Rural hospitality businesses across Scotland are facing a critical staffing crisis this summer with hotels and restaurants being forced to limit opening hours, reduce what they can offer, or close all together. Demand for Highland holidays is booming, but there’s not enough staff to keep the doors open. Why? There’s nowhere for them to live.
Lorna Finlayson, co-owner of Crannog Restaurant in Fort William has struggled to recruit this year. She says: “It’s been a horrid, scary time and most restaurateurs I know of are re-thinking their lives just now”. Crannog has a second venue, popular gastro pub Garrison West. This year Crannog is unable to open both venues due to lack of staff, a painful situation for the company, and a sad loss to locals and visitors.
Scott Fleming runs The Pine Marten Bar in Aviemore with business partner Katie Jachac, for them the staffing situation is “a nightmare”. Fleming says: “The main problem seems to be finding chefs and accommodation in Aviemore. The accommodation situation in Aviemore is very frustrating. There are so many holiday homes and unaffordable housing estates being built that it makes it near impossible for a small business like ourselves to even buy a house to house our staff – which we are in the process of trying to do without much luck.” After a two month hunt Fleming and Jachac managed to rent one room in a shared house and a new chef will be moving in and starting soon.
In Aberfeldy, Rachel Rowley of Ballintaggart explains: “We don’t have a problem attracting people because it’s an amazing offer to come and live and work in the Highlands, it’s an amazing place. The issue we have is there’s nowhere to put them. People need accommodation.” For a short time Ballintaggart had no breakfast chef: “We had to adapt our breakfast, to offer continental not hot cooked options. We’re really honest with our guests, we just said this is where we’re at at the moment. It’s going to be a really luxurious continental, but it is because we don’t have a breakfast chef”. Over the years Rowley has had chefs try to commute from as far as Edinburgh (about 70 miles each way). She recalls: “So many nights in the winter when Sara commuted, I’d honestly be having kittens that something would happen to her, tired after a long shift driving that long road on her own. Honestly that weight of responsibility, I would never forgive myself if something happened. I used to regularly have her stay at my house instead.”
Hotels that have live-in accommodation across the region appear to fare slightly better with recruitment, but few people want to live in shared work accommodation long-term. Live-in is fine for a summer but hospitality businesses need people who will be long term employees, and they need homes.
The rise of short term lets across Scotland has been well documented, but the impact on smaller communities can be particularly stark. While visitors may contribute to the economy, each new holiday let decreases the housing stock further. Currently Aviemore has 142 properties listed on Airbnb, Aberfeldy has 423 and Fort William 856. Popular property websites Rightmove and Zoopla report no rental property availability in any of these small towns.
It’s not only hospitality workers that are affected by this housing crisis. Lewis McRae is 21 and works as a joiner. He is one of a growing number of Highland young people with nowhere to live. During the pandemic he rented an Airbnb property in the village of Glenfinnan where he grew up. Once restrictions were lifted he was immediately asked to leave. He managed to find a room in a shared flat near Fort William (17 miles away). After only three months he and his flatmate were given notice to leave as the owner plans to convert the flat into an Airbnb. “For my flatmate that was the third time that has happened.” McRae is currently homeless, sleeping on friends’ sofas and camping on the building site where he works.
McRae and friends are planning to coordinate with young people on Skye who are faced with the same issues, as part of a ‘No Fair BnB’ campaign. There is evidence of other grassroots campaigns starting in the area, recently spray painted banners appeared around Fort William, calling for “Community first action on short term lets.”
McRae doesn’t blame the landlords: “You can’t fault those people, they want to make a bit of extra money. It might be their main source of income, it’s a fault of the laws and the lack of infrastructure in place”. He understands that for many: “AirBnBs are cheaper than hotels, but hotels are local businesses, they employ local staff. It’s extra job creation. In Airbnb you pay for a space but they don’t always support the local economy otherwise.” He suggests a policy where: “Every second building you own has to be a long term let. There needs to be some sort of focus, almost forcing long term lets”.
McRae says some new flats are being built in Fort William, but he would love to stay in Glenfinnan: “I’m working here and I want to be able to live here and there just aren’t any options. For me to be part of this community I have to resort to homelessness to be able to contribute.”
Glenfinnan, a village of only 120 people, has 11 properties listed on Airbnb. Of these only one has current availability, a one-bed ‘tiny house’ at £164 per night. In the village, a hugely popular destination for visitors to Scotland, both hotels and the visitor centre are currently struggling to recruit for the summer.