PETER James MacDonald springs from his security box to offer us an edgy greeting. “You can’t go any further than this, lads.” And so we pull up in front of the manufacturing fortress he guards, BSW Timber in Corpach, just outside Fort William. Colin, the photographer, wants to take a few snaps and I’m just being nosey.

“If you want my coupon in your paper make sure you get my right side. And it’s MacDonald, not McDonald. That ‘a’ means a’ the world in these parts.”

His West Highland cadences are pleasing. Where the Glaswegian monotone flat-lines featurelessly, PJ’s dips and weaves.

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He delivers a potted history of the Sawmill, one of the largest employers in the area. “I had to retire from working there on health grounds during the Covid,” he says.

“But rather than let me go, the management gave me the security manager’s job at the same rate of pay. I’d worked there for more than 20 years and they looked after me.”

Yet, nearly two decades ago, the closure of the old ArjoWiggins paper mill which once lay on this site saw the loss of 150 good, well-paid jobs, dealt a devastating economic blow to Lochaber.

The new sawmill which arrived 13 years ago now employs more than 200 people with the capacity for more. It’s helped Fort William stage a recovery of sorts from what had been thought a mortal blow.

It’s the end of normal business hours and the last fingers of daylight are retreating beyond the hills. As we talk the rumble of heavy juggernauts laden with timber is constant. To gain entry they must traverse the level crossing for the West Highland Line, the UK’s most fabled railway track.

Some of them will also carry woodchip to service factories in the central belt via the notorious A82.

The irony of having to forsake a railway line that passes by your front door in favour of Britain’s most perilous road is supreme. It’s not lost on Angus MacDonald, the entrepreneur who established The Highland Cinema on Fort William’s main thoroughfare.

Ah yes, the A82 low road and in particular that perilous ‘Hail Mary’ 10-mile stretch between Tarbert and Inverarnan celebrated only by the makers of Diacalm. Much is made about upgrading the A9, but it’s this one that causes despair in the West Highland communities along its way.

Mr MacDonald, whose family were all reared in Lochaber, said: “there’s a feeling here that all the votes are in the central belt and that communities here are neglected. We talk a lot about the A9 but the A82 is scary.

“It has a massive impact on the West Highland economy. I reckon that it costs businesses tens of millions in lost revenue.

The Herald: Entrepreneur Angus MacDonald. Picture: Colin MearnsEntrepreneur Angus MacDonald. Picture: Colin Mearns (Image: free)

“I have Canadian relatives who view it as a white knuckle ride. This is their welcome to the West Highlands.”

Mr MacDonald is proof that an innovative and eye-catching idea combining hard work, local skills and a refusal to be pessimistic can unlock the potential for Fort William.

He’d been inspired by research carried in a US publication which stated that having an independent cinema and bookshop with innovative design concepts could transform small towns like Fort William.

Three years later, the Highland Cinema with its café bar, arts centre and two screens, seating nearly 200 has just been voted best in the UK.

“I wanted it to be a place where women in particular could feel at home in a town with several traditional pubs,” he says. It stands where the old disused cinema was and its high design spec and luxury fittings achieved that rare thing in town planning: a seamless, trouble-free and rapid route through a notoriously thorny process.

As you walk along the main street you’re first pleased that almost all of the retail spaces are occupied, and mostly by local businesses. And then you notice that there’s a preponderance of outdoor clothing emporiums.

Angus leads me to the grassy parade which sits between two old churches and the handsome public buildings and the imposing stone edifice of the Alexandra Hotel. What’s not to like? And yet why do many of us who drive past here on trips further north choose not to stop?

For a few moments we pause before deciding to carry on up the A82, discouraged by the back ends of shops, crumbling and degraded by graffiti. They cut the town off from Loch Linnhe, depriving it of one of the most stunning vistas of any town in Scotland. “Drivers only see the worst of us,” says Angus. “And besides, the station is on the wrong side of the town and the bus station is at the back of the supermarket and not a nice place to arrive.”

We arrive at Aird’s Crossing where the Main Street begins to lose its appeal. There’s a Tesco Express and a cheap clothing shop where you almost expect to see tumbleweed amongst the threads. “If these were demolished, the town centre would be much the better for it. It would open the sea loch to us again.”

Now we come upon the Belford Hospital, the most important medical facility in the West Highlands, yet resembling a concrete Portakabin modelled on the architecture of Enver Hoxha’s Albania. The previous week it was announced funding for its long-planned replacement had been cancelled for the foreseeable future.

“We need women’s and men’s clothing shops,” says Angus. “We need shoe shops and shoe repair; garment repair and computer repair shops. There’s no dry cleaner; there’s no town centre launderette. We get camper vans and west highland way walkers, but there’s nothing to make them stay longer.

“Even a modest increase in our infrastructure spend would release a great deal of pent-up demand for tourism and retail.”

In the Highlands, where the winnowing of an already sparse population contrasts with the abundance of Scotland’s natural grandeur, connection is everything. In the central belt we measure connectivity in shape-shifting fibre broadband and live streaming. In the Highlands and Islands the connections are older and permanent, all rooted in the eternal links to the mountains and the sea.

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And yet, the rest of us have come to view these wild and beautiful places as theme parks, good only for sustaining tourism and hospitality; for keeping second homes and clearing enough land for rich people to kill animals. We think these communities emerge from between April and October and hibernate for the other six months.

The Herald broke out of its Glasgow redoubt this week to challenge such thinking.