Local entrepreneur sets out his vision

GMK
3 Feb 2024
Angus MacDonald

Article in The Herald, Tuesday 30th January.

Local entrepreneur sets out his vision to help keep youngsters in the Highlands from moving away for better employment opportunities

An entrepreneur who has dedicated himself to reviving the Highland economy has laid out his vision for encouraging young people to remain in their local communities.

For the first time in the 240 year history of The Herald, the newspaper will be produced outside of Glasgow in the Highland Cinema, Fort William on Tuesday as part of a special series looking at the issues affecting the area.

Both the picture house and the Highland Book Shop were opened by Angus MacDonald, a successful local businessman, author and philanthropist.

He founded The Caledonian Challenge which over 20 years raised £13m for rural Scottish causes, as well as setting up the Moidart Trust to help local businesses and has been awarded an OBE for services to the Highlands.

Mr MacDonald told The Herald: “I have had a really good career and my family are a Fort William family.

“When I sold my last business, I really wanted to make a difference to the to the area.

“I had been on a flight and read in an American magazine that a town centre independent bookshop and a town centre independent cinema were transformational in bringing the heart back into the town. I thought, ‘well, that's a great idea’.

“I came across one called Zeffirellis in Ambleside in Cumbria and that is an incredibly successful business, the cinema is just beloved by the area. You keep coming across that sort of thing.

“So I thought, ‘I've got to do that in Fort William.

“The site I wanted was where the old Town Hall was. It was owned by a Northern Irish guy and had been the tourist office for a while. Basically the back of the building had been the cinema, but had closed down 20 years ago.

“The back of the building was in a precarious state, I went to meet him in Ireland and persuaded him to sell it.

“That gave me the most fantastic site in the town and I wanted it to be really beautiful, a twist on the contemporary Highland croft house, corrugated iron roof on a stone building.

“I wanted a very highland inside so that if you were coming back from Nova Scotia to the old country you go ‘wow, this is how good it could be’. So appointed Dualchas who are great architects based in Skye and they and I designed the building.

“I wanted it to be very appealing to females in particular because thet own has got a lot of pubs, so I wanted it to be very bright and fresh and airy and contemporary inside.

“We came up with some drawings and we had two open days in the old building before it was demolished. We had the complete support of planners, councillors and the town from day one, and we went through planning at record speed.

“I appointed the construction firm and we were in full tilt when Covid struck. So we had a very difficult and expensive few years with all the materials going up in price and problems getting workers and all that and we didn't get any grants because we hadn't been in business for a year – not that I wanted to apply for them.

“We opened toward the end of Covid had a difficult or very difficult first year of trading and we're absolutely thrilled after three years to be appointed the best cinema in Britain."

This week the Herald is running a special series on what is being called 'the new Highland Clearances' by some, as young people leave the Highlands in search of opportunities in the central belt.

It's something Mr MacDonald is keen to address, by ensuring that more rural communities are an attractive place for young people to remain.

He said: “If you cut me in half, what most matters to me is the people and economy of the Highlands, and making the Highlands such a great place to be that the young no longer want to leave.

“We have had depopulation for hundreds of years and today half the young wish to leave in a short period of time after their education is finished.

“You have to have a vibrant economy, great year-round jobs and a nice environment to live in to make them want to stay.

“There should be lots of jobs for technicians and engineers, and we need education to change so that engineering, mathematics, sciences, etcetera are much more important in the educational system in the Highlands.

“We are struggling to get teachers with those skills. If we have pupils of those skills or youngsters with those skills they will get jobs absolutely guaranteed, and the private sector employers are begging to get people with those skills."

Mr MacDonald has also been a Highland councillor since 2022, and his plan to ensure 5% of the gross revenue of new windfarm developments should be paid to community benefit funds was adopted by the Scottish Liberal Democrat spring conference.

In the upcoming general election he will stand for parliament, aiming to win back a seat which was once a stronghold for his party.

He said: “I had no intention of being a politician whatsoever. I was very concerned that I could not really see a way to get Fort William and Lochaber raised in the awareness of the Highland Council and Scottish Government.

“I became a Highland councillor in May 2022 and won by ward by a significant margin.

“I was approached by the Liberal Democrats who asked me if I would be interested in taking on Ian Blackford for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, which had been Charles Kennedy’s seat for 32 years till 2015.

“There have subsequently been two big changes. One is the boundary change, which means I now would represent Inverness city as well.

“Secondly, I will no longer be against Ian Blackford because he's stepping down.

“We don't have enough of a voice at the table, and the Highlander, I think, takes bad news easily -  they're not like French farmers.

“I think we need to bang the table, and the A9 has been a real lesson in applying political pressure and getting a result. I'd love us to do that more.

“Getting significant community benefits from renewable energy projects is essential and that has been a very key role of mine in the Highland Council.

“I've been down to London for canvassing on this issue and due to my efforts there is now an amendment to the energy bill going through Westminster, so that 5% of new energy revenue will go to the affected communities.

“If we can get 5% of the revenue generated through to the communities that could be hundreds of millions of pounds coming to the Highlands.

“When that happens the communities can build affordable housing, which is absolutely key, and they can help with grants toward student students going off to study."

Article in The Herald, Tuesday 30th January.
Words by Gaby McKay. Reproduced with permission.