Fears have been raised that the impact of Brexit on the north and north-east of Scotland could result in “21st Century clearances”.
A hard-hitting report released last night by Scottish Rural Action (SRA) warns that depriving towns and villages from access to EU funding and a workforce from the continent could make living in the area “unviable”.
The Scottish Government’s Brexit secretary Michael Russell was in Moray to hear about the potential impact directly from businesses.
And the minister explained he had already seen evidence of “substantial damage” being done by exaggerating existing issues of depopulation.
Mr Russell said: “The Highlands and islands is going to lose 18 to 20% of its workforce during the next 10 years through retirement.
“How do you replace these people? Unless we get incoming people then you would have to say the difference will be stark.
“I think a long attrition will take place. Aberlour is an interesting example. Walkers is the biggest employer by far with 500 EU nationals – that’s a big number.
“They’re not all going to go home tomorrow, not by any manner of means, but it won’t be as attractive for others to come and if a manufacturer can’t manufacture then they will have to go somewhere else.
“So an issue arises. Will this be viable in some communities in the future?”
Last night, Mr Russell, Moray MSP Richard Lochhead and representatives from SRA attended a public meeting at St Giles Church in Elgin to speak to locals about their findings from sessions held in communities across the region and the possible changes that may be on the way in less than two weeks.
In the SRA’s report, Brexit was described as possibly the “final straw that breaks rural Scotland” following a decade of decreasing budgets, centralised public services and widening social inequality.
Chairwoman Amanda Bargauer said: “There is widespread anger and frustration across rural Scotland, but that anger isn’t solely about Brexit.
“It was clear from discussions that Brexit is compounding long-standing concerns about rural equity and fragility.”
Potential opportunities were, however, highlighted, including detaching rural funding opportunities from farming and fishing, which have previously been prioritised by EU polices.
Mrs Bargauer added: “Technological developments are changing what rural means in the 21st Century.”