Shetland Life: Editorial

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The emigration question


On several occasions recently it has been noted that Shetland has something of an emigration problem. In particular, attention has been drawn to the very large number of the islands’ young people who leave home to attend university or college elsewhere and then choose not to return.

A letter to The Shetland News by Keith Gray a couple of months ago outlined the results of his own enquiries: from his class at the Anderson High School, which graduated in the late 1990s, around two-thirds were no longer living in Shetland. He described this, quite understandably, as “an exodus”. But why is it happening?

The simple reason, and certainly the reason most often given, is the matter of opportunities. Living in Glasgow or London (or, like Keith, in Copenhagen) is quite obviously going to offer a wider range of employment chances than living in Lerwick, Scalloway or Baltasound. In a recent council debate, Jonathan Wills rightly pointed out that young people have always left Shetland, and the numbers may well have been just as high in the past as they are today. But there is a difference.

Today, the opportunities in Shetland are far greater than ever before, particularly compared to the pre-oil period. A skim through the jobs pages in The Shetland Times shows a multitude of options each week, for graduates and non-graduates alike. Add to this the influence of the internet, which allows people here to follow careers that would never have been possible previously – to conduct their business elsewhere but still live in the islands – and it becomes obvious that job opportunities are not the only factor in this equation.

Another issue mentioned has been the negative attitude shown towards young people in Shetland, particularly, but not solely, by the council. The islands today are seen by some as a place only for old people (and, increasingly, as a retirement home). Politicians have always found it hard to listen to people younger than themselves, but now, it seems, the problem is chronic.

There is a depressing hostility within the council to any plan – such as Mareel – that is likely to improve life here for young people. The struggle that the cinema and music venue has had to finally get the go ahead is a symptom of a wider malaise. (In contrast, councillors were most eager to agree plans to install an expensive and unnecessary CCTV system around Lerwick, which would keep an eye on our youth and make sure they are behaving.)

Some suggest that this attitude is creating an anti-youth atmosphere in Shetland. As a person still teetering at the far edge of youth myself, I would say that this suggestion is unfortunately accurate. The council gives the impression not only that it doesn’t listen to young people, but that it doesn’t like them.

Looking north to our neighbours in Faroe, it is clear that our current situation is not an inevitable one. While large numbers of Faroese do leave, most commonly to Copenhagen, to attend university or to work, many of them also return after graduation. Of course, Faroese home rule means that there is a greater variety of jobs available, particularly within the government, but it seems also to have helped to foster a sense of something worth coming back to. Perhaps in Faroe there is the model of an island community working towards a better future, rather than simply trying to fight against its own slow decline.

Here however, home rule is not an option that is likely to be taken in the near future, particularly as our most high-profile independence campaigner, Stuart Hill, is continuing to do everything in his power to put Shetlanders off the idea.

I must admit that I was particularly interested in Keith Gray’s letter on emigration because Keith and I happened to be in the same class at school. We both went away to university in Scotland, but while I returned home not long afterwards, Keith remains away. We discussed the issue together recently, but struggled to come up with any solid answers. “What exactly made you go home?” he wanted to know. “What exactly keeps you away?” I asked in return.

These are not easy questions to answer, but they are important ones. And if Shetland is to slow its current population decline, particularly among those of working age, they are questions that are increasingly worth asking.

Malachy Tallack