The snow is falling in Aviemore, but the window display of the Walkers shortbread bakery is springing with Easter treats, alongside the more traditional thistle rounds and petticoat tails.
With its factory to the north in Elgin, and outlets like this one dotted across the region, Walkers is one of the biggest private employers in the Highlands. Jim Walker, whose grandfather started the company more than a century ago, is under no illusions about the human underpinnings of his international export business.
“Foreign nationals are critical to our workforce in the Highlands. In the busy season, we employ around 1,700 workers, 500 of whom are mainly EU nationals, and that allows us to make up the numbers that we can’t find locally when it is seasonal work.”
According to Walker, the effect of the Brexit vote on these employees has been subtle but significant: “They don’t feel quite so welcome and I can see a gradual drift of them returning home, especially as the exchange rate makes work here less appealing.”
It is immediately apparent on a visit to Aviemore, the tourist heart of the Highlands, that EU nationals here are by no means a drifting population of seasonal workers: 91% of non-UK EU nationals employed by businesses in the region are permanent staff.
Further up Grampian Road, at the four-star Ravenscraig guest house, owner Scott Burns-Smith explains that he “only employs locally”, before adding that a key member of staff is from the Czech Republic. “Her daughter goes to school with my children. The primary school in Aviemore is extremely diverse and it’s great for the kids,” he says.
“I can’t say I was happy about the [Brexit] decision, but I’m feeling positive, and the last 10 years have seen only growth in the tourism sector.”
Before embarking on this independent venture, Burns-Smith worked in senior management for the Macdonald hotel group, whose mammoth resort dominates Aviemore town centre.
It was here that Preslava Gancheva worked before settling a few miles down the Spey valley in Newtonmore. She echoes Burns-Smith’s sentiments: “The local people I know have travelled the world and most have spent time in other countries. This makes life colourful and diverse.”
The abundant natural beauty, and an unexpected job offer, drew her to the Highlands in 2014 from Bulgaria and she is now, like so many other like her, embedded in the local community, exhibiting her photographs of the local landscape at a nearby gallery.
Presenting the Scottish government’s latest analysis of the impact of Brexit in January, the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, underlined the serious consequences of a hard Brexit on vital EU migration. Population growth across the Highlands and Islands has been a success story of the past decade, with EU migrants in particular reversing long-term decline and mitigating the effects of an ageing society.
But, as Sturgeon emphasised, Scotland is still facing a significant demographic challenge, with more deaths than births forecast every year for the next 25 years. According to current projections, migration will account for all of Scotland’s population growth up to 2041. Indeed, a recent Scottish government discussion paper on migration called for Scotland-specific visas and further devolution to deal with the country’s acute needs.
If a hard Brexit goes ahead then we will really be up the swanny
There were 219,000 EU nationals living in Scotland up to June 2017, accounting for 4.1% of the population. There is no doubt that they are fundamental to the Highland economy and society; research for the Federation of Small Businesses found 41% of Highland employers have EU staff in their workforce, rising to 45% at tourism and leisure firms. The comparative figure for the whole of the UK is just 20%.
As the local MSP Kate Forbes explains, the impact of the current uncertainty is emotional as much as economic: “When you have a big influx of population as has happened here, they settle in, have kids, and there are a lot of mixed families in the Highlands. Those families are now feeling unsettled. We hear a lot about the growth in tourism and the food and drink sector, but these are small businesses worrying about where they will find the staff to open next year.”
Aside from tourism, the struggle to recruit healthcare workers into rural areas is well-documented.
Prof Angus Watson, the director of research, development and innovation at NHS Highlands, is blunt. “If a hard Brexit goes ahead then we will really be up the swanny because we do rely so heavily on EU nationals to support our services at all strata, from healthcare assistants to consultants.”
For Katarzyna Michelowska, a Polish carer based in Ullapool, the uncertainty is hard to bear. “For most of my Polish friends it is a big unknown, especially for those with houses or businesses here. It’s all on hold.”
She recalls a recent, ugly encounter in Inverness, with a passerby shouting abuse after hearing her accent. “I’m worried that for people who think in that way [Brexit] will almost give them the right to think that.”
She was particularly shockedbecause her experience of living in the Highlands since she moved from Glasgow four years ago has been overwhelmingly positive. “Everybody is so friendly. They know that they need people like me, especially in care environment, and they know that the majority of eastern Europeans come here to work and want to do something meaningful with our lives.”