Inverness: the new Shangri-La?

It's the fastest-growing city in western Europe - a dazzling beacon of new opportunity and enterpris

"Vibrant, exciting and cosmopolitan. Fabulous mountain scenery. A very low crime rate, and the schools are excellent. Without doubt a great place to live and work . . ." Stuart Black, area director at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, sounds genuinely excited, as well he might. Inverness, the unofficial capital of the Highlands, is now the fastest-growing city in western Europe. Scotland's new Shangri-La is expanding at a dizzying pace.

The A9, the longest and most dangerous road in Scotland, stretches from the central belt to the Highlands, taking you through some of the most dramatic and awe-inspiring scenery imaginable - gnarled mountain ranges, pine forests, castles. Beyond Perth is a desolate and sparsely inhabited world until, roughly 120 miles further north, the road climbs steadily, curves to the right and there, somewhat out of the blue, is Inverness.

In 2001, the population was 51,000. In the six years since, it has climbed to more than 60,000, and there are plans to double it over the next three decades. In many ways, it is an extra ordinary success story in an area where depopulation is the norm. Two new towns, a huge business park and a new university campus are planned; a £20m culture and conference redevelopment is nearing completion; numerous cultural festivals are taking place; major golf courses are being designed; the airport is on course to reach its target of a million passengers a year. The city has a booming healthcare industry, boasting one of the world's leading centres for diabetes research.

You would expect a director of Highlands development to paint it as a picture of paradise, but there are many others who agree with him, es pecially the large number of "downshifters" and retirees who have swapped life in the south-east of England for the far north of Scotland.

On the outskirts of Inverness, plush Wisteria Lane-style housing developments have appeared. Spacious three- and four-bedroomed detached homes, which would cost millions in the south-east, are being snapped up for between £250,000 and £300,000.

Stuart and Alayna Robins moved to Inverness three years ago after 20 years in London working in the City and the civil service, respectively. They were able to sell up and, with the proceeds, buy a much bigger property, start a schoolwear clothing company and still have cash left over. "We got sick of the rat race," says Stuart, 42. "We got sick of the long hours, the constant commuting, not being able to drive anywhere, constantly being stuck in traffic jams."

Alayna, who is two years younger, loves the different pace of life. "I regularly go down to London to see friends and I can't wait to come back. My friends are all stressed out and depressed. Here you get the best of both worlds. It has the economy of a city, but maintains the feel of a town."

Indeed, the cobblestoned city centre is quaint, compact and, apart from some awful 1960s town-centre development, a singularly attractive place. The waterfront on the broad and silvery River Ness is undergoing a major revamp. The west bank is lined with a host of stylish restaurants, which might not seem at all out of the ordinary, until you remember that, until recently, the concept of "dining out" in Inverness amounted to little more than eating a fish supper on a bench after a night in the pub.

The new inhabitants

So change has come, but it is not just those from south of the border that regard this as their utopia. Although English incomers account for a significant proportion of the new inhabitants, the vast bulk of the influx is made up of im migrants from eastern Europe, mainly Poland. At least 5,000 (some say as many as 8,000) have flocked to these parts since 2004, when the Scottish Executive launched an aggressive marketing campaign.

Many of them are qualified professionals: teachers, engineers, social workers. The unemployment rate in Poland, however, is running at just under 20 per cent, and white-collar workers who manage to find work there earn only about £120 a month. Highly skilled Poles can earn more in a week at a Highland fish factory, on a building site or as a cleaner than they do in a month in schools and offices back home. And, despite their qualifications, that is exactly the sort of work that many are doing. The majority are here for the short term, earning as much as they can before they return home.

There are exceptions. Monika Gajda and Gab riela Cabaj, both 28 and both graduates, are employed by Orion Engineering, one of the world's leading oil-industry recruitment agencies. They are planning to settle long term in Inverness. Monika says the quality of life is far higher here. "I sometimes miss big-city life and the weather could be better, but here we don't have to worry about having enough money to pay bills and buy food."

Gabriela joined her husband, who is also from Poland, in Inverness two years ago. "I wouldn't like to live anywhere else," she says. "Life in general is much easier here than in Poland. It's a very nice and pretty area and Scottish people treat foreigners very well."

But naturally one person's heaven is another's hell. There are many native Invernessians who lament the loss of their old way of life. There is no doubt that the population boom has brought problems and there is, at least among a minority, a simmering resentment towards those who have relocated here.

Local people call this "Tescotown", such is the dominance of the retailer. With no competition from Asda or Sainsbury's, 51 pence out of every £1 spent on food shopping in the High-land region goes into a Tesco till. There are three superstores already in the city, and only after fierce protest have planners refused permission for a fourth.

This is the kind of place where people go home for lunch, resulting in the previously unknown problem of gridlock four times a day. The roads are often seething with traffic and the infrastructure is urgently in need of investment and modernisation. Road and rail links to Glasgow and Edinburgh are appalling, and with only one main road through the city, a journey that used to take five minutes can now take an hour.

Drugs and homelessness

Crime has also increased. For the first time, the police are threatening to use dispersal orders to tackle the growing antisocial behaviour problem in some of the more run-down parts of the city. Homelessness is another issue. Figures released in February showed a 200 per cent increase in the number of people living on the street. Although the council has a policy that requires 25 per cent of any new housing development to be made available for social and affordable accommodation, there is a sense that this is too little, too late. The manager of one housing association told me that, for the 11 new flats he had just been given, he had a waiting list of 400.

Drugs are another problem. Dealers from northern England, aware that Scotland's main cities are saturated, see the Highlands as an area of huge potential. Rarely a day passes with out news of a drugs bust at the bus station or on the A9.

There is also concern over the influx of Poles. Zosia Wierzbowicz-Fraser is a teacher at a secondary school in the city and the founder of the Inverness Polish Association. She is dismayed at what she sees as the gross exploitation, in many cases, of young Polish workers and feels many have been lured to the Highlands under false pretences.

She recounts horror stories of Poles sleeping in the bus station, under bushes, and five or six to a caravan, and claims there are unscrupulous landlords charging ex orbitant rents for dorm-style accommodation. "Some of these young Poles," she says, "are living like pigs."

Wierzbowicz-Fraser also says many highly qualified Poles who thought their skills would be put to good use have ended up doing menial jobs. "Poles will do the jobs that no one else wants to do," she says wearily. "They are excellent workers and they are so desperate for money, for a better standard of living, that they will never complain.

"They work the extra hours, the long hours, because, even at the minimum wage here, it is 37 per cent higher than in Poland."

There are, she says, some excellent employers who provide accommodation and language assistance for staff, but they are few and she fears that unless urgent action is taken to address this it will become a big issue.

But perhaps the biggest problem for Inver-ness and the Highlands as a whole is one that is rarely talked about: the stubbornly high and rising suicide rate among men. Young and middle-aged men in this area are three times more likely to take their own lives than their coun terparts in London. New Scottish Executive figures, published at the beginning of this month, showed that the male suicide rate across Scotland as a whole had risen by 22 per cent over a 15-year period, with the Highlands and the Western Isles suffering a disproportionately high rate.

End of a way of life

The researchers blame isolation, alcohol and drug abuse. Other experts have suggested the death of the old Highland way of life. Not long ago, women here raised the children while men supported their families as farmers or fishermen. Such traditional industries have all but disappeared, however, and it is often women who support the family, working in seasonal service industries, while men struggle to find employment and spend long periods on the dole.

There is also the fact that Highland men are notoriously proud and self-reliant. They would never dream of visiting their GP if they were feeling anxious or lonely, and it is still seen as a sign of weakness for a man to talk about emotional difficulties or to say he needs a helping hand.

Drugs and alcohol are undoubtedly another huge factor. Much of Highland life centres on drink, and there is a well-known local say- ing about man's relationship with the bottle: You've got an alcohol problem only if you're drinking two bottles a day instead of one. The most recent figures show that there were 50 suicides last year, and many more attempts.

John Burnside is the reluctant founder of the Inverness Suicide Awareness Group. A former psychiatric nurse-turned-publican, he lost his son, Richard, who was 36, to suicide three years ago. In the three months leading up to his death, two of Richard's closest friends, Ivor Robertson, who was 35, and Mark Thow, who was 40, had taken their own lives.

All three had known each other since primary school and had played for a local pub football team since 1998. They lived within walking distance of each other in Hilton, a housing estate on the outskirts of the city. Their deaths stunned Inverness. At Mark's funeral, Richard turned to his father and gave him some unexpected words of reassurance.

"Dad," he said, "I know I've caused you and Mum a lot of problems over the years, but that is one thing you don't have to worry about - because I would never dream of doing that. I couldn't."

Burnside put a comforting arm around his son and thought, "Thank God", because he didn't believe that he or his wife, Edna, would be able to cope. Three months later Richard, too, had hanged himself. Like Mark and Ivor, he left no note, so those left behind have had to fathom their own explanations.

His father says: "'Why' is the hardest question to answer. Richard had had long spells of unemployment and a painful relationship break-up. Drink was also a problem, but you never expect this."

These days, Burnside devotes his time to raising funds for suicide awareness and support. "Inverness used to be this lovely royal burgh where everyone knew everyone else and always had time to talk," he says. "That has gone. Everyone's rushing about trying to keep up with each other and feeling like a failure if they don't have the big house, the big car and all the material trappings.

"That is the story I'm hearing more and more often - our young men and women feeling like failures."

As the editor of the Inverness Courier told me: "This is no longer Brigadoon." To some, that is a blessing. To others, it is a curse.

Lorna Martin is Scotland editor of the Observer

See also What does Scotland mean to you? - a selection of interviews with Scottish personalities.