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Ross-shire businesses must dig deep in fightback as coronavirus crisis spurs closure fears; Award-winning Alness High Street amongst those hammered by impact of Covid-19


By Hector MacKenzie

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Award-winning Alness High Street, in common with others across Ross-shire, has taken a battering from coronavirus.
Award-winning Alness High Street, in common with others across Ross-shire, has taken a battering from coronavirus.

AN award-winning High Street is facing fears of shop closures and damaging decline as the financial fall-out from the Covid-19 pandemic strikes.

Amid cautious optimism in the area’s tourism and hospitality trade, shopkeepers in Alness are expressing deep concern at the slow pace of recovery as lockdown eases.

The town has shown resilience during the crisis with volunteers delivering meals to vulnerable folk. But recovery looks challenging.

One trader, who didn’t wish to be named, described the once-bustling thoroughfare as “dead”, with footfall extremely poor.

The street – named Scottish winner at the 2018 Great British High Street Awards – had full business occupancy before the crisis struck.

Already, two premises – the British Red Cross charity shop and the Beata sewing outlet – have shut for good. Others, it is feared, may follow.

Carolyn Wilson: “I don’t think anyone should underestimate how much damage this has done to our economy."
Carolyn Wilson: “I don’t think anyone should underestimate how much damage this has done to our economy."

Alness-based Highland councillor and shopkeeper Carolyn Wilson, who has run Victoriana florists for 30 years, said: “The whole High Street is very quiet.

“A lot of people who have been shielding for months are very anxious. Some are still not coming out. Others who do come out need a lot of reassurance about safety measures.

“I don’t think anyone should underestimate how much damage this has done to our economy.

“I’m also worried about the amount of people saying they’re now shopping online for the first time. We’re very concerned. There are some shops closed now that will never reopen.

“Other councillors from Easter Ross, from Tain, the seaboard villages, Invergordon are telling me they’re also really worried.

“Businesses supported by landlords are in a better place, but I know businesses that won’t re-open because they got no help from landlords.”

Kim Rait of Black Orchid in Alness is taking it a day at a time.
Picture: Callum Mackay
Kim Rait of Black Orchid in Alness is taking it a day at a time. Picture: Callum Mackay

Kim Rait, who has run the Black Orchid gift shop for the last seven years, echoed those fears.

She reopened on July 13, but only part-time with two part-time staff still on furlough.

She said: “Regular customers have been brilliant. They’re trying to support us and the High Street.

“But we’ve suffered the hit of fewer people in town. This is definitely the toughest spell we’ve ever encountered. We’re just taking it day by day.”

Bruce Graham, owner of the Eating Plaice chip shop, is operating for only 26 hours a week as compared to 64 before the pandemic.

He stressed: “It is extremely challenging. It’s very quiet.

“I’m optimistic that most of the High Street will weather the storm, but we really don’t know how much weathering some businesses can take.”

Jenny Henderson is cautiously optimistic and taking things slowly.
Jenny Henderson is cautiously optimistic and taking things slowly.

In Cromarty, Royal Hotel owner Jenny Henderson was cautiously optimistic after re-opening with reduced capacity.

Amid careful social distancing measures, she is offering five rooms rather than eight, plus reduced restaurant capacity inside and out.

Mrs Henderson said: “I prefer to take things slowly and do it properly, rather than rush in gung-ho.

“But we’ve been really well-supported by our regulars and our locals in Cromarty and the Black Isle.”

The upmarket Torridon Hotel is operating at about 80 per cent capacity, with co-owner Dan Rose-Bristow stressing bookings since re-opening on July 15 were “very strong” for the next month to three months.

Gairloch Hotel, despite a lack of usual tour parties, reported being packed out while Jock Urquhart, owner of the popular Ceilidh Place in Ullapool - with rooms, restaurant, bookshop and an art gallery - was also cautiously hopeful of recovery.

Mr Urquhart said: “It’s a bit up and down, but there are certainly plenty of folk about.

“While we’re busy and happy with our uptake of our rooms, it is a truncated season. Up to and beyond August, bookings are reasonable but we will have to look at appropriate staffing levels if that tails off.”

A boom in self-catering has helped take visitors north and Fiona Campbell, chief executive of the Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers, said: “Self-catering is emerging from the pandemic with optimism, ambition, and an overall positive outlook.

“We’ve heard from operators that there has been a big increase in bookings, especially from Scots looking for a well-earned staycation in stunning and relaxing places like Ross-shire.”

Share your story by emailing hector.mackenzie@hnmedia.co.uk

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