Scotland has the odds stacked against its rural areas because our land is relatively poor for production purposes (85% is categorised Less Favoured Area or Severely Disadvantaged), the growing season is short, winters are dark and cold (although winter 2011/12 has been unbelievably mild) and we have only 5 million of the UK's 65 million population. Coupled with this only 8% of Scotland is urban compared with 21% in England.
The programme has made me experience firsthand just what we do achieve with what we have in Scotland. What entrepreneurialism, energy and success stories we have in food, farming, tourism and the renewable sector. What ability we have in delivering quality to the rest of the world. Scotland's annual food and drink exports exceed £3.8 billion, the sectors total turnover including exports is £9.4 billion - the Government's aim is to raise this to £12.5 billion by 2017. It was also abundantly clear what support the rural economy has from the Scottish Government - in our visit to the Scottish Parliament, Westminster and to Brussels, the Scottish MSPs, MEPs and MPs that we met couldn't have been more engaged and responsive to us as a group.
We also had some fantastic heated debates about Scottish Independence - as a jury we were all still out debating whether it was good, bad or indifferent for Scotland's future. One thing we all agreed on was Alex Salmond's brilliance as a politician - but our concerns lie in the detail of what independence would mean, what the balance sheet looks like and the lack of challengers for Mr Salmond's tremendous political ardour.
It always amazes me the creativity that people have in business an many of the people on the course with me are an inspiration having carved their business success from their own talents and energy.
Here's just some of the many examples of people I did the programme with:
- Atholl Duckett who runs AD Heating http://www.adheating.co.uk/ with his partner Helen - Atholl's knowledge of wood boilers and the renewables sector has earned him a deserved reputation as someone who knows his stuff, can lead and develop this important sector for Scotland and its economic future
- Caroline Millar - who with her husband runs http://www.thehideawayexperience.co.uk/ - basically a destination that is opulence and decadence combined for a most perfect 'couples only' destination.
- Wendy Pring, who with her partner runs KCP Environmental Services http://www.kcpltd.net/ and is using the connections she made on the course to tackle public sector contract procurement issues for Scottish SMEs.
- Donald Riddell who runs Highland Safaris http://www.highlandsafaris.net/- an innovative rural enterprise which gives people a taste of wild Scotland - one of our most enduring assets