End of the Season in the North West Highlands – Brexit threatens the ecosystem. Letter from Scotland Nov 23

It is the end of the season in the north-west Highlands. Shops are on reduced hours, many restaurants, hotels and cafes are closing up. Journey times are shorter because the roads are more or less empty. The winter months can be lean for some –  people who work in hospitality often have to live on what they earned over the summer. It gets dark early and unlike in the city, there is generally little to tempt you outside in the evening – except perhaps a trip to the byre to fetch logs for the fire or to secure something banging about in the wind. Some relish the quiet  – an artist friend uses it to make the ceramic pots she sells in the summer. It is a time when local business people take stock and plan for next year.

The tourists have almost all gone and the summer workers are packing their bags too. As you drive around the headland at Gairloch, you pass the rather forbidding exterior of the 72-bedroom Gairloch Hotel, which stands on the site of the old Poor House, staring out across the roiling Minch at the Hebrides. As in many places, this season has been particularly exhausting for the staff.  Algorithms kept the rooms full through lowering prices – but the crew were stretched to the limit to keep service at an acceptable level. Host Mihael Melnic said they had four chefs instead of six, five housekeepers instead of seven. They had to cut out the table d’hote menu – and they didn’t do lunches despite a valuable contact to provide them for coach parties.

Mihael is heading back to his native Moldova for the winter. He plans to return next year – but unless the UK Government changes its tune and offers seasonal visas for EU citizens, he doesn’t see how hotels like the Gairloch will be able to fill their recruitment requirements. Their team, like most, includes a mix of a few locals and seasonal staff most of whom are EU citizens. Management is now looking to recruit next year’s crew from the pool of people with “settled status” which gives them the right to work in the UK  – but over time that pool will shrink. Many won’t return to the UK and younger people can’t join the scheme.


The Gairloch Hotel on Saturday

The Highlands is full of massive, castellated hotels like the Gairloch. They date from Victorian days, when the coming of the railways, and paid holidays brought the advent of mass tourism. By the end of the 20th century, they had largely fallen from their pomp. They became a byword for creaking plumbing that inspired ghost stories, and poor service. One example immediately springs to mind – a family meal in a hotel restaurant where we were staying for a pre-Christmas treat, the draughty dining room staffed by a solitary, surly waiter. As a relative dug heartily into the breadbasket, the waiter barked at him: “Can you no wait for your soup?”

Over the last 30 years or so, we have grown used to seeing these places rejuvenated and transformed by the annual influx of young people from all over Europe – they were a godsend for both big and small hotels in remote locations, without a nearby town to draw on for staff. The remuneration package for seasonal workers includes room and board – usually in a rudimentary staff block. That offer was popular with young people from across Europe, who wanted to spend a summer or two in the Highlands – and a welcome touch of glamour arrived with them. We grew used to chatting to waiting staff from Vienna, Gdansk, Budapest, Paris. Their expertise helped raise the level of service. They often return as visitors themselves years later, bringing partners and children to enjoy the dramatic landscape and retrace their youthful steps.

Living on-premise in a remote location is not something that most people at later stages of life can easily do. Scotland currently has an average age of 41 – one in five of us is over 65. There may be unemployed people across the country but they are not an exact match for these vacancies. The profit margins of a Highland hospitality business are often small, the season is short – there is brave talk of extending it, but wet and windy weather is an acquired taste. It is hard to compete for workers with areas of greater prosperity within the UK.  It is going to be challenging to fill these roles without a change of policy.

The Garve Hotel, like many, is on the market –  it has been empty for more than a year, since the first lockdown in March 2020. A rambling building with 46 bedrooms it looks as if it has been added to over various timeframes. The dining room is all set for dinner –  crisp linen napery curling a little at the edges and the gleam on the glasses dulled. Moss is growing on the exterior, paint is peeling. The building probably will need a lot of maintenance – the climate soon takes its toll on rooftops and windows in an empty house.

The Garve Hotel may have been operating on a shoestring – for whatever reason, the resources weren’t there to weather the storm of Covid. The slow unfolding of Brexit consequentials is going to make it harder than ever to get it up and running again. There are several other uninhabited hotels in the area – there is one in Strathpeffer for example. Will they ever open again?

Peter Seymour of the estate agents Graham and Sibbald returns my call about the forlorn Garve. He says the site is under offer and he does anticipate it opening up as a hotel again. This has been a busy year for the agency, with many Highland hotels changing hands – there are a lot on the market but there is also strong demand. He recognises the staffing issue and says some of his clients had to close a couple of days a week throughout the season, or turn away business in other ways.

Even a relatively small 15-room, 4-star hotel with a turnover of one million a year would need about 30 staff, he explains. Running it well requires an absolutely consistent, high-quality service. Being short-staffed means risking the reputation of the business and eventually, if writ large, the area.  What’s the solution? Some hotel groups are trying to increase the number of permanent jobs they offer; and more affordable accommodation in the HIghlands would help to bring working-age families in. But European seasonal workers are an important piece of the jigsaw and a visa scheme would be welcomed.

Most people in the sector I speak to agree – this system wasn’t broken before Brexit. Now it is. But who will answer the pleas of Highland hospitality business owners? They are desperate for the mitigation of seasonal visas. But the Scottish Government has no control over immigration, just as it had no say over Brexit itself. Additionally, the UK Government’s replacement for the Highlands’ valuable EU restructuring funds is opaque and removed from Scottish Government influence.

It is an irony not lost up here that all of the elected representatives of the Highland Region in both Parliaments put together have less say over what happens next year than Malcolm Offord, a donor to the Conservative Party. He failed to win electoral office at the last Holyrood election, but was awarded a peerage and is now a Scotland Office Minister and member of the House of “Lords”.

Something seems to have come loose from the democratic structure that is supposed to serve this area. As winter bites, we can hear it banging about in the wind.

Newsletter – with links