In such uncertain times, it can be hard to remember that the seasons are turning just as they always have done. Spring is coming fast and Affric Highlands is preparing to emerge from a winter spent gathering knowledge and experience from people working with communities, businesses and the land in interesting ways.  This update touches on a few of the conversations we have had with such folk and I hope it speaks to some of what Affric Highlands is capable of doing for nature, people and business.

First though, Conservation Capital, the specialists we’re working with to scope the business potential of Affric Highlands, has been researching all relevant sectors of a future nature based economy.  They’ve met with some of the interested people from the area to get a better feel for the area and to help shape their work.  Since then, they’ve investigated the relevant trends in the Highlands and beyond and have been considering what this means for landowners in terms of investment requirements, partnerships and ultimately revenue.  We should receive their final report by the end of April and look forward to sharing and discussing it with you after that.

Wildly different spirits

Highland Boundary’s potent combination of nature, community and reconnecting with our once closer relationship with the land

This is Marian Bruce.  Marian does things differently.  She and her husband Simon founded Highland Boundary Distillery on their farm in Perthshire in 2016.  The first Highland Boundary wild botanical spirits were bottled for the market by autumn 2018 and their Birch and Elderflower spirit has quickly gone on to win international awards, including Gold at last year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

Highland Boundary reflects Marian and Simon’s passion for the connections between people and the landscape.  It took all of that passion to wade through the mountain of regulation that comes with setting up a sustainable new distilling business, but now that they’re up and running, it’s clear that Marian isn’t just thinking about income streams and the bottom line, it’s about a way of life.

‘We wanted to create spirits that absolutely were a flavour of Scotland.  So we don’t use anything that we don’t hand pick ourselves and wasn’t grown on our farm or the neighbouring woodland we have a licence to pick from.’  They’ve reintroduced ingredients and flavours that hadn’t been tasted in spirits in Scotland for hundreds of years, creating spirits that are intrinsically Scottish, yet completely different from either gin or whisky.  ‘People were completely unfamiliar with the flavour of birch or other botanicals all around us which used to be used in spirits in Scotland.  By saying to somebody, here’s a birch tree in a glass, it connects you to where that’s come from and makes you want to go and understand…’s a way of engaging with people to talk about our own landscape and flora’.

Marian and Simon spend a lot of time talking to people, including offering some adventurous ways to sourcing a bevvy.  ‘We run a wild cocktail bar when we put out a number of clues about where we’ll be in the countryside and if you can find us, we’ll make you a cocktail and actually, offering people a drink is a really social way of starting a conversation!’  It’s a real commitment to reaching people – ‘Yeah, but it’s also about making our business work and about generating incomes.  Though for us it is wider than that, it’s about sharing knowledge and reconnecting people and if we understand our environment, we are much more likely to feel that it’s ours, and to draw more from our experiences with it.’

I ask Marian if she sees scope for more of these kinds of businesses and she becomes even more enthusiastic.  ‘Yes.  Absolutely.  There’s a real, pardon the pun, appetite for understanding what they can eat, what they can pick, when to pick it, what to make with it.  People want to rediscover what’s on their doorstep and what they can do with it and I think that’s fantastic and if we can be part of that and help people understand what we have and how we can have a more sustainable relationship with our flora and our land then that’s all good for all of us.’

Local food and drink, with ingredients sourced sustainably from the land around the communities of the Affric Highlands area, marketed cooperatively by local producers in a region becoming increasingly known for its wildlife and natural qualities.  If we’re looking for new opportunities based on the people and the landscapes around us, maybe there’s something in the Highland Boundary approach worth looking at further?

Highland Boundary

Starting with Why in Finderne

Moray’s answer to Affric Highlands


This is Pery.  Pery is asking questions.  Unexpectedly.  After an hour of putting up with my questions about her work, it’s suddenly me searching for answers.  ‘So, for me, what comes into my head is…why?  What’s the why?’ she asks.  ‘The why gives you a vision.  Why first and then how – so that every decision you make should help to achieve the long term vision and if it doesn’t, then don’t do it.’

Pery Zakeri is Development Manager at the Finderne Development Trust, a community-led body which works for the 400 households scattered across the rural parish of Finderne, stretching south from Forres towards Speyside.  The Trust’s vision has similarities to the ideas behind Affric Highlands and I wanted to meet Pery to learn more about their journey.

The Trust was incorporated in May 2018.  Its strategic themes are social, economic and environment, art & culture – which sounds a lot like the nature, people and business basis of Affric Highlands.  Pery, originally from Aberlour, came on board in March last year and has been industriously working on at least ten different fronts ever since.  We spoke for over an hour and I lost track of the number of ideas and possibilities she has been developing.

Pery sees the people and landscape in the parish as its two biggest assets, so one of her first tasks has been to build a sense of community among the 1100 people who live across fourteen small settlements with little existing awareness of what and where Finderne is.  Storytelling is the way into this challenge, with Pery organising ways for people to share their stories online and allow the community to build more awareness of the people and talents living in the countryside around them.

The Trust has placed its initial focus on six priority projects to deliver its aims, so Pery has been tasked with researching and mapping out how to turn these aspirations into reality.  Like most rural areas, broadband, affordable housing and home care for the elderly are major issues and FDT are working hard to learn from where others have made progress on these old chestnuts elsewhere.  For example, the Trust is hoping to replicate Boleskine Community Care’s approach to funding new, better quality care jobs and then retain the people they recruit, bucking the trend of carers switching jobs due to widespread poor employment conditions.

The other priority projects Pery is working on are to create a community hub for people to come together and recreational opportunities that include working with the Dava Way Association to make the most of the attractive cycle and walkway from Grantown to Forres.  Both of these projects have exciting potential to make Finderne a better place to live while simultaneously increasing income from tourism into the area.

However, the project which had really caught my eye is the Rural Apprenticeships programme.  Aimed at keeping more young people in the parish, the scheme supplements government funding for apprenticeships to make it much easier for Finderne-based businesses to accommodate apprentices.   The scheme is flexible to the circumstances of each business and can even help the apprentices with often tricky issues like transport to work.  The apprenticeships will be designed to meet local businesses’ needs, including forestry, engineering and an innovative idea to have a ‘roving’ digital marketing apprentice who spends time in a number of small businesses that would otherwise been unable to host an apprentice on their own.

Pery is back on answers again.  ‘It’s the people and the landscape – the environment we’re surrounded by, are the two biggest assets to me… we’re trying to bring all that together…’s the people and the place, that’s what it all boils down to really.’  As an example of the diversity of ideas that can flow from an answer to ‘what’s the why?’, Finderne has an inspiring project on its hands.  Given the parallels with Affric Highlands’s very similar ‘why’, it is encouraging to know that there may be some fellow travellers on our road.

Shading trout and salmon from climate pressure

The River Dee Trust has announced plans to plant a million native trees to provide shade, food and shelter for young salmon.  ‘Several current projects should produce immediate benefits. But we must also provide shade against more of the extreme temperatures we have been told to expect, while restoring a whole ecosystem that’s been degraded over many centuries. This will help our threatened salmon, and all wildlife will benefit.’

The potential scale of the threat of climate change to salmonids can be seen in maps now published online by Marine Scotland.  Their models show projected water temperature rise across Scottish streams and rivers.  The link below shows the water temperature rises projected under a 1°C rise in air temperature, with a number of areas looking worryingly orange and red, indicating increases of 0.7 or 0.8°C.

This is particularly a concern where temperatures are already thought to have exceeded the point of thermal stress for salmon at around 20°C across much of the Highlands.  Brown trout are still more sensitive to temperature.

The second map colour-codes watercourses according to Marine Scotland’s modelling of how much of a priority they ought to be for managing water temperature through shading with riparian tree planting etc.

A Loch Ness Lab for Natural Capital

Last year, AECOM, the global infrastructure firm, entered a partnership with the owners of a 100 acre property of forest and open habitats by Loch Ness to open the world’s first Natural Capital Laboratory.  They were quick to get in touch with Trees for Life about their plans and to discuss collaboration and within the first minute of our first conversation, the overlap between their ideas and Affric Highlands was staring us in the face.

The intention for the land is to restore native forest and other habitats, while studying the ecological changes as that happens.  Working with charity The Lifescape Project, drones, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and DNA analysis are all part of the impressive array of technology AECOM can deploy to develop our understanding of how wildlife responds to changes in the land.

Since beginning work on the site last year, the team has focused on carbon sequestration and storage, river accessibility for salmonid fish and understanding the use of the site by species like red squirrel, pine marten, mountain hare and maybe even Scottish wildcat.  In future, the work could move onto boosting populations of threatened species and, if appropriate, reintroducing locally extinct species, possibly starting with wood ants.

AECOM are also focused on the wider social, human, and financial value of the natural environment, so the overlap with Affric Highlands is clear.  They are keen to go beyond studying environmental change to also consider impacts on a range of social issues such as job creation, skills development, health and wellbeing, knowledge creation, education opportunities and building local community networks.

All this requires understanding what people with a range of different perspectives think and value about the land.  To do this, the Laboratory will be used as an opportunity to engage with local businesses, communities, landowners and school children.  The team will work with artists and use virtual reality and audio soundscapes to help people understand their ideas for the land and to enable collaborative discussions about how to manage and interact with nature on the site.

One of the first public steps the Natural Capital Laboratory will take will be to make a selection of their wildlife camera footage available online on a digital platform which they will use to increasingly share their findings going forward.  Given the power of the technology available to them, their insights promise to be really valuable and the ensuing local discussions a fascinating part of exploring the relationships between nature, communities and economy.



Alan McDonnell, Trees for Life, March 2020

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