The first new tenants will start moving into their houses in Ullapool this week.

They will be taking possession of four new houses in all, solid semi-detached developments on the edge of one of the most picturesque and popular villages in the Highlands.

These are not going to be holiday homes, they are not going to be taken by retirees moving up from the Central Belt or from London, they are not even local housing association properties for those on the housing list.

These houses have been bought and signed off by Wester Ross Fisheries, a local salmon farming company so frustrated by the lack of housing for local workers it decided to provide their accommodation itself.

This is a tale repeated right down the west coast of Scotland, through the islands and up into Shetland and Orkney too.

On Rum, Mowi – Scotland’s biggest salmon company – has finished building two kit houses for its workers.

But, alongside those properties, Mowi has cleared and serviced two other housing plots.

These plots, already fixed up with water, electricity and broadband, are being given to the local community so the islanders can benefit too, by building the houses and either by letting them out or selling them on.

Scotland’s salmon companies employ 466 people in Argyll, 904 in Highland, 582 in the Northern Isles and 363 in the Outer Hebrides. 

Every one of these workers needs to be accommodated and this is the biggest barrier that Scotland’s salmon companies face when trying to recruit and retain staff.

The average wage in the salmon sector is £34,000, enough to attract new graduates to move north and to encourage those with specialist skills in marine biology or veterinary science to settle far from the main centres of population.

But even these good salaries are often not high enough to break into a housing market inflated by holiday homes, down-sizing retirees and those who can work remotely.

Gilpin Bradley, the managing director of Wester Ross Fisheries, said: “Houses are generally unaffordable for young people moving to the area, both in terms of the rent – because holiday homes have driven up those prices – and for those who want to buy.

“That’s why we took the decision to buy these houses and provide subsidised accommodation for our employees.”

Gilpin Bradley of Wester Ross Salmon

The housing issue is one that every salmon company has found itself embroiled in. 

They know they are offering good jobs in fabulous locations. They want people to love living and working around the farms but they also know it can be difficult to retain staff if there is hardly any accommodation and what there is, is ropey.

Among the new tenants in the Wester Ross Fisheries homes will be young graduates, attracted to Ullapool partly because there was good accommodation to go with an interesting job.

These are just the sort of people to help revitalise remote rural communities that the Scottish Government wants to attract.

After all, it is only going to be with young people living and working in Scotland’s fragile rural areas that these places are going to have a proper future.

One young graduate, working on the salmon farm off the Isle of Muck, says there are also other problems which affect people in the islands, problems most people in urban Scotland don’t understand.

“There’s no such thing as popping to Tesco for a pint of milk,” she said.

There is no shop on Muck so all food has to be brought over by boat. It is the same for fuel, which means there has to be good organising and stockpiling, plans which go awry when the ferries don’t arrive.

Clara McGhee, farm technician with Mowi

Then there is broadband. Many of Scotland’s salmon companies have pioneered the installation of superfast internet connections, often using fibreoptic cables, for remote communities.

Last year, Scottish Sea Farms worked with broadband provider HebNet CIC to install superfast cover for the residents of the remote Knoydart peninsula and Loch Nevis.

Mowi has done the same across the small isles of Muck and Rum, moves which have gone a long way to winning over communities, many of whom are enthusiastic supporters of the salmon companies because they seem to be the only ones putting in the infrastructure.

On Rum, for instance, Mowi paid for the installation of a pontoon for visiting yachties with an honesty box at the end. The money collected was then given to the school, to fund trips off the island for the pupils.

On all the islands where they farm, salmon companies regularly use their boats to help out, bringing building materials from the mainland and even acting as an ambulance service, taking islanders to the mainland for medical help.

Scotland’s salmon companies are prepared to step in and provide housing and broadband and other services to remote communities – they have certainly shown that.

There is obviously a frustration within salmon companies that this responsibility is landing on their shoulders, but there is also a feeling that this is part of the contract they have with local communities, helping out wherever they can.

This article by Hamish Macdonell, SSPO Director of Strategic Engagement, first appeared in The Herald.