Andrew Eames tells the remarkable story of how one article in Business Life helped resuscitate Hebridean communities.
The story so far...
Exactly one year ago Business Life published a story called 'Marketing The Isles'. It was about one man's crusade to bring high-tech employment to what had traditionally been one of the most low-tech environments in the United Kingdom: the Outer Hebrides. Donnie Morrison had identified a huge resource of talent rotting away among the lochs and mountains. The Hebrides has the highest proportions of graduates per capita in the UK, because high academic qualifications were considered essential to get a good footing on the mainland, and yet tradition demanded that the new generations should eventually return to take over the family croft, where sheer physical isolation swiftly put paid to any professional ambitions.
With little in the way of local careers - fish-farming is the biggest employer, at an average yearly salary of £8,000 - all those hard-earned qualifications and work experience counted for nothing. But then teleworking came along, providing the opportunity to short-circuit the barrier of isolations, to "live local, work global" - which was the story we reported in July last year.
As a journalist you sometimes have the feeling that your words are disappearing off into the void - but not this time. Nine months after the article, this magazine's editor, Sandra Harris, received an e-mail from Donnie Morrison."I have been meaning for some time to contact you - I thought you might be interested to know that I have had an incredible response and have now created a significant number of new jobs. So far 12 companies have visited the Western Isles as a direct result of the article ... two weeks ago I sent two teleworkers to Germany to be trained ... one man even sold his home in England ... I had a call from a US software development company, by lunchtime that same day they had employed two people..."
So one year on, we have revisited the story to see who responded so positively.
Jonathan Plache, managing director of Quantum Veqtor, a US-based manufacturer of software for interactive laser games, read the article on a flight to Germany. Plache was feeling deeply frustrated with his endless quest for reliable programmers, and was already in discussions with India about resources there.
"In our UK base in Surrey we'd hire people and they'd move on within a couple of months. Donnie gave me some names of people who seemed qualified, so we have then a mini project to do. They got it right first time, which is pretty unusual, so we hired four. It was truly a breath of fresh air."
On a flight to London was Munich-based Dr Peter Löw, whose company Infochem builds databases of specialist chemical information in partnership with big publishers around the world. Dr Löw already sources expertise as far afield as Russia, and the article about the Hebrides struck a chord, particularly as he spent all his holidays up there in the 1980s.
Morrison put him in touch with the Uist-based Kathleen Turner at Lasair, which was already using a network of teleworkers to create business databases for a company in America. "This was new territory for us," says Kathleen. "We knew we had some chemists on our skills register, but we didn't realise there might be a requirement for what they could do."
Like Jonathon Plache, Dr Löw set some trial tasks, and was similarly impressed by the results. "Our work is pretty sophisticated, and these were evidently very, very skilled people. I was really surprised. " So he visited the islands to see the network and technical support for himself.
Infochem have since flown a handful of personnel out to Munich for two weeks' training, and while the project has yet to start for real, Dr Löw hopes for great things in the business of building information products from scratch. "It has been a wonderful personal experience to work with these people."
"The magazine was passed to me by my husband," says Gill Shaw, a Cambridge-based marketing consultant to Internet-based communications businesses. "It struck a chord - I used to work with someone from Stornoway." In Gill's portfolio was a new product called Criticall, an Internet-based emergency call-out service initially targeted at industries involved in the production or transport of hazardous materials.
Gill was looking for a location, staff and technical support to run Criticall, so she visited Donnie and the Stornoway-based multimedia professionals Eolas, and was very impressed. "It was hard to believe there were so many qualified people," she says. Initially the service will be run by six full-time staff, rising eventually to 18 and working from home - with Eolas providing technical support.
Among the 220 enquiries that followed the article, many were from individuals speculating about a change of lifestyle. Amongst them were Ed Mountifield and his wife June, who picked up Business Life on a flight to Aberdeen. Within a matter of months they had sold their house in Tunbridge Wells and moved to the islands, where Ed creates subscription databases for magazine publishers and financial information companies in the South.
But the article has brought locals back, too. Architectural draughtsman John Macleod from Harris, a specialist in computer-aided structural design, was having to spend most of his time away from home, until the magazine fell into the hands of the chief architect of Dundee City Council, who was suffering from too much work and too few resources. He rang Donnie, who consulted his skills register, and now John Macleod, is even "starting to think about doing things on the croft".
The magazine also attracted the attention of one of the Internet's big players, Cisco Systems. Cisco is the US-based worldwide leader in hardware and software for the Internet, and it had already won the contract to network the new University of the Highlands and Islands. Cisco's Scotland manager Margaret Morrison spent a week with Donnie, talking to people on the ground, and now Cisco will be sponsoring a research fellowship in Stornoway and providing equipment to local colleges.