IT is known, in the words of the head of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, as the ‘people equation’: the challenge of finding enough workers to exploit the economic opportunities in the region.

The issue of depopulation across the Highlands and Islands has festered for generations. The tragedy of the Highland Clearances is forever etched into the collective memory of Scotland. Deep-seated concerns have been expressed for decades about the region’s dwindling population and the socio-economic consequences.

The official term ‘Sparsely Populated Areas’ (SPAs) seems particularly appropriate in the Highlands and islands. There is considerable pessimism as to whether the long-term damage can be repaired. Councillors in Sutherland and Caithness, for example, have called for Scottish Government intervention and more inward investment, saying the population decline is such that villages are unable to raise a football team between them,

In Shetland, the Labour candidate at the forthcoming Holyrood by-election argues that centralisation is leading to depopulation of the region, and laments what she describes as the ‘natural pull to urban centres.’ Fears have also been expressed - by the SNP’s Mike Russell, amongst others - that the ending of freedom of movement as a result of Brexit is an impending disaster for the region, and for Scotland as a whole. Mr Russell points out that immigration is especially important to the towns and villages that make up what he terms a ‘massively under inhabited landscape’. “We simply don’t have enough people to sustain our economy or our future,” he says.

No-one doubts the gravity of the problem, but it might come as a surprise to learn that the population of the Highlands and islands has in fact been restored close to mid-19th century levels, thanks to a wide range of measures. Last October it was reported that nearly 100,000 residents had been added, an increase of more than 22% since the mid-1960s. The region’s population is currently 466,112 (2011 figures). There is a success story here, across the board, albeit one that has not been highlighted too often. But though some towns are doing well, too many others are struggling.

Representatives of five EU-recognised SPAs in Spain, Croatia and Greece visited the region two years ago to study the ‘successful Scottish model’ and to ponder how they might replicate it. The role of Highlands and Islands Enterprise was singled out, not least because of the composition of its board of directors, chosen not for their status but for their qualifications and professional and intellectual credibility.

It goes without saying that Spain, Greece and Croatia have between them experienced everything from civil wars and ethnic conflicts to unsavoury dictatorships and economic meltdown. It is a tribute to the Highlands and islands that under-populated parts of these countries should look to them as a model - a model that is now being actively considered by the government in Madrid.

Beginning today, The Herald will look in searching detail at what has been achieved in the Highlands and islands, and at the successes stemming from business and community support, and digital connectivity, as well as the pioneering achievements of the University of the Highlands and Islands.

An important element of the series will be the voices of the inhabitants of the Highlands and islands themselves. But we will also be asking what more needs to be done. No-one is complacent, least of all the Scottish Government. The successes thus far, though encouraging, can only be a start.

Yard enquiry needed

THE sorry tale of Ferguson Marine Engineering in Port Glasgow has been an unedifying one, though the good news is that more than 300 jobs have been saved by the Scottish Government taking the yard under public control. But a parliamentary enquiry is needed, to cut through the claims and counter-claims, and to answer many key questions.