I saw straightaway how people’s attitudes changed towards me because my circumstances had changed,” she explains. “I was the same person inside, but the way people treated me was completely different.”
Seeing that injustice stoked a fire within Bligh and she set up The Libertie Project, a social enterprise that helps people who are disabled or disadvantaged to improve their life chances and train to get jobs. The project features among the 15 inspirational female-run businesses to recently win a place on the bank and Getty Images’ Female Focus #BeTheRoleModel initiative.
A large part of improving people’s life chances involves giving them access to digital technology, so they can access public services and information on the internet, with the digital side of the project’s work expanding during the pandemic.
“We went from supporting 100 – 150 people a year pre-Covid to gain digital access to more than 800 households in the past year,” adds Bligh. “On the creative side, we’ve supported just over 2,000 households – pre-Covid, that figure was 150 – 200 a year – with Covid shining a light on the therapeutic benefits of creativity.”
Reinvigorating the high street
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Inverness’s growing business base is “innovative, diverse and increasingly resilient”, says Stewart Nicol, chief executive of Inverness Chamber of Commerce, adding that the Inverness Campus is a great example of these values. “The Campus brings together pioneering businesses, researchers, academia and scientists and provides a perfect place in which to collaborate and innovate,” says Nicol. “As a purpose-built location for those operating in life sciences, digital healthcare and technology sectors, the 215-acre site is already a thriving life sciences community.”
The region is also intent on developing the massive potential offered by the offshore renewable energy sector and the development of green hydrogen technology, says Nicol. “By attracting inward investment in innovative renewable energy technologies of the future, we are seeking to equip local people with skills, and businesses with opportunities that will bring transformational regeneration to the Highlands.”
And as Inverness emerges from lockdown, many initiatives are reviving the city centre. Work is under way to refurbish the Victorian Market and convert the former Arnotts department store into shops and flats. “The whole of Inverness’ old town is getting a much-needed shot in the arm right now and we’re excited to play a small part in that,” adds Munro, whose butcher’s shop sits near both sites.
Other infrastructure investments include the completed Inverness Townscape Heritage Project to regenerate conservation areas and the ongoing Inverness CityFibre project, a £20m investment to provide full fibre connectivity to the city. Meanwhile, local businesses have created the Support Inverness website to promote trade online and encourage people to shop locally.
That willingness to collaborate strikes a chord with Michael Golding, chief executive of Visit Inverness Loch Ness, the area’s tourism business improvement district. “It’s a thriving city, and also has this community feel, where people know each other and find opportunities to work together. And we’ve seen that with the pandemic recovery efforts, with tour operators working with key visitor sites,” he says.
Golding points to the strong links between the city and its surrounding area, which includes attractions such as Culloden battlefield, Loch Ness, and the North Coast 500 driving route. “Inverness draws in visitors and locals from throughout the Highlands and Islands, which is an area the size of Belgium,” he adds.
“Inverness has long been an attractive place to live and work, but the opportunities for doing business in this city are more plentiful than ever before,” says the bank’s local enterprise manager Màiri Macdonald. “With a booming tourism and leisure industry, an ever-growing student population, and world-class scenery, historical and cultural attractions on our doorstep, Inverness acts as a gateway to the wider Highlands and Islands and is a fantastic city in which to base your business.”