Adviser on the Edge

careers in island communities: research, theory and practice

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Young People’s Attitudes and Aspirations in the Islands

So, over the last couple of months Highlands and Islands Enterprise have been publishing a range of reports on the attitudes and aspirations of young people in the Highlands and Islands. The research consisted of a survey of young people (aged 15-30), some online focus groups and consultations with a range of stakeholders (I’m rather proud to be named as one of the consulted stakeholders!). As well as a general report on aspirations and attitudes in the Highlands and Islands, separate reports have been completed for Orkney and Shetland, as well as for other areas.

Over the last week I have been reading and digesting these reports and in this blog will attempt to draw out some key findings.

Orkney and Shetland Stayers and Leavers

Firstly, and significantly for my research, the report categorises young people in terms of their planned migration statuses. These are summarised in the table below:

Which of the following best describes you?

Expressed in terms of % of total excluding potential returners, new residents

and none of the above





Highlands and Islands


Committed stayer: I live in the H&I and I plan on living and working here 55 58 43
Reluctant stayer: I live in the H&I; I would prefer to leave but I don’t think I will be able to 3 6 5
Reluctant leaver: I live in the H&I; I would prefer to stay but I don’t think I will be able to live and work here 18 10 13
Committed leaver: I live in the H&I, but I plan to leave and live and work elsewhere 24 27 40

(adapted from HIE 2015a, HIE 2015b)

What we can see here is that young people in Orkney and Shetland are considerably more likely to be ‘committed stayers’ and less likely to be ‘committed leavers’. In Orkney young people are more likely to be stayers than in Shetland, and in Shetland there is a high proportion of reluctant leavers.

Curiously in both Orkney and Shetland the main towns (Lerwick and Kirkwall) have greater proportions of reluctant stayers, and less committed leavers or committed stayers than in the other (often more rural areas) or the islands. This suggests some regional variation within Orkney and Shetland.

When looking at future aspirations, the pattern of commitment to the islands remains marked, so over half of young people in the islands want to be in the islands in five years’ time (which compares to 36% for the Highlands and Islands region as a whole). These levels are even higher when young people are asked to consider where they wish to be by the age of 35 with 57% from Shetland and 65% from Orkney wanting to be in their local area (significantly higher than regional average of 33%).

Overall these figures demonstrate that young people in Orkney and Shetland view their communities very positively, and although some wish to leave many leavers also wish to return to the islands in later life. These figures also show some variations between Orkney and Shetland, suggesting perhaps slightly higher commitment to staying in the islands or returning to the islands in later life in Orkney than in Shetland. However, Orkney also has higher levels of committed leavers, so perhaps as has been suggested in previous research from HIE, there may be a pattern of ‘planned return’ in Orkney.

Understanding these patterns

The rest of the reports offer some interesting features of young people’s perceptions which might help explain these patterns. Some interesting points are:

Perceptions of the community

  • Young people from Orkney and Shetland have the highest levels of pride in their local community of all areas in the Highlands and Islands region. Similarly there are very high percentages of young people in these island groups reporting that the communities are a good place to raise a family (94% in Orkney, 96% in Shetland). And compared to the Highlands and Islands as a region, Orkney and Shetland are felt to be the safest areas.
  • However, 25% of young people ‘strongly disagree’ that the islands are places where it’s okay to be different – although this is in line with the regional averages.

Further and Higher Education

  • Compared to the regional averages, school leavers from Shetland are slightly less likely to want to go on to further education (college or university), this compares to Orkney where young people are considerably more likely to want to progress.
  • Young people in Orkney and Shetland are more positive about the local further and higher education offerings than in the rest of the region, believing there is a good range of courses and that these are well aligned to employment opportunities.
  • Young people in Orkney are more familiar with the offering of UHI than regionally, in Shetland proportions are similar to the regional averages.
  • Higher levels of young people in Orkney and Shetland would be happy to attend UHI. The cost of studying in Shetland is perceived less favourably and in Orkney more favourably than the regional averages. This could perhaps be due to the high accommodation costs in Shetland and the geographical distances that some young people in Shetland would need to cover to get to Lerwick.


  • Awareness of graduate placements in Orkney and Shetland is low, although proportions are similar to regional levels.
  • In comparison opportunities for apprenticeships are viewed much more strongly than in the region as a whole – in Shetland 69% and in Orkney 60% think opportunities are quite good (compared to 49% regionally)
  • The level of local employment opportunities and pay levels are also viewed more positively than in the region as a whole – 64% of young people in Shetland and 51% in Orkney said local employment opportunities were quite or very good – higher than 35% regional average. In terms of pay, 39% in Orkney and 57% in Shetland said this was quite or very good, higher than the regional average of 27%.
  • In Shetland the labour market appears to be viewed more positively in Orkney, with men in Shetland being much more positive than women. There is some suggestion that this could be due to the strength of the male dominated (and well remunerated) oil and gas sector in Shetland.
  • The perception of pay levels in Shetland gets more positive with age, but in Orkney perceptions get less positive with age. Similarly the prospects for career development are viewed more positively with age in Shetland and less positively in Orkney.
phone pics 2015 july 3460

Lerwick: in the left of the picture is an accommodation barge brought to Shetland to help house workers for the new gas plant. Although the strength of the oil and gas industry may result in positive impacts such as the availability of work, negative impacts such as the cost of accommodation may also result.

Other factors

  • Housing is more of an issue than regionally in Shetland and less of an issue in Orkney.
  • Public transport is rated strongly for availability but very poorly for affordability in both island groups. Notably as well as plane travel being considered unaffordable, so is boat travel with approximately one third in Orkney and half in Shetland considering the ferry unaffordable. This contrasts to other areas in the region such as the Outer Hebrides where the rate is considerably lower because of the ‘Road Equivalent Tariff’ being offered.
  • Broadband speeds and access do not appear to be a significant concern, but mobile connectivity is a fairly big issue in Orkney in Shetland, with these two island groups rating mobile connectivity the worst in the whole region.
  • The availability of arts and leisure facilities are very well rated in both island groups.
  • Although generally the perceptions of the island groups are very positive perhaps somewhat strangely in both islands there are lower proportions of young people than regionally believing the region is a better place to live now than five years ago, and there is also greater pessimism about the future.

Overall the research demonstrates that there is significant regional variability in the perceptions of young people. Although both island groups are viewed very positively overall, there are significant differences in things like how the labour market is perceived and housing issues. It is quite possible that some of these differences in perception are due to material differences between the communities – for example the different geographical position and layout of the island groups, and the different labour markets (with the impact of the oil and gas sector on Shetland specifically being noted throughout the research).

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The role of humour in the creation of island graduate identities

What I love about research is the way that interesting ideas come at you sideways. So, a couple of weeks ago I met a friend who is based at the Centre for Nordic Studies in Orkney and has been researching the relationship between language and identity focussing on the community of Stromness from the 1960s to the present. She leant me her masters dissertation into the dialogical negotiation of cultural identity in Orkney and it was fascinating!

I particularly loved the discussion of Bakhtin’s work and the lens it can give to examining the construction of Orcadian identity. This reminded me of how much I loved studying Bakhtin in my first degree and got me thinking about how I could use my background in literature and literary theory in my current studies.

One of the statements that stood out from Becky’s research was:

“Bakhtin’s identification of carnival laughter offers a useful framework to describe how humour in Orkney acts not only against bigsy-ness [an Orcadian word that roughly translates as ‘arrogance’] and towards inclusiveness but at the same time is characterised by ambivalence, allowing things to be said publicly which can then be disclaimed by appealing to the fact that ‘everybody kens its only said in fun’” (Rebecca Ford, 2013, unpublished)

And this reminded me of how in my masters studies one of the key findings was that graduates looking for work in Orkney described avoiding talking about their degree because they didn’t want to seem ‘too big for their boots’ – that is they avoided being ‘bigsy’. And yet, at the same time they did need to show their skills / abilities in the workplace, and to be able to talk about their degree in contexts where it was relevant. I guess in this respect, there seems to be a high demand on graduates in a small community to maintain different identities, that are constructed in different ways in different settings, and yet, their identities must still remain consistent enough so that their identities don’t contradict each other. It is quite possible that carnival laughter plays a part in this, I suggested in my dissertation that in order to be successful, graduates commonly adopted a strategy that involved ‘downplaying’ their abilities directly (in speech) but making sure that they demonstrated their skills practically (through voluntary and community work particularly). Thinking about this in the light of Becky’s work, I wonder if the added advantage to this strategy is that it allows a particular form of self-deprecating humour – with graduates (humorously) downplaying their skills in a way that may actually ironically improve their reputation because the people they are talking to know that the graduate is really very capable indeed (they can see it from the work they’ve done).

One of the examples of humour in Becky's dissertation was a story about a library assistant who thought someone wanted a book about 'Thomas O'Quoyness' when actually they wanted a book about Thomas Aquinas (with 'Aquinas' and 'O'Quoyness'  being pronounced very similarly in an Orcadian accent).

Quoyness chambered tomb in Sanday. One of the examples of humour in Becky’s dissertation was a story about a library assistant who thought someone wanted a book about ‘Thomas O’Quoyness’ when actually they wanted a book about Thomas Aquinas (as ‘Aquinas’ and ‘O’Quoyness’ can sound very similar in an Orcadian accent).


The first Conference Poster

So, this is exciting! I’ve just made my first ever Conference Poster ! Take a look and see what you think – as it’s the first ever poster I’ve made, and I had to teach myself how to do it I’m hoping it’s okay. But I know there’s probably lots of room for improvement. If you have any tips let me know! Oh and the poster is for the Future Connections conference later this week.

conference poster