“THERE is just a wee confidence about the place,” says Kenny Maclean, production manager at Isle of Harris Distillers.

This is his conclusion, when asked for his view on what the new single malt Scotch whisky and gin distillery, which is about to celebrate its second anniversary, has done for Harris.

Probably in keeping with the spirit of the Outer Hebrides, his response is somewhat understated. Isle of Harris Distillers will, by the time its latest recruit joins next week, employ 30 people who live locally, already exceeding its initial target of 19 by more than 50 per cent.

Read More:Saturday interview: Distillery chief driven by job of taking the spirit of Harris global

In the big towns or cities of Scotland,

30 jobs might not seem like too big a deal.

However, job creation on this scale is crucial to the prosperity of the Isle of Harris, its people and its businesses.

The ethos of Isle of Harris Distillers, which I had the pleasure of visiting this week, is all about sustainability and community. And the importance of the sustainable jobs the distillery at Tarbert has created cannot be overestimated. The creation of such employment was central to the vision of US-born musicologist Anderson Bakewell, who championed the project over a gestation period of many years after falling in love with Harris. Mr Bakewell chairs Isle of Harris Distillers.

Long-term employment opportunities such as those the distillery has provided help ensure a sustainable future for the community of Harris in terms of its population. These jobs make it possible for people to stay in this enchanting landscape. They also play a key role in attracting and supporting new residents who bring fresh energy, such as Isle of Harris Distillers

business support manager and volunteer coastguard Peter Kwasniewski, and pull people back to Harris, which, in the 2011 census, had a population of only 1,916.

Mr Maclean, before joining Isle of Harris Distillers, worked in facilities management company GSH’s back-office operations at Tarbert. When GSH closed this Tarbert operation in 2014, with the loss of about

20 jobs, it was understandably portrayed in the media as a bodyblow to Harris.

Referring to the role of Isle of Harris Distillers in keeping people on the island, and noting its employment of 30 local people, Mr Maclean says: “It can only be a positive influence. Over the medium term, these people would go. There would be

30 families who were not here any more.”

And, slightly more effusively than in his understated summing up, he cites a “great confidence boost” to Harris arising from the creation of the distillery.

Mr Maclean returned to Harris in 2004, having worked for US information technology giant Cisco in Birmingham, to “make something of home”.

Rachel Mackenzie, who covers Harris as area manager for Innse Gall for economic and community development agency Highlands & Islands Enterprise, emphasises the importance of making people from elsewhere aware of what Harris has to offer as a place to live and work.

In the 2011 census, the overall population of the Outer Hebrides was 27,684.

Ms Mackenzie notes this was the first census in decades that did not show a decrease in the Outer Hebrides population.

That said, the ageing population presents

a significant challenge.

And Harris’s population continued to decline between 2001 and the 2011 census, albeit the rate of decline slowed from that in prior decades. In 2001, Harris had a resident population of 1,984. In 1951, 3,991 people were present on Harris, so the number more than halved over the 60 years to 2011.

Highlighting the attractions of living and working on Harris, and the Outer Hebrides in general, Ms Mackenzie says: “We have a unique way of life in a safe environment but we do have career jobs, and we have quite an entrepreneurial spirit and a multi-tasking workforce.”

She adds: “We are a fragile economy in the Outer Hebrides but we are under-selling our opportunities nationally – largely the opportunity digital brings.”

The trend towards remote working should be something on which remote and rural communities throughout Scotland can capitalise. As Ms Mackenzie notes, remote working requires trust to be built up, so employers are comfortable with such arrangements. She is hopeful things are moving in the right direction on this front.

Ms Mackenzie highlights the fact small and medium-sized businesses form the backbone of the economies of the Outer Hebrides, noting this provides “a positive level of resilience” and helps ensure there

is not an over-reliance on large companies that are often based elsewhere.

She says: “When we are reliant on large companies and they are challenged, the whole economies are challenged.”

The public sector remains a very major employer in these island communities.

Marine Harvest and The Scottish Salmon Company are crucial providers of

fish-farming jobs in the Outer Hebrides, particularly in remote and rural communities. And the international success of Harris Tweed has supported employment.

Ms Mackenzie is in no doubt about the importance of the distillery to the economy of Harris, and the part this has played in reducing the community’s reliance on companies based elsewhere. Like Mr Maclean, she highlights the confidence generated in the economy by the

multi-million-pound distillery project.

Ms Mackenzie says: “That confidence is keeping people here or encouraging people to move back.”

She also highlights the capacity for such long-term employment opportunities to attract people from elsewhere to Harris.

Drinks industry veteran Simon Erlanger, managing director of Isle of Harris Distillers, emphasises the mutually beneficial relationship between the new venture and existing local businesses. The distillery, which expects to start bottling The Hearach single malt from late 2020 and is already enjoying success with gin sales, welcomed 69,000 visitors in 2016. It is so far in 2017 tracking at 18 per cent up on 2016, with Mr Erlanger noting potential for visitor numbers this year to total around 85,000.

Noting the success of businesses on Harris, citing as examples Hotel Hebrides and Buth Bheag Candle Co, Ms Mackenzie says of the current situation: “We have never had the growth we have had in Tarbert.

I think the catalytic effect of the distillery on Tarbert was certainly underestimated.”

Hopefully, the confidence in the economy of Harris that has been built with the distillery will ensure a continuation of the virtuous circle of success for its businesses.

The 30 jobs created for local people have made a huge impact on the labour market, and the thousands of visitors to the distillery, as well as boosting local businesses, will help take the story of Harris to the wider world.

The story is a compelling one.

Life in such a fragile island economy is undoubtedly not without its challenges, but it would be great if, by the time the next census comes around, we could toast a rise in the population of Harris.