Why social enterprise thrives in the Highlands and Islands

Remote and staggeringly beautiful, Scotland’s Highlands and Islands are home to less than 10% of the country’s population but account for 22% of its social enterprises. To understand why, we interviewed Polly Chapman and Brian Weaver of the Inverness-based consultancy HISEZ who for years have braved stormy seas and snowbound roads to deliver business support services to social enterprises in the area.  

What’s distinct about life in the Highlands and Islands?

It is a sparsely populated area which is economically and environmentally challenged.  The environment – mountainous with often poor quality soil and a coastline punctuated by sea lochs – places restrictions on housing, employment and travel.  Natural resources are limited but there is huge potential for renewable energy production which is being realized, though constrained by the ability to transport electricity to where there is demand. With a few exceptions, communities are remote and population scattered. The distance from, and difficulty in providing, services means there is greater reliance on family and the community, with such ties being very strong.  Many of the communities are fragile, and because of this social impact tends to be more important than profit in both the private and social sectors.  

What explains the high concentration of community social enterprises in the region? 

Because of their remoteness from population centres, communities have had to find their own solutions to problems: what do you do if there is only one child in the community with autism or only a handful of old people needing care?  Service providers struggle to meet these needs, and so the community has traditionally stepped in. The population in many of these areas is ageing. This means that they have specific needs but also that there are retirees with skills and time which can be put to community use. On a political level, there has also been a push for increased community ownership of assets, such as land and renewable energy, and these are all led by social enterprises. Community ownership is seen as inherently better.

How can community ownership improve quality of life? 

Here’s one example. The Isle of Eigg was sold by its former private landowner to the community in 1997.  Before that, islanders had little say in how the island was run and the population had declined precipitously.  After gaining ownership, they strove to make the island attractive to newcomers. Improvements were made to the housing stock and new enterprises encouraged. They invested in renewable energy to be self-reliant and ensure continuous supply and in the process became far more energy-aware and energy-efficient.  When a community owns the assets it is using itself, there is a far more direct connection between effort and results. 

Could you provide examples of social enterprises that address local challenges?

Transport is crucial and there are many community-run schemes. The Skye ferry in Glenelg provides residents with a transport link to the mainland but is also a huge tourist draw that brings much needed visitors and income. Community bus services in places such as Tongue, Badenoch, and Lochinver provide a vital transport link for residents, enabling people to remain in the community and still access retail, health, and cultural opportunities.  Significantly, these services also provide access to a social life for people who would otherwise be isolated by location, health or disability. The benefits to the individual result in reduced demand on the public sector.

You’ve recently published a paper on the challenges faced by social enterprises in the region. Could you name a few?

The main problem is limited population numbers – meaning a limit on possible customers/service users, but also volunteers and directors.  The responsibilities placed on directors are becoming increasingly onerous, and it can be difficult to get enough people with the right skills and time to serve on boards.  This leads to volunteer fatigue.  In small communities it can also be difficult to find people who don’t have a conflict of interest, and managing this can be hard.

What lessons drawn from your work might be applicable to social enterprises in remote areas in other countries? 

We suspect that the experience of the Highlands and islands will be found in any small rural community.  We collaborate with researchers in Hokkaido, Japan and recently learned that we had both been working with communities that wanted to buy a dis-used school to turn it into a community run café.  The difference is that here such groups can access support mechanisms put in place by the Scottish government that are far beyond what is available elsewhere.

After 13 years of providing support, we have learned that the cost of a project will invariably expand to the value of available grant. We have also seen what makes things work. The role of the individual is often critical to the success of a social enterprise and so is making development community based rather than imposed from above.


HISEZ is the support and development consultancy for the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, supporting social enterprises and communities towards economic growth, increased sustainability and social impact.  Its work spans local community groups and voluntary organisations.  HISEZ was established at the end of 2003 and in September 2005, it became the first CIC (Community Interest Company) in Scotland.  HISEZ has operated without grants since 2008.