Adviser on the Edge

careers in island communities: research, theory and practice


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RETI Conference

Cover of the RETI 2015 conference programme

Cover of the RETI 2015 conference programme

The week before last I was lucky enough to attend the latest RETI conference, being held right here in Orkney (hosted by the Centre for Nordic Studies).

RETI stands for Réseau d’Excellence des Territoires Insulaires and is a network of island based universities, of which the University of the Highlands and Islands is one. The conference itself focused on the “Impact of culture heritage on economic development in island destinations” and included delegates from across the world.

The paper I gave was titled: Migration, education and employment decisions of islanders – understanding the role of sociocultural factors in shaping individual decisions and economic outcomes in Orkney and Shetland

And this was the abstract:

Migration, and particularly youth migration, as many commentators have noted, is a common feature of island communities. The ‘missing generation’ of young people is a cause for concern among policy makers in the island communities of Scotland, including Orkney and Shetland. Retention and attraction of young educated professionals is seen as a vital part of increasing levels of human capital and the economic potential of island communities. Therefore understanding the motivations for migration decisions of young island leavers as well as those who stay and return is important in order to inform necessary policy interventions. Research in this area has typically focused on how young people leave island communities for economic reasons and the pursuit of better education and career opportunities; those who return (usually later in life) are shown to move for primarily lifestyle reasons. However, as this paper will demonstrate, migration pathways and decisions are complex, and as well as economic motivations, individual differences and social and cultural influences are also important. Split into two parts this paper will first of all offer some discussion of contemporary career theory and the work of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to identify how wider social and cultural influences may impact on the career and migration decisions of young islanders. The second part of the paper will present some initial findings of a current research project into the decisions and pathways of higher education entrants from Orkney and Shetland. Qualitative data will be presented from interviews with recent graduates alongside analysis of statistical data from previous graduate cohorts in order to explore some of the sociocultural influences that lie beneath the migration and career decisions of higher education students from the islands.

The paper generated some really interesting discussion and gave me a whole lot of ideas to follow up, which was great!


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New Research Project on Youth Aspirations and Attitudes in the Highlands and Islands

A new piece of research has just been commissioned by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) on the attitudes and aspirations of young people in the Highlands and Islands. According to the researchers the project aims to: ‘capture the aspirations of young people with regard to living and working in the region, and their perceptions of the Highlands and Islands in terms of the opportunities it affords young people’.

I’m excited about this project because of the potential it affords to build on the previous research commissioned by HIE into Youth  Migration (2009), and the socio economic report on Young People in the Highlands and Islands (2014) as well as drawing from the  Orkney Population Change Study (2009) and the Outer Hebrides Migration Study (2007). All of these reports have provided a solid basis for future research, outlining some of the general population trends and motivations for migration within, to and from the region. However, this new research aims to probe further, understanding more in-depth about the aspirations and the motivations of young people. This should really help to increase what we know about youth migration in the region. Personally I’m also looking forward to the research being published because I suspect that the findings may well form a key part of the literature review of my PhD!

As part of the project, interviews are being held with key stakeholders (and I pleased that this included me!), as well as interviews with young people and a survey of young people too. So if you are aged 15-30 you can take part in the research and help contribute to the project by completing the survey, you don’t even have to live in the region in order to take part, and by taking part you can be entered into a draw to win tickets for the Belladrum music festival.


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A Tale of 1930s Island Migrations….

Last night I went to see the film ‘The Galapagos Affair’ at the West Side Cinema in Orkney. The film is a documentary focusing on three groups of European settlers on a remote island in the Galapagos, a mysterious disappearance and the deaths of some of the inhabitants…

The story itself is gripping – however, as well as enjoying the film itself, it also got me thinking about key themes in terms of migration to island communities. In particular I was struck by this quote from the imdb.com database: “it is a parable about the search for paradise — about what happens when a handful of individualists settle on the same small island seeking their own distinct and sometimes clashing notions of Eden.” The motivations of the main participants in this film are indeed quite different – the first, the Ritters, move to escape civilisation and to allow Dr Ritter to develop his philosophical ideas. They are followed by the Wittners who are attracted by developing a sustainable lifestyle, and have read about the Ritters in the European press. They are then followed by ‘the Baroness’ and her two male companions who want to set up a hotel on the island for rich travellers. The difference in motivations, which could be characterised as ‘solitude’, ‘sustainability’ / ‘community’, and ‘economic’ are also infused with different ideals and images of islands – islands as refuge from society, islands as bounteous places, islands as close-knit communities, islands as ideal holiday destinations. As the motivations and ideals of the different migrants come into contact clashing is inevitable, but it is when the ‘reality’ of island life is intensified through a prolonged drought that tension in the island really intensifies and results in the disappearances and deaths of the inhabitants. Now, it is common for islands to be portrayed as a ‘paradise’, but it is also common for islands to be associated with confinement (for example the prison islands of Alcatraz or Robben island). What is interesting in this film is how quickly ‘paradise’ can turn into a claustrophobic prison for the settlers.

The film is a great watch if you’re interested in island movements – both in terms of the huge sacrifices made to move to island communities, and the (financial) challenges of finding a way ‘off’ islands. The challenges for incomers to island communities are also acutely portrayed, and some of my favourite quotes from participants were: “wherever you go, you bring yourself” and “paradise is a state of mind, it is not a place”.


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Our Islands Our Future Campaign Video

I rather enjoyed watching this – all in the name of research you understand!

This is the video for the ‘Our Islands, Our Future’ campaign which is a campaign by Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles councils to promote greater independence at a local level for these island groups. In particular the campaign uses the debate about Scottish Independence to propose greater local  autonomy for these island groups, with a focus on gaining greater local power for the natural resources in these areas (mostly energy resources from oil and gas and renewable technologies).

I found the rhetorical positioning of the video particularly interesting, with a focus on how islands are ‘special places’ with a sense of ‘identity’ and ‘pride’. The practical ‘can do’ approach of islanders is implicitly contrasted to elsewhere and there is a repeated theme that greater autonomy for the islands would lead to greater productivity and impact on the local and national economy. As I was listening to this video I got a strong sense of difference and this reminded me of when I used to teach difference and diversity as part of a counselling skills course. What I taught then was that what is important is not that we are not treated ‘all equally’ but that our differences are recognised (and celebrated) – because by recognising differences (rather than ignoring them) we enable equality ‘where everyone can participate and has the opportunity to fulfil their potential’ (DoH, 2004). It struck me that on a much larger scale, the concepts of difference and diversity may be fitting concepts to explain the rhetorical positioning of this campaign.


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Population of Scottish Islands on the increase…

So, it seems that the population of Scotland’s islands is on the increase… And you’ll never guess – the largest increase has been in Orkney! I found this comment from our Council Convener (quoted in the Scotsman) particularly interesting:

“Ours is a strong community where folk look out for each other, and we value our culture and heritage. We’re ambitious as well – with a can-do attitude and willingness to embrace new ideas and opportunities.The emergence of the marine renewables industry has created around 250 new jobs, bringing with it not only the workers, but their families too, and providing opportunities for our young people to find work at home.”