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View from the Street: Embracing the energy and optimism of islanders might reverse our productivity woes

Malcolm Robertson

Founding partner

Every Easter, my family and I go to Iona. We have deeply personal reasons for doing so, but it is a small island that captivates and inspires thousands of tourists every year.

Iona lies off the west coast of the neighbouring island of Mull and is connected (when they work) to the mainland by two ferries. The postcards of Iona are illustrated by turquoise seas, deserted white and gold beaches and the ancient relics of Columba’s arrival on the south coast of the island 1,461 years ago.

A stunning location with a rich heritage, visitors might overlook the fact that Iona is also the home and workplace of around 150 people. At three miles long and one mile wide, I reckon it must be one of the most productive places in the world, despite the fact that the nature of its location makes everything more difficult than it tends to be on the mainland.

I have many friends there. They are fishermen, farmers, crofters, ferry skippers, small business owners, artists, craftspeople, musicians, hoteliers, environmental pioneers and entrepreneurs.

Even before the unimaginative influence of a distant Edinburgh government is felt here, survival and progress require hard work, tenacity and innovation.

Problems that we mainlanders might leave for another day – or hire others to resolve for us – are fixed there and then. There’s always somebody nearby with a boat or a tractor or a digger or a towbar, or just someone with the experience and perspective of living life on the edge to find a way.

Too often when I’m there, I hear disheartening stories of how this relentlessly positive approach to life is met with indifference from policy makers hundreds of miles away.

It is more than just apathy, though. In some cases, mainland officialdom frustrates, delays and complicates progress – or stops it altogether – seemingly ignorant of the hard realities of small island life.

For those of us inclined to the glass half-full way of life, it is a curious mindset that only ever imagines what cannot be done, and rarely thinks about what can be achieved if courageous hearts and curious minds are put to work.

Last month, the CBI and Fraser of Allander published their latest Scottish productivity index, which measures Scotland’s productivity indicators and compares those to the rest of the UK and our international competitors.

The latest results show that Scotland lags in 10 of 13 indicators, which include investment, skills and economic inactivity. Both the CBI and the respected economists of Fraser of Allander called for governments to work more closely with business.

To that call, with which I agree, I would add a polite request that we town and city-dwellers look up from our screens, get out of the central belt more often and explore the enterprising lives and minds of those who live on Iona, and indeed our many other islands and fragile rural communities on the mainland.

If we can see beyond the postcards, I can say with certainty that we will find inspiration, energy and optimism. And as the productivity statistics show, we could all do with more of those.