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NICKY MARR: We may have Nessie, but we lack confidence, ambition, and infrastructure

By Nicky Marr

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The man in line in front of me at Barcelona airport was causing a hold up, so of course I listened in. At passport control, while everyone else was moving through at that slow, post-Brexit pace that we’ve had to get used to, this bloke was taking ages.

Turns out he’d broken the rules. Having arrived in Spain before Christmas, he had outstayed his 90-day welcome in the EU.

‘Did you know about the 90-day rule?’ he was asked.


‘Then why didn’t you go home?’

‘Because I like it here better than at home.’ Was the simple, honest reply.

It cut no ice.

Nessie having a go at paddle-boarding
Nessie having a go at paddle-boarding

The official chose a fresh page of the man’s passport and removed a huge stamp from his drawer. With a swift clunk, followed by a few taps on the keyboard, a five-year ban on re-entering Europe was imposed. The guy limped forlornly away.

The maximum 90-day rule for non-EU citizens has been around for donkeys, but while we were still in the club, it didn’t apply to us. We could come and go as we pleased, and that included students, workers, and people with second homes in the sun. Those days are now over, although there is a tiny chink of hope that the rules will soon be softened for young people.

That’s great news for our students keen to experience the freedom of living and working abroad, and brilliant news for our hospitality businesses, if working visas can again attract young Europeans to the Highlands and Moray to fill vacancies.

But that’s still an ‘if’. And the ‘young’ requirement comes too late both for me, and for the bloke in front of me in the queue.

I’m not going to rehearse why Brexit was such an appalling idea. But I had every sympathy for the man in front. If I didn’t live in Inverness, I’d prefer life in Spain too.

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We were away for a few days to celebrate a Big Anniversary, and Barcelona didn’t disappoint. Street art, amazing architecture, sunshine, rich heritage, city beaches, and countless shops, restaurants, bodegas, and galleries.

We ticked off a few of the ‘must-sees’ but occasionally left the guidebooks behind too, preferring to wander and discover.

We spent most of our time and money in the city, but travelled to Montserrat, a much-visited monastery and cathedral an hour away by train.

And we talked to people, to get their take on what makes Catalonia special, and to tell them about our home too.

‘You have Nessie, we have Messi’, quipped a particularly clued-up tour guide at Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia. I envied his linguistic skills.

But while we have Nessie, a trump card for any part of the world, and we have whisky, golf, a stunning natural environment, great local produce, and excellent chefs who can pull it all together, we lack three things: confidence, ambition, and infrastructure.

Barcelona was overflowing with all three; it takes confidence to give architects and artists the freedom to create mind-expanding, space-enhancing buildings and public art. It takes ambition to keep investing in metro lines, the city ports, public sports facilities, and public services. And it takes investment in integrated infrastructure to seamlessly move locals and visitors around the region without cars.

Travelling around Barcelona and its neighbouring towns was easy and cheap. Public transport was clean, plentiful, reliable, and joined up.

I wonder what tourists think when they come here. But we shouldn’t just be doing it for them. We deserve better ourselves. Trying to get to and from Inverness airport is marginally improved by the rail halt, but how often are trains matched with flight times? And not everyone can manage the walk.

I love living here. But I implore our national and regional leaders to travel. And watch and notice what others do better and bring that home.

We can’t just rely on our natural resources. We need to join the dots between them too.

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