Trading community commerce ideas with a Scottish visitor

SARANAC LAKE – Angus Robertson works in Sleat (pronounced “Slate”) on the Isle of Skye, which is the largest and most northerly island in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland.

The island’s peninsulas radiate from a mountainous center dominated by the Cullins, the rocky slopes of which provide some of the most dramatic mountain scenery in the country. It is one of the fastest growing rural areas of Scotland with extensive community and educational developments. Robertson is the manager of Sleat Community Trust.

“We have won the Queens Award for Voluntary Services for our work which includes the ownership and operation of a gas station with store and post office and 1,000-acre community forest,” Robertson said.

The trust has undertaken steps to increase renewable energy projects with an aim to benefit its community. Current projects include a 25-year plan to harvest timber for pulp mills and wood fuel, assess options for a community wind turbine and measures to effect carbon reduction and energy efficiency.

This year Robertson was awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship that is open to any UK resident.

“Upon Churchill’s death a charity was set up in his name for the purpose of reaching out to learn from other cultures, organizations and countries,” Robertson said. “There are 10 categories in areas such as medicine, science, penal reform, and my own category, communities that work.”

Robertson recently made a side trip to the Saranac Lake Community Store while visiting all six New England states over six weeks.

How is it that you came to Saranac Lake and what do you think of the accomplishment of the Community Store in Saranac Lake?

Paul Bruhn of the Preservation Trust of Vermont is a key contact and had heard about the Community Store in Saranac Lake and also wished to visit. The opening of the Community Store is an awesome achievement, and I wish it great success in the future.

Do you find common areas of concern for economic development in the communities that you have visited and with the Isle of Skye?

Several common areas! Project funding, an aging population and folk from away that do not wish their holiday idyll changed by any economic development.

What are some of the sustainable projects that you have seen in your travels and that you have seen in Skye that could be adopted by each other?

The use of local produce and the great amount of choice is one area that we in Skye and the Highlands of Scotland in general could adopt. The Sleat Community Trust’s ownership of forestry land to give a sustainable financial income has provoked a great deal of interest.

What do successful rural projects have in common?

Strong board of volunteers, one of whom has to have a good financial background. Great staff and a can-do attitude from the majority of the community.

What are some innovations in these communities, and are they coming from without or within?

Land assets are the big ticket in rural Scotland for communities at the moment. When you have control of land, or a built asset for that matter, the possibilities for economic development improve markedly. Saving key rural stores and services seems to be gathering pace in New England.

Have you seen necessity to be the mother of invention for economic growth in the communities that you have visited and in the Isle of Skye?

Absolutely. Our community has both grabbed and been presented with opportunities to save services and drive economic growth. There is an element of, when the chips are down, the community steps in, but this should only be done when the project has a sustainable future in economic, social and environmental terms.

What has been the main reason for the failure or success of rural retail?

Where the operator is being employed rather than being self-employed makes a huge difference. An individual working for themselves will try much harder to make things work. Marketing certainly isn’t great in Scotland’s rural areas, and extolling the virtues of local produce for local people would generate a better core customer base.

Is there a growth in Internet commerce in the rural communities to the detriment/benefit of rural retail?

Without doubt, but many areas on Skye still have a poor broadband speed and can’t access the Internet. I do think that to compete more in rural areas, we have to embrace new technology and social media getting smarter at broadening our appeal outwith (without) both the holiday season and our own geographic boundaries.

Is there a return to older values in the communities? Are vocational skills and trades becoming more valued?

I certainly haven’t seen this on Skye. There has been huge growth in cultural activities driven by the resurgence of the native Gaelic language and the rise of our local college SabhalMorOstaig ( in Sleat.

Do you foresee a migration of young people to rural areas because of a change in priorities?

Not really. Our area of migration growth seems to be well-off retirees escaping the cities, and this is a concern if this continues, as we won’t have enough younger people to deliver the services that they will ultimately require.

Do you envision a growth in rural communities?

Yup, I think that people, especially the above demographic, wish to escape crowded cities with increasing crime and frenetic lifestyles for a quieter life in the country. There may be a smaller migration of younger people if broadband speeds improve.

As someone with a background in rural studies, what was your professional impression during your visit to Saranac Lake?

There was an excellent volunteer effort to get the funding over such a long period of time and to fight the big boxes out of town. There is a great management team in place in the shop, but I don’t think huge profits are ever going to come flooding back in this type of store. But the service being provided is extremely important.

Did the communities that you visited and on the Isle of Skye depend upon volunteerism?

Very much so, although volunteer burn-out is common as it’s the same faces who are involved in many projects. It is important to refresh boards as much as possible to bring in fresh thinking. We wouldn’t have got to where we are today without the huge effort and dedication of countless volunteers.

How do communities promote activity-interest-responsiveness from its population?

Open meetings, events, our very popular free quarterly newsletter, online social networking, such as Facebook and targeted emails.

Would you have some advice to offer rural communities to promote sustainable growth?

Make sure you have a strong business plan for any project that you are taking on that isn’t too optimistic, and control your finances accordingly. Don’t be afraid to say no if the project doesn’t stack up.

Have you come upon ideas that you will take back to the Isle of Skye?

Yes the promotion and use of local produce and the U.S. independent co-op retail model, such as the Community Store in Saranac Lake.