Highlands and Islands Feature
Some Highland stereotypes are definitely worth having – the beauty of the Great Glen and the abundant lochs, the friendly locals and their quality of life – and it is this spectacular backdrop that plays a part in the creative industry’s revolution taking place there.
The Highlands and Islands is “on the move” creatively, with a 37 per cent increase last year in the number of people working in the industry. While there has been a steady migration of skilled workers attracted by the inspirational lifestyle, it’s also largely as a result of some hard work and collaborative thinking of those based in the area.
“The creative industries in the Highlands are certainly growing – but not only are they growing in numbers they are growing in the strength of the business, which is much more important,” said Iain Hamilton senior development manager of Highlands and Islands Enterprise. “We are seeing both an increase in the number of people coming in – who bring new ideas and new networks – and we are also seeing internal work carried out by the trade groups to ensure we have a flow of new talent locally.”
The support network for the Highlands was born in 2000 when a group of firms joined forces to create the Association of Integrated Media in the Highlands and Islands (AIMhi).
Alistair Murray, of Caithness Multimedia, was one of the early members of the group and is now its chairman. “When I arrived in the Highlands and Islands at the tail end of 1996 for a short contract, I thought ‘get in and get out quick’. But I’m still here, because the Highlands and Islands gave me back a sense of community that I had long lost. That and a quality of life that is hard to beat elsewhere,” he said. However, he saw the need for the kind of teamwork that AIMhi could bring to the people working in the creative industries.
“The founding principle was to look at proactive ways of tackling emerging issues, seeking out like-minded people who would afford safety in numbers. It was felt that bringing together members from diverse disciplines would offer opportunities to learn while improving the regional ability to make common points to policy makers,” said Murray.
In the same year the local music industry launched its own trade group, Highlands and Islands Labels (HAIL), and between them the two organisations have given a voice to many small companies.
“Organisations like AIMhi and HAIL are very important to the way we deal with the industry itself. They both sit on skills panels and determine the strategies for the creative industries. Their existence makes life easier to build support structures,” said Hamilton.
In the past year AIMhi has re-organised itself, creating a new full-time business development manager, a website, www.aim-hi.org, and training analysis and marketing plans have all been put in place.
The membership is diverse – film-makers, the radio industry, graphic designers, public relations, animators, photographers, multi-media and web design – but they are quick to extol the benefits of a support network in a rural area.
Campbell Grant is the chief executive of the award-winning company Solutions, which provides web management systems and is based on the Isle of Skye, as well as in London and Oxfordshire. Born and bred on Skye, he started his company, as he says, “on the croft”, as a one -man band carrying out website development for Highlands and Islands Tourist Board, HIE and Caledonian MacBrayne.
“When the internet came along I predicted that everyone would have their own e-mail and website in two years. At that time there were three people on Skye with an e-mail address. Luckily, I was right but it took more like 10 years.”
His company now has 15 staff and his loyalty to the island has stayed firm while his business has grown from a local market to a national and international one. The company has just landed the contract for the Commission for Racial Equality’s website with its self-designed software system.
“Expanding has been like moving from the Highland League to the Premier Division,” he laughs. “The really interesting issue for a rural business is not about starting up but expanding. When you enter a global market you need to be able to sell face to face. You need to get to customers and keep them. When you start up in the Highlands you are protected – when exposed to global markets and their competition you need to have a lot of resolve.”
The main practical disadvantage, Campbell says, is the difficulty in finding staff. He says recruiting is often done when the right individual appears rather than when there is a specific vacancy. Training is an important issue for him.
There are a number of initiatives to encourage homegrown talent to stay for study or work. AIMhi operates the “Skillsco” vehicle on behalf of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, providing strategy for member groups to develop the next generation of workers.
A recent “Mediamix” event brought together radio and film professionals and young people to explore ideas on media youth groups and a radio festival. A careers information hotline is also under discussion with Careers Scotland.
In the radio world, an AIMhi member organisation, Moray Firth Media Trust, based at Moray Firth Radio, is currently launching a European-funded project offering online access to radio presenter training.
“We’ve put a nationally recognised VQ onto the web so that anyone working in radio locally can have access to training and support in their own community. It has the capability to be a multi-national project and we have plans to translate it into Gaelic and Spanish,” said project manager Elizabeth McIntyre.
AIMhi members do recognise that there are still significant barriers to development. Access to new technology, a lack of understanding at the strategic decision-making level, nervous potential investors and developing talent are all issues, as is accessing global markets. But, for many rural companies the future lies in the use of new technology like Broadband. Another success story for the collaboration of Highland micro-businesses was a campaign, carried out for HIE, to encourage registration to Broadband across the region. It saw a sparkling response.
AIMhi’s future is clearly defined with a remit to act on behalf of the creative content industry in the region. It lobbies on behalf of members, both intra- and extra-region. It is representing H&I companies in a number of EU projects, and their Development Manager, Jeremy Sim, is currently seeking out the vital new opportunities needed for the region.
“AIMhi is also now involved in further EU projects, including i2i, an international networking project, and ADMAST, involving e-learning, which should lead to opportunities for members,” said Sim. “Beyond Europe, we have also started to expand our business networks to the United States, Far East and Australia. Hopefully, some of these contacts will pay off commercially not too far in the future. We will continue to afford opportunities for members to finance productivity; the search for revenue-bearing work is crucial and new tender opportunities are regularly disseminated through the website – along with free information, including news, events, best practice, and so forth,” he continued.
Alistair Murray added, “This year we have an internationalisation theme. There is much work to be done, but creative content industries can flourish almost anywhere if three key criteria are met: with enabling technology today we have the ability to continue relationships across time and space. With an empathic public sector working together with the private sector, we can solve problems and continue to provide the infrastructures needed to develop further. And when like minds seek each other out, as they are doing in the Highlands and Islands, we can compete.”
For those working in the creative industries in the Highlands the stereotype that workers can have it all is an attractive one – and it can be done – but the reality is also that small businesses face the same pressures the world over: of networking, staffing and producing for an ever more competitive market.