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Cromarty Firth freeport opportunities there to be grasped, says Highland Council stalwart reflecting on 50 years' service

By Hector MacKenzie

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John McHardy in Invergordon. He has lived in Easter Ross for 60 years and has been at the heart of efforts to expand provision of affordable housing. Picture: Callum Mackay.
John McHardy in Invergordon. He has lived in Easter Ross for 60 years and has been at the heart of efforts to expand provision of affordable housing. Picture: Callum Mackay.

John McHardy never looked back when he left Invergordon Academy in 1972 at the age of 15.

Taking up an apprenticeship as an electrician with local firm R. R. Mackenzie, it was “a time of opportunity” that he sees mirrored today with the nascent Cromarty Firth freeport.

Stepping down from Highland Council after a 50-year career in local government, most recently as housing development manager heading up a small team responsible for the development of affordable homes across the region, he is well placed to offer a personal overview of the past half century on the cusp of another period of rapid change.

He says: “I have enjoyed every day of the last 50 years and my only regret is that I am leaving at the dawn of the Inverness and Cromarty Firth freeport, which will be the most important development to come to the area since the developments of the early ‘70s.

“The freeport will provide employment for people, very much like me when I was starting out all these decades ago when one of the spin-offs of the oil industry was a need for more homes, allowing the council to employ me as an apprentice.

“There will be people who may be concerned that development of the port will not directly benefit the area and may have a detrimental effect on our communities.

“Those who lived in the area in the early ‘70s may recall similar views which were expressed at that time, but I would suggest that the benefits have proved that these concerns have been largely unfounded and hope that folk embrace the opportunities which will come through regeneration of our communities.”

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Part of a family with six children, he moved to Alness in 1963 and has spent the remaining 60 years living between Invergordon and Dingwall. Along with wife, Edith, he has lived in Evanton since 1979, raising three children in the process.

While grateful for the time spent on site as a teenage apprentice, learning from different trades, he “was on the lookout for something different” and wasn’t afraid to take the plunge into something new.

Answering an advert in the Ross-shire Journal, he secured a position as an apprentice architectural technician as part of the architect’s department of Ross and Cromarty County Council, starting in September 1973 for the princely sum of £596 a year.

It was to be the start of a 50-year journey as an officer of the County, District and finally Highland Councils.

John McHardy in Invergordon. Picture: Callum Mackay.
John McHardy in Invergordon. Picture: Callum Mackay.

He jokes: “I started this journey before the world discovered ABBA and I can honestly say that I have since met a few Dancing Queens but many more Super Troopers!”

Heading a team responsible, along with housing association partners, for delivering 500 new affordable homes a year, he’s aware of the “huge need” within Highland communities.

Leaving with 8 O Grades, he “literally burned everything I had at school – I was not going back” and grabbed opportunity with both hands, prepared to adapt along the way. Asked about his advice for young people trying to figure out their future, he recommends “trying things out”.

He said of the freeport: “New people will come but there’s nothing to fear. They will become your friends, your doctor, your mechanic.”

His job, experience and personal observation leads to a simple conclusion: “Everyone needs somewhere to live.”

A view of the Cromarty Firth. Picture: Gary Anthony.
A view of the Cromarty Firth. Picture: Gary Anthony.

Educated in huts at Invergordon, he also firmly believes it’s people and not buildings that matter most when it comes to education and says of growing demands for improvements in everything from potholed roads to schools: “We have got used to things that we can’t afford any more.” Costs have soared and the price of oil and conflicts have had an impact, he argues.

He is well aware of demands and discontent in some quarters but sees the top priority as “not a heap of new schools but to educate our kids”.

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