By Karen Peattie

A RURAL enterprise support organisation has warned that there are “very specific challenges for rural and island businesses which may not be fully recognised” despite efforts to support them, pointing to increased transportation costs, digital connectivity issues, and access to talent.

Jackie Brierton, the chief executive of GrowBiz, a specialist community-based organisation founded in Perthshire to support rural enterprises, expressed concerns about “missed opportunities to make the most of the rural economy’s potential to strengthen Scotland’s economic future”.

A member of the Scottish Government’s Advisory Council which contributed to the recently published National Strategy for Economic Transformation, Ms Brierton said: “Despite entrepreneurship being at the heart of the strategy, it remains the case that there are very specific challenges for rural and island businesses which may not be fully recognised.

“Increased transportation costs, continuing digital connectivity issues, and access to talent are just some of the business growth obstacles which are magnified in remote or less-populated regions of Scotland.

“These are being exacerbated by the current energy and cost-of-living increases, which are disproportionately impacting rural areas.”

Noting that rural enterprises will play a key role in ensuring that the vision of the Scottish Government’s strategy is fulfilled, she added: “All of the actions highlighted in the national strategy will therefore need to be ‘rural-proofed’ to ensure the rural and island contribution is fully realised and valued – and that the innovation and creativity that abounds in rural Scotland is captured for the benefit of all.”

Ms Brierton also alluded to “connecting and collaborating” as key to a healthy rural economy. “If we are to realise the immense potential of our rural and island businesses, we need to recognise and address the business growth obstacles faced by these communities,” she said, pointing out that the value of Scotland’s rural economy is in the region of £40 billion, comparable to Glasgow and Edinburgh and representing about 30 per cent the nation’s overall economy.

She also noted that perceptions of the rural economy are often still steeped in tradition and associated with sectors such as agriculture, forestry and fishing. “The reality is a very diverse and creative network of new industries, often driven by digital connectivity and greater numbers of young people and immigrants who want to stay in rural areas,” Ms Brierton added.

GrowBiz, a registered charity, provides free support to a diverse range of micro-businesses and social enterprises, with specific projects taking place in the Cairngorms National Park area and Perth and Kinross. It also works with small rural businesses in the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway, Orkney, Shetland and other parts of Scotland.

In the past five years alone, it has worked with more than 2,000 enterprises and supported at least 10 rural business start-ups every single month in sectors including business services, agritourism, creative services, food and drink, health and wellbeing, and land-based businesses.