Rural Businesses – Scotland’s Tonic!

We’re great believers in recognising rural success. There are many award programmes ‘out there’. One we’ve been highlighting this year is the #HelpingItHappen2018 awards that showcase exceptional work in a wide range of categories. Nominations for this year’s awards are now closed – and the judges have created their shortlists. We take a look at the businesses and organisations who are really helping to make a positive difference across Scotland …

Whether it is attracting visitors to stay, eat, drink and shop across the country or creating jobs and helping to make rural communities more sustainable, tourism, as the awards’ programme says, is “the heartbeat behind many of Scotland’s farms, estates and rural businesses“.

Skye is often in the news. Over the last 20 years, Dunvegan Castle & Gardens has seen a roller-coaster of visitor numbers. Estate Director, Hugh MacLeod, says: “In 1997, we welcomed around 130,000 visitors, which fell to a low of 89,000 in 2008 when I assumed responsibility for the estate. However, we rebranded and introduced an effective marketing strategy along with major capital investments to upgrade visitor facilities and transform the visitor experience.” The result? The unique attraction has won a 5* grading by VisitScotland and, in the last year, attracted a record-breaking 168,000 visitors. Hugh attributes part of their success to the fact that visitor numbers to Skye have grown steadily in recent years, adding: “The natural beauty and diversity of the island has captured people’s imagination and they are sharing their experiences in increasing numbers on social media and by word of mouth.

As the ancestral home of the Chiefs of clan MacLeod for 800 years, Dunvegan Castle & Gardens is a major heritage attraction and key driver of economic growth on Skye – one of the island’s largest private sector employers contributing an average of almost £700,000 to Skye’s economy every year.

As visitor numbers to Scotland continue to rise, so opportunities emerge for new and exciting accommodation. On the Fife Coastal Path – between the villages of Elie and Anstruther – is a unique development. Catchpenny provides eight luxury safari lodges – each sleeping up to six – on a site that was once part of the old railway line that connected communities on the East Neuk. Completely off grid, Catchpenny’s environmental credentials are key to owner Alex and Tara Nairn. Small wind turbines and solar panels power each lodge – power stored in batteries beneath the site. Kitchen worktops are made from sustainable Scottish hardwoods grown locally and they’ve been working closely with Butterfly Conservation to promote the population of Common Blue Butterflies. Staying here, you’ll see corn buntings, yellowhammers, curlews, lapwings and grey partridges – all supported by their conservation efforts with the RSPB and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust.

The third nominee in the tourism category is the long-established and highly respected Highland Safaris. The Aberfeldy-based business has developed over a quarter of a century into an award-winning, 5* tourism destination. The core offering is their Land Rover Hilltop Safaris – expertly guided by highly experienced rangers who share the history, geography, geology, wildlife and landscape features with guests. They also have a Red Deer Centre – with tame farm deer. Visitors are given a detailed explanation of their life in the hills and their seasonal habits and can hand feed the deer. But there are many other family themed activities – from mountain biking and guided forest walks to off road driving experiences and gourmet picnic in a hilltop bothy. They even give visitors the chance to pan for gold! There’s a cafe on site offering full breakfast and lunch menus – with focus very much on provenance and home baking. 

In 2017, they launched Loch Tay Safaris: the luxury cruise on Loch Tay takes guests on a 90 minute adventure in their specially commissioned boat. The commentary covers history, folklore and heritage as well as the unique landscape and wildlife of the loch – and it received accolades and awards within its first year of operation.

Open all year, Highland Safaris continues to invest in its offering – not only catering for the seasonal tourism market but also expanding into the corporate and private event market place. All their services are delivered by a team of dedicated staff – from the cafe and kitchen, to the rangers and their reservations’ management team. They also employ many local professional service providers and work with local food and drink producers and suppliers.

Touching on provenance, the #HelpingItHappen2018 category that recognises excellence in the food and drink sector has three cracking nominees for this year’s award. First up – a real scoop in terms of rural business success: Orkney Ice Cream. The farm where the ice cream is made has changed over the years – from pigs to beef to dairy. They’ve now been making ice cream for 23 years. The dairy herd was eventually sold, with the company deciding to buy milk from other Orkney farms. They now buy 10% of all the milk produced on the island. Employing 20 full time staff – as well as extra summer students keen to gain experience – all their business and professional services are based on the island. They use locally produced ingredients to flavour their ice cream including locally made fudge and rum!

Their Facebook page says they were formed in 1949 – the company’s origins stemming from the famous Orkney Creamery. Almost 70 years on, life and times have changed dramatically. The business is environmentally conscious and is looking at ways to reduce and eliminate plastics – exploring returning to glass bottles and storage. The factory is fully powered by biomass and the technology employed in production is constantly updated to ensure optimum energy efficiency. Their investment and commitment to the future sends ripples across the industry!

Head south to Ayrshire and you’ll find Kirklands Farm – a unique project that has transformed an old farm steading. When the former tenants gave up the tenancy in 1999, much of the 384 acres were optimised through a range of projects including the provision of affordable rural housing and providing neighbouring farmers with access to more land. But the old steading remained unused – and was vandalised. 

Four years ago – based on supporting the local Community Council’s 5 year Action Plan – the steading owners considered a strategic review. A significant volume of Irish-bound ferry traffic runs passed the property and investment in the Turnberry resort had just been announced: 90% of visitors to the resort travel through the village. These two factors opened the doors to new thinking.

Culzean Estate identified a local business that was keen to expand but was constrained by their current site. They decided to renovate Kirklands Steading and enter into an informal partnership with ‘The Garden Girls’ to create a Garden Centre, shop, retail outlet as well as further opportunities for ‘pop up‘ style events.

The Garden Centre and retail outlet has been running for two years. The second phase of the project is nearing completion – renovation of the old farmhouse next to the steading. The estate has used local companies and contractors to undertake the work. The Garden Girls have taken it on and will be running it as self-catering accommodation for golfers visiting the area’s many courses. Re-branded as ‘Kirklands House and Garden‘, the project is a great example of collaboration between community partners to bring real and lasting improvement – helping business to grow and expand, providing employment opportunities and investing in environmental works that are driving economic benefits.

There were a number of gin companies featured in this year’s nominations, but the judges have chosen a vodka maker to feature in the shortlist for rural businesses. In their fourth generation of farmers at Hatton of Ogilvy Farm in Angus, their business is very much a family affair. ‘Spud, sweat and cheers!’ they proclaim on their website. A diversified potato farm, Graeme & Caroline began distilling just four years ago. They admit to having had no experience of distilling when they started – but they needed to diversify and spotted a gap in the market. 

Ogilvy Vodka is distilled using their own Maris Piper potatoes – all grown just a short tractor ride from where they’re transformed into vodka. Everything is undertaken on the farm to form a small-batch local liquor of international quality. Their “singular spirit is warm and welcoming, smooth and sweet“. They employ one full time distiller and various sales staff and use local businesses and professional services for all their business support. They are proud to have been a case study for Zero Waste Scotland: any waste potato and food matter is fed to their cattle. The distillery is fully solar-powered and their water is supplied and recycled around the farm.

They’ve developed a truly unique and premium brand that showcases not only the best of Scottish farming and produce but also innovation in farming with environmentalism at its heart. New to their offering are fruit cocktails – again, all the fruits used are sourced as locally to the farm as possible – and they continue to explore sustainable ways to expand the business whilst ensuring provenance remains at their core.


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Interested in being at the awards?

You can be at the Helping It Happen Awards Dinner & Ceremony – 3rd October at the Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh.

Simply click on the image for the EventBrite link that will give you all the information you need.

Thanks for reading!