth. The Duke of Westminster has staked out a patch, to, and the Lichfields - as in Lord Lichfield, famed photographer and relation of the Royal Family.

The problem, however, is that most of the 3.5 million visitors who come to Scotland do a "milk run", driving from Glasgow to Inverness and back, via Scotland's highest peak, Ben Nevis. Only one in four brave the wilderness of the A9 ("It's a racetrack - the record holder was going 150mph") to come up to see the glories of Caithness: a flat shaggy place, with only the merest spots of February snow among the brown and green, and quite proud to be the windiest place in Europe. And all for a lack of knowing it is there. As Mike Young, tourism chief for HIE frustratedly remarks, get the English talking holidays and the dinner table conversation runs from Mombassa to Majorca. But Wick? Thurso? Scrabster? Says Young: "We want to give the area a bit more cachet."

Caithness and Sutherland Enterprise chief executive Andrew Thin, an intriguing young man who seemed that evening to be having trouble getting his whisky down, informed us that, so far, the Government has seen fit to hand over £9 million to do just that, and more, for the towns lining the north coast. Why £9 million? Because, Thin reports, Caithness, lovely and lonely and innocently idiosyncratic that it is, is in big trouble.

Close on four years ago, the Dounreay Nuclear Establishment, then employing 2,400 people and accounting for the livelihood, directly and indirectly, of some half of the residents of Thurso, was told its government funding would be progressively chopped. The fast reactor, which researches nuclear power technology, would have to be closed in 1994 and then de-commissioned by 1997. The expectation was that Dounreay, for 35 years the mainstay of Thurso, could lose up to 1,600 jobs.

A Dounreay spokesman says it is now hoped that new contracts won from overseas laboratories to reprocess nuclear fuels at Dounreay's two smaller plants, plus new research into wind and wave power, will save jobs - perhaps holding the numbers at 1,200.

His optimism, however, is not universally shared. "At the moment it looks fairly good, but we've got a major political battle with the anti-nuclear campaigners," says Dounreay staff union chairman Derrick Milnes. If the worst happens, he says, the effect would be equivalent to the Highland clearances of 150 years ago, when the powerful clan chiefs shooed out the local peasants to bring in cash-raising sheep. And the bad news does not stop there. The American navy communication base is also closing down, cutting 70 UK civilian jobs, while at the nearby Rolls-Royce nuclear submarine research site, another 500 people are wondering if today's peace dividend will be paid tomorrow with their jobs.

When McCreevy does his sales job on Caithness one feels a rosy reassurance that this will be a story with a happy ending. The workforce are skilled, grant money is available, overheads and property are cheap, and communications, thanks to a regional hi-tech innovation by BT, are superb, he boasts. But in a quieter moment, he admits: "On the one hand we know that jobs will be lost, but on the other you can't say to another new industry that here is a skilled workforce for you, because nobody knows who is going to lose their job or when. Really we're caught between the devil and the deep blue sea."

If there is a flame of hope, it is that some of the residents of Caithness will switch from thinking in terms of that safe white pay cheque to something more dangerous: like the rattling of their own cash till or stacks of invoices dispatched to much loved clientele.

But entrepreneurship is not yet rampant in Caithness. There are the occasional "white settlers" - retirees who think they can run a country hotel until they discover it is hard work. And the rosy-cheeked, ex-London yuppies who prop a telephone and a terminal amidst their sheep and converse for hours with their pallid City colleagues while (again, thanks to BT) simultaneously wiring out masses of data and graphics.

"But most people here are still employed and so we won't see that flurry of entrepreneurial zeal until they get their redundancy package," McCreevy says. "Even then, based on past experience, most of them will spend the first year looking for another job."

It may yet be that the existing employers in Caithness will be the only vanguard to stop a mass exodus of local talent. In this regard the recession has hardly helped: the traditional fishing, forestry, flagstone, whisky and manufacturing industries, despite some lag, have all been recently hit by the downturn.

But it is a testimony to the vigour of Caithness that its major employers are holding up better than most. There is for instance, Norfrost, the world's biggest maker of chest freezers, run by the entrepreneurial Pat Grant and her ingenious inventor husband Alex. This £25-million turnover company exports worldwide from Castletown and recently landed a contract with the Japanese. Turning out a freezer every 22 seconds (which, according to the brochures, is then shot off into space, soft landing on all corners of the globe), Norfrost expects to continue to expand as aggressively as in the past - vouched for by its spanking new factory.

Caithness Glass, down the road in Wick, admits to suffering some stabs of pain as customers have retreated, but is optimistic enough to also be moving to a larger factory. Backed by liqueur group Drambuie since last year, the group is extending its marketing to Japan and North America and broadening its price range. "We hope to double turnover in the next five years," says the pinstriped Thomas MacBeath, general manager. Like Norfrost, which recoups some of its truck fleet costs by carrying other people's freight, Caithness Glass finds its northern position no problem. "We can ship a cubic metre of goods to London for less than £2," MacBeath testifies.

Grampian Records - yet to be renamed since its founder James Johnstone switched from making LP recordings of Highland folk bands to producing 600,000 cassettes a week for EMI, CBS, Polygram and Reader's Digest - is another company full of beans.

General manager John Hunter says he can get an order for 25,000 Paul Young cassettes in the afternoon and have it in London the following morning. Christmas was a bit late in coming for the industry: Michael Jackson threw everyone a googly by dragging his feet getting out his Danger album. But Freddie Mercury made up for it by dying towards the end of November. "He left it a bit late," Hunter grimaces.

All three of these employers and more, including Osprey Electronics, which makes underwater television cameras, and Peter de Savary's John o'Groats hotel development (originally hailed as a £4.5 million scheme, but still oddly stuck to the drawing board) could offer some jobs to the refugees from Dounreay.

But McCreevy hopes for much more: that several new embryos of entrepreneurial virtue will be developed. The £9 million will go some way down that track. So far it has bought a patch of empty land near Thurso that dreams about becoming a business park, a well-attended training school for locals who want to develop their commercial skills, and, among its booster projects, a llama farm. ('Combine that with the telecom initiative and we'll have "dial a llama".' Thank you, Archie McCreevy).

What the money can't do, hopefully local nous can. Caithness has more science graduates per head of population than anywhere in the UK, Cambridge aside. Then there is the £16-million telecom initiative. The introduction of ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) and the high number of computer literate locals make the area an attractive place for UK companies to set up a "back office" of data processors or secretaries. Even the European surfing and sea angling championships, both of which will be held in Thurso next year, could help - if only by reminding the English that no one has yet (despite the local Labour Party's wishes) sawn off Britain's top end.

Lastly, trickle though it may be, there is the long queue of those who swear one day to abandon the brown arteries of the south for a little peace, a little space, a little fresh air. That is the drawcard the northern zealots wave the most. Not that they want the city hoards themselves - and Archie, downing the last of his glass, assures us that anyone approaching with a fat wallet gets a good looking over as to their intentions before the welcome mat goes out. But each time a son or daughter hies out from home with a kiss and a wave to take the train south, those who remain grow a little more determined. The thought alone makes Archie's face grow rounder. He adds softly, "And there are thousands of others who have left and have had no way of getting back to the homeland, if you will."

So what to do? Well, there's prayer. There's hard work. And there's just time for one more round - to drink to those entrepreneurs-to-be, wherever they may be now.

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